Breath Counting Practice in Meditation - Paying Attention  

(An Interview with Genko Rainwater, Part 2)

Genko: The state now varies considerably. There are still times when I'm sleepy, chatty, agitated, etc., but there are also times when things are just peaceful— when I just feel a lot of gratitude— when I feel part of everything around me in a luminous way. My ability to deal with the sleepy, agitated, anxious, etc., states is considerably greater, i.e., I can simply notice what's happening and sit still with it, seeing if it has something to teach me, knowing that it will eventually pass.

The advantage of a theme-less type of meditation is that the subject of meditation is my own mind, and I'm free to pay attention to that. I know that other forms of meditation get one to the same place, and sometimes this is more difficult for people— especially at first. We do seem to have to go through some years of wondering whether this is all worth it, and what is the point of meditation.

I'm not sure I totally get it, and I still have days when I feel like I'm really not very good at this meditation stuff. But when I look back at 3 years ago, 5 years ago, 7 years ago, 10 years ago, I realize there have been some important shifts in my abilities here. I worry much less about what mind state I'm in at any given moment. I find it's easier to approach it with curiosity and acceptance.

Meditation How: It is good to hear about those times of agitation in addition to those more frequent peaceful experiences. I am assuming the peaceful is more the rule than the exception. With this in mind, and the fact that you are not sure you "totally get it"— what is it that keeps you at it? You spoke of the advantages of the theme-less approach, and I was not clear from your response as to whether it is your preferred form. I am still curious if this is the case. Also, I wonder if you could tell me a little bit more about the alternatives of breath counting and mantras.

Genko: The best answer I ever heard to the question of why do I do this was given by a teacher, who said something like "I like myself better later in the day when I get up early to meditate than when I don't." I can tell that things are better in my life when I meditate regularly than when I skip even one day. And even when it is a struggle, I can feel the difference later that I persevered. I don't know that I would say peaceful is more frequent. But it somehow doesn't come down to quantity.

There is a quality that abides underneath everything else at some point, and gradually I am coming to recognize and rely on that. Maybe it's an awareness of that quality that I am seeing that allows me to feel better about myself, to like myself better. I suppose I could say I "prefer" theme-less, because it is what I have trained with. However, preference is one of those things I watch for, acknowledging that sometimes I don't get what I prefer, and that can be quite all right, and sometimes even better.

Other practices, like breathing meditation (breath counting) mantras, body-scan, etc., are sometimes useful. My experience with them has been that they can provide a useful adjunct to my usual meditation practice, especially when I'm feeling stuck or lost. Sometimes it's good for a jumpstart when I first sit down. It can give my mind something to do, and sometimes that's useful. But what I also find is that before all-that long, the mind figures out ways around any practice and goes on its merry way doing whatever it wants to do regardless. And so I abandon it or go on to something else.

Our practice, such as it is, with mantras is that our meditation teachers encourage us to make up our own, something meaningful to us. I've found that what works best for me is very short and simple, to keep the mind from going all gaga. "Here. Now. " (each on exhalations, alternating, repeated) is one of my favorites. Another, similar, is "Sit Still. Do Nothing." People sometimes use a line from the liturgy that speaks to them.

Another practice is with sound— paying attention simply to the sensation, noticing when we go to labeling and then on from that to story-telling. Classic example is “barking dog”—first the sound, simple sensation—second, labeling it as a dog barking—third, all the stories about it— how irritating that is, what's the matter with the dog, what's the matter with the owners, wish it would stop, I remember a dog once when I was young ... etc.

The more we can stay with the simple sensation, or at least get to labeling and then let it go, the closer we are to the true mind of meditation. One other thing that has been helpful is my teacher's pointing out that when we become aware that our minds are wandering or agitated or sleepy, or whatever, that's perfect meditation in itself—notice that moment of awareness and rest there. I'm gradually getting to where I can do that.

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