breathing vs. thinking

Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash

unpolished thoughts 3/13/2019

One technique out there to assist with focus in meditation is counting your breaths.

Perhaps it’s not as inspirational as repeating a mantra or somehow achieving perfect wordless internal emptiness, but it can be quite effective.

I’ve been counting breaths the last couple days and I’ve found that the level of mental engagement necessary not to lose the count is useful to minimize the amount that the mind wanders elsewhere.

Oh, but it still wanders!

Today I was wondering if sitting meditation was easier a hundred years ago when people didn’t constantly take in so much information that they had no use for.

The thought came up while counting my breaths.

After all, when you slow down and breath in and out, that usually takes a lot longer than it takes for you mind to say “one” – or even “thirty-seven.”

So there I was, counting my breaths, and still thinking in between counts.

But what I realized – since the counting at least served to regularly interrupt the wandering of my mind –  was how many of those thoughts served no important purpose.

I was simply reviewing the previous day and looking ahead at today as so often happens.

Later, I was out running and errand and noticing how impatient I was with the experience, wanting to pick up my phone and look at it at each stoplight.

Wait a minute – what about presence?

What about enjoying the rich, multi-layered environment of the city streets and the rhythms of my body?

I decided to count fifty breaths.

Meanwhile, I noticed that a sign for a tailor shop reminded me of someone I knew with the last name Taylor. Words on another street sign immediately started playing a melody of a song I knew containing those same words.

Between counting breaths there was also time to make swift judgements and harsh comments about other drivers.

But even with all these things, I could feel that I was more engaged with the world.

Meanwhile, what did I need all those thoughts for?

Sure, sometimes associations that trigger old memories can lead to a new idea that brightens our experience, but how many thoughts are basically worthy of the junk pile?

What if we didn’t always think so damn much?

On my way home, I had to make a complicated maneuver, turning left across two lanes of traffic just before the cars in the lane I was joining were also about to move.

A driver in one of the lanes I had to cross signaled at me to go ahead.

“What a nice guy!” I thought.

I moved forward in the safety of knowing that he was going to let me pass, moving slowly enough to make sure I wasn’t going to collide with cars coming in the other direction, pausing just in front of this friendly human being’s car before fully committing.

Except that I had misread the signals.

What he had intended to communicate was that I should just go now and get the hell out of his way!

He started angrily jerking his arms like an out-of-control air traffic controller, and contorting his face every which way. He hurled insults at me that I couldn’t hear through the two car windows and 20 feet in between us.


I thought about showing him the length of my middle finger as I drove by and stopped short – but I did slow enough to look him directly in the eye as I turned to drive past him to show him I didn’t really care that I had held him up for 5 seconds.

Internally, I congratulated myself for the minimal way I responded to his invitation to road rage (a marked difference from how I would have reacted in the past), but then I realized something:

I can’t remember the number of the last breath I was counting.

I had completely forgotten I was doing that.

Now I also realized that even if my outward demeanor was much calmer than the man who I guessed was still cursing me while speeding off somewhere important, my heart rate had increased, my throat was constricted, and my face was hot.

That guy was a jerk, I thought, but he was also gone now.

It wasn’t important. What was important was reconnecting to myself.

So I began to count my breaths again.

The things I might have said or done, his face, and other echoes of this brief incident continued to replay themselves in between the numbers I recited.

But by the time I got to 10 my head was already much clearer.

At the stoplight, I declined to pick up my phone and kept counting. Other thoughts came in between the numbers again, like before – what to have for lunch, what was left on the to do list, etc.

But then this man returned into my mind, and I started to wonder about him again.

I was fairly sure he hadn’t been counting his breaths like me.

But was he always like that?

What was he like in tender moments with his family, when his guard was down? Was he the type to let his guard down that often? Was there some place inside him that was incredibly lonely and scared – just like many places inside of me?

I noticed how my mind wanted to rush to another story about how his impatience with me was probably how he always was.

He must be thoroughly unpleasant company on all occasions!

He’s probably a selfish and dishonest cheat with no redeeming qualities whatsoever!

Or maybe he was like me just a few years ago when I was highly capable of yelling at my windshield at fellow commuters if they held me up for an instant.

That’s when I started wondering about all of us –  how much trash we carry in our heads and how quickly our minds always rush in to fill the gaps with any convenient explanation.

What did that guy think about me?

How long did it take him to draw his conclusion?

I kept counting my breaths.

Maybe it’s just a technique to distract the mind, but sometimes that’s better than thinking if all your mind does is fill in the gaps mindlessly.

You might try it sometime. Instead of taking three deep breaths when something trips you up, trying counting 50 breaths instead.

Don’t worry, you won’t stop thinking about everything else that seems so important.

But maybe you can filter out just a little more of what isn’t.


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