One of the most common Buddhist meditation practices is the Mindfulness of Breathing. Awareness of the breath is the main focus over four stages. The first two stages use counting as an aid to concentration, while in the third awareness is brought to the whole breathing process without counting. In the final stage the focus is the sensation caused by the incoming and outgoing breath around the nose. The breath is neither interfered with nor controlled — its speed and depth are allowed to change of their own accord.
I think it is valuable to reassess how you count in the first two stages. Ideally you would let the counting arise in the subtlest way possible. The grosser form of counting involves inwardly saying the number in your ordinary voice, or as if hearing someone else say it. Counting like this takes a relatively long time just to say the number. This interferes with the continuity of your experience of the breath and can artificially alter the respiration pattern. This in turn can lead to frustration and losing touch with it.
…let the counting be light, soft and unobtrusive
It is possible to count more subtly, in a way that does not control the breath nor disrupt continuity of awareness. This means letting the counting be light, soft and unobtrusive — you are simply being aware of the numbers rather than saying them. You will probably find that counting with the mental equivalent of your ordinary voice tends to block awareness of your broader experience, whereas with the subtler counting you can maintain broad awareness. In the Mindfulness of Breathing the aim is to let this subtle counting coexist with awareness of the focus — the breath and the spaces between breaths — and broad awareness of your self-experience.
The subtler counting brings space and openness. You may experience the counting not merely in your head but in your whole body. With practice it will eventually become second nature. It helps to make the mind subtler, and eases it into a concentrated state. Subtle thought or mental activity is more immediate than saying the thought under your breath.
An important way of developing subtle mental activity in meditation is in terms of giving your self direction, checking if you are keeping that direction and making adjustments if necessary. To give direction you can use the simplest form of giving yourself a directive which is one word. In the context of the beginning of the meditation you can bring to mind the word “here” or “closer” to mind in a subtle way as a directive which is an expression of your general purpose Another important area is “checking.” This means asking a question such as, “here?”or “away?” or, “engaged?” or “disengaged?” The way you ask the question is important, so allow it to be subtle and light. Your thought is like a beam of light scanning areas of your experience. Allow the conclusion to arise as gently as possibly. It should be possible to question yourself in this way without losing your broad self-awareness.
Subtler counting brings space and openness
Another area in which you can develop subtle mental activity is assessment. This means deciding whether what is going on is useful to the meditation. It could involve asking such questions as, “Is my thought too loud and predominant?” Or “Is the tone of my thought too harsh?” Again, explore ways of letting both the question and answer be light and subtle, without encouraging long trains of discursive thought about it.
The third area is adjustment or giving yourself instructions. Having used checking and assessment you might need to adjust the way you use mental activity to concentrate. How you prompt yourself to do this will have a bearing on its success. The more you have a sense of yourself as a whole, the likelier it is that the instruction has been checked intuitively and will succeed. Subtle thought allows broad awareness to be present, including knowledge of what has helped in the past. For instance, you might say to yourself, “Be light in the way you give instructions.”
By engaging with these areas you will improve your ability to work effectively and intuitively. I am often asked if one should put aside refining thought in order to “work in meditation.” There are two general guidelines. If you are only slightly distracted and using thought in a light, subtle way, then you do not have to put the specific meditation practice aside completely. The giving direction, checking, assessing and adjusting can carry on while you remain aware of the focus, at least to some degree. On the other hand, if you are very distracted you are not really doing the practice anyway, in which case it would be better to give your attention to finding an antidote to the gross hindrance. Sometimes, when you have wholly lost awareness, the best antidote is to return to a broad awareness, then gradually to build up your attention on the main focus.