Meditation - What To Do When the Mind Wanders Away?

Posted on February 28th, 2013

Book notes from Mindfulness in Plain English (2011) by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

In spite of your concerted effort to keep the mind on your breathing, the mind may wander away. It may go to past experiences and suddenly you may find yourself remembering places you’ve visited, people you met, friends not seen for a long time, a book you read long ago, the taste of food you ate yesterday, and so on.

As soon as you notice that your mind is no longer on your breath, mindfully bring it back to it and anchor it there. However, in a few moments you may be caught up again thinking how to pay your bills, to make a telephone call to you friend, write a letter to someone, do your laundry, buy your groceries, go to a party, plan your next vacation, and so forth. As soon as you notice that your mind is not on your subject, bring it back mindfully.

Following are some suggestions to help you gain the concentration necessary for the practice of mindfulness.

1. Counting

In a situation like this, counting may help. The purpose of counting is simply to focus the mind on the breath. Once your mind is focused on the breath, give up counting. This is a device for gaining concentration. There are numerous ways of counting. Any counting should be done mentally. Do not make any sound when you count. Following are some of the ways of counting.

a) While breathing in count “one, one, one, one…” until the lungs are full of fresh air. While breathing out count “two, two, two, two…” until the lungs are empty of fresh air. Then while breathing in again count “three, three, three, three…” until the lungs are full again and while breathing out count again “four, four, four, four…” until the lungs are empty of fresh air. Count up to ten and repeat as many times as necessary to keep the mind focused on the breath.

b) The second method of counting is counting rapidly up to ten. While counting “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten” breathe in and again while counting “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten” breathe out. This means in one inhaling you should count up to ten and in one exhaling you should count up to ten. Repeat this way of counting as many times as necessary to focus the mind on the breath.

c) The third method of counting is by a succession of counts up to five through ten. At this time count “one, two, three, four, five” (only up to five) while inhaling and then count “one, two, three, four, five, six” (up to six) while exhaling. Again count “one, two, three, four fire, six seven” (only up to seven) while inhaling. Then count “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight” while exhaling. Count up to nine while inhaling and count up to ten while exhaling. Repeat this way of counting as many times as necessary to focus the mind on the breath.

d) The fourth method is to take a long breath. When the lungs are full, mentally count “one” and breath out completely until the lungs are empty of fresh air. Then count mentally “two”. Take a long breath again and count “three” and breathe completely out as before. When the lungs are empty of fresh air, count mentally “four”. Count your breath in this manner up to ten. Then count backward from ten to one. Count again from one to ten and then ten to one.

e) The fifth method is to join inhaling and exhaling. When the lungs are empty of fresh air, count mentally “one”. This time you should count both inhalation and exhalation as one. Again inhale, exhale, and mentally count “two”. This way of counting should be done only up to five and repeated from five to one. Repeat this method until your breathing becomes refined and quiet. Remember that you are not supposed to continue your counting all the time. As soon as your mind is locked at the nostrils-tip where the inhaling breath and exhaling breath touch and begin to feel that your breathing is so refined and quiet that you cannot notice inhalation and exhalation separately, you should give up counting. Counting is used only to train the mind to concentrate on one point.

2. Connecting

After inhaling do not wait to notice the brief pause before exhaling but connect the inhaling and exhaling, so you can notice both inhaling and exhaling as one continuous breath.

3. Fixing

After joining inhaling and exhaling, fix your mind on the point where you feel you inhaling and exhaling breath touching. Inhale and exhale as one single breath moving in and out touching or rubbing the rims of your nostrils.

4. Focus you mind like a carpenter

A carpenter draws a straight line on a board that he wants to cut. Then he cuts the board with his handsaw along the straight line he drew. He does not look at the teeth of his saw as they move in and out of the board. Rather he focuses his entire attention on the line he drew so he can cut the board straight.

Similarly keep your mind straight on the point where you feel the breath at the rims of your nostrils.

5. Make you mind like a gate-keeper

A gate-keeper does not take into account any detail of the people entering a house. All he does is notice people entering the house and leaving the house through the gate. Similarly, when you concentrate you should not take into account any detail of your experiences. Simply notice the feeling of your inhaling and exhaling breath as it goes in and out right at the rims of your nostrils.

As you continue your practice your mind and body becomes so light that you may feel as if you are floating in the air or on water. You may even feel that your body is springing up into the sky. When the grossness of your in-and-out breathing has ceased, subtle in and out breathing arises.

This very subtle breath is your objective focus of the mind. This is the sign of concentration. This first appearance of a sign-object will be replaced by more and more subtle sign-object. This subtlety of the sign can be compared to the sound of a bell. When a bell is struck with a big iron rod, you hear a gross sound at first. As the sound fades away, the sound becomes very subtle. Similarly the in-and-out breath appears at first as a gross sign. As you keep paying bare attention to it, this sign becomes very subtle. But the consciousness remains totally focused on the rims of the nostrils.

Other meditation objects become clearer and clearer, as the sign develops. But the breath becomes subtler and subtler as the sign develops. Because of this subtlety, you may not notice the presence of your breath. Don’t get disappointed thinking that you lost your breath or that nothing is happening to your meditation practice. Don’t worry. Be mindful and determined to bring your feeling of breath back to the rims of your nostrils. This is the time you should practice more vigorously, balancing your energy, faith, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom.

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