Counting to Five
A Zen teacher was talking with a colleague about a student. “I’m quite puzzled by this one student. I told her to rest attention on the breath and count up to ten breaths and then start again,” said the Zen teacher. “She keeps saying that she can never get past five before she is distracted. As soon as she notices she is distracted, she starts again. In every meditation interview, she says she must be doing something wrong, because she never gets further than five. I don’t understand why she thinks that.”
What is going on here?
From the student’s point of view, she is not succeeding. She is probably thinking, “I place my attention on the breath and start counting, but I get distracted, and I never get past five. I must be doing something wrong.”
Likewise, the teacher is probably thinking, “She is practicing very well. Every time she notices that she is distracted, she returns to the breath and starts again.”There are a couple of reasons why this story resonated with me. One is that the form of meditation described - counting to ten with the breaths - is the very first form I was taught when I started out many years ago. I know that this simple form of counting breaths is where many of us started. Because of this there is sometimes a feeling among meditators that this is somehow a 'junior' form of meditation. I have even heard meditators joke about this, criticizing teaching of the form. Which of course misses the point. Our goal is not to 'succeed' in 'acing' a meditation form. Instead we should be continually developing a deeper understanding of our minds - and often that means returning to the basics.
The other reason that this story resonated with me is that it shines a light on what 'success' means in meditation. The student in the story, like most of us, was focused on a form of success that was about reaching ten and re-starting. The teacher on the other hand recognized that by noticing her distraction she was learning about the workings of her mind. Understanding these two different viewpoints on success is essential. If we are focused on only mastering the mechanics of a meditation we may totally miss the true value that the form brings.
As an embarrassing side-note: When I do this meditation I often find I have somehow managed to reach sixteen! Now when I do so I have a choice - to either beat myself up for 'failing' the form or to recognize that my mind had become distracted, acknowledge and accept that and return to the first breath.
So as you continue in your practice I encourage you to question your own views about 'success' and 'failure.' Sometimes we need to recognize that what feels like failure can actually be exactly what we should be practicing. And sometimes to realize that we need to return to the most basic forms of meditation.
PS: If you are a music lover then there is an amazing piece that explores this dichotomy between success and failure in an amusing (and mind-blowing) way. Called "Failing, A Very Difficult Piece For Solo String Bass" by Tom Johnson, it has become a classic part of the Double-Bass repertoire. You can see a video of a performance of it here.
PPS: I have linked below a full-guided audio meditation where we contemplate the anecdote above and practice counting the breaths. A few of us have committed to press 'play' together at 7pm PT on Sunday October 25th. You are welcome to join us if you wish.
If the above player doesn't work for you please click here.