The second stage of the mindfulness of breathing practice is similar to the first, but instead of counting the out-breaths, as we do in stage one, we count the in-breaths. This subtly changes our experience, bringing more energy and alertness into our experience, as you’ll see.
Jump to a section:
- Guided meditation recording
- Getting to know the second stage
- The difference between stages one and two
- Bored with the counting?
- An alternative to counting
- Second stage feels awkward?
- Counting on your fingers
- Stepping back from the process
- What’s next?
Set up your posture, as described in the posture guidelines, allowing the body to relax as much as possible while maintaining a sense of dignity in the way you sit.
Then, spend a few minutes doing the first stage of the practice, counting after each out-breath in cycles of one to ten. Notice that each out-breath is accompanied by a sense of the body relaxing, softening, and letting go. In time you’ll notice that it also has a calming effect on the mind. (If you haven’t done the first stage of the practice, then we strongly recommend that you go back and review that section before trying it). When you feel you’ve begun to calm your mind down a little, move on to the second stage of the practice.
In the second stage of the practice we continue to count in cycles of ten breaths, the difference being that this time we count just before each inhalation.
So this time, the pattern is like this:
You count (internally) just before each in-breath, as follows:
1 – Breathe in – breathe out
2 – Breathe in – breathe out
3 – Breathe in – breathe out
4 – Breathe in – breathe out
5 – Breathe in – breathe out
… and so on until you reach ten.
Once you get to ten, start over again at one before the next in-breath.
Whenever you regain your awareness after being distracted, bring your attention gently back to the breath.
Really notice the sensations of the in-breath, in particular. Notice the upward movement, the sense of expansion, the sense of energy that accompanies the inhalation, and perhaps even a sense of alertness, energy, and mental brightness.
You can listen to an MP3 guided meditation that will lead you through the Second Stage of the practice by clicking on the player below:
Now you’ve tried the first two stages of the practice, I recommend that you spend a few days practicing them together and appreciating the subtle differences between them.
You can notice the difference in the body, observing the different movements and sensations that arise as you exhale and inhale. You can observe the different feeling tones that arise as you let go on the exhalation and as the body expands on the inhalation. And you can notice what effect these two phases of the breathing have on your mind.
The first stage of the practice has the effect of calming the mind and relaxing the body. This effect is partly to do with the fact that the out-breathing, being under the control of the parasympathetic nervous system, is naturally a phase of letting go and of coming to rest both physically and mentally. If we did nothing but that, however, the mind would tend to become dull, dreamy, and sleepy, and although we’d be relaxed we wouldn’t develop much mindfulness. Relaxation is great in the short term, but in the long term mindfulness gives us the power to change our lives for the better in many different ways.
So in the second stage, into our hopefully more relaxed and calm state, we bring more energy and alertness. Those qualities are inherent in the in-breathing, which is under the control of the sympathetic nervous system.
As you’re practicing stages one and two together, you can return to this page in order to answer any questions you might have. If you have a question that isn’t answered here, feel free to post a comment below.
You’ll discover that the techniques involved in these stages are valuable tools that can help you to work with your mind in daily life.
If you’ve tried the first two stages of the Mindfulness of Breathing, you’ll almost certainly have noticed that they feel very different from one another. Most people find that to be the case.
You might have enjoyed one stage more than another (although people differ about which is the most enjoyable stage).
And if you enjoyed one stage more than another, you might even have found there was one stage you really didn’t like (that’s most often the second stage, for reasons we’ll come to).
But the interesting thing is that both stages are structurally identical. How can that be! In the first stage you count after the out-breath, while in the second stage we count before the in-breath! It’s patently obvious they’re different! Let me explain.
The structure of the first stage
The first stage looks like this:
In – out – 1 – in – out – 2 – in – out – 3 – in – out – 4 – in – out – 5 etc.
The structure of the second stage
While the second stage looks like this:
1 – in – out – 2 – in – out – 3 – in – out – 4 – in – out – 5 etc.
The first two stages compared
Now, if you line both stages up, it looks like this
1 – in – out – 2 – in – out – 3 – in – out – 4 – in – out – 5 etc.
1 – in – out – 2 – in – out – 3 – in – out – 4 – in – out – 5 etc.
If your browser hasn’t scrambled that you’ll see they’re exactly the same.
So, how come they feel different?
Why the stages feel different
The reason is that where you place the numbers (or more accurately, where you think you’re placing the numbers) changes which part of the breath you’re most aware of. In the first stage, because you’re counting after the out-breath your mind links the counting with the out-breath.
Try taking a deep breath and letting it out. Go on, no-one’s watching. How does it feel? It probably feels like:
- Letting go
- Coming to rest
- Downward movement
Taking a deep out-breath (known to us professional breathers as “sighing”) is what we do when we let go of tension — you know, that moment you go “phew” when you wake up and find that you don’t have to go back to school to take the exam you’ve just been dreaming about.
Now in the second stage, you’re counting before the in-breath and so your mind links the number more closely to the act of breathing in. So what does breathing in feel like? Try it. Do a big inhalation (remember to breath out at some point). It feels like:
- Opening up
- Rising movement
- Growing alertness
So why is this important?
Relaxing before energizing
Breathing deeply in is what you naturally do when you wake up on the first day of vacation, step out onto the balcony of your luxury hotel overlooking the ocean, and it feels good to be alive (as opposed to being in the office).
So while the first stage is a stage of letting go, the second stage is a stage of energizing. The first stage is the perfect thing to do in starting a meditation practice — we let go (hopefully) of all the tension in our bodies and (even more hopefully) of all the crud flying round in our heads.
Once we’ve done that, the next stage (the second stage) is where you attempt to energize your relaxed mind and body. By encouraging your body to open up, and by feeling the energy that comes with the in-breath, you help to set up the conditions for being aware. Maintaining your awareness requires an upright alert body, and an open chest (see Posture Guidelines for more detail). That’s exactly what happens in the second stage.
Sometimes people find the counting boring, and want to drop it. Well, there can be good reasons and bad reasons for wanting to drop the counting.
Sometimes we’ve really developed a strong current of stillness and it seems natural to drop the numbers. If so, then just let go of the counting and enjoy that undistracted calmness. But often it’s just a resistance to structure, or the desire to be passive. We’d rather just daydream. Be honest about what your motivation is.
If the numbers seem mechanical, then bear in mind that this is not inevitable — it’s a product of the way your mind is working. If you approach the numbers mechanically, then they’ll seem mechanical. On the other hand, if you approach the numbers gracefully and creatively, then they’ll seem natural and fluid.
One way to contact that natural fluidity is to place the number very lightly before or after the breath. Imagine that you’re kissing the cheek of a sleeping child. You want to make contact, but you don’t want to cause any disturbance. Place the numbers tenderly, and with care.
If your mind is very distracted however, then make the numbers more definite and firm. But still try to do it with care. This time it’s more like giving a massage — making more definite, weighty contact — rather than kissing a child, which is a much more delicate gesture.
The firm count should still be done sensitively — like the firm but responsive pressure you would apply when massaging a friend’s shoulders.
Boredom more generally is a lack of emotional engagement. When we’re bored we’re not able to appreciate what’s in front of us and so we start to crave some new experience. In order to get beyond boredom we have to take action. Doing something — committing ourselves in practice to the meditation — helps dissipate boredom. Especially if we commit to paying attention, in detail, to the qualities of our experience we’ll start to feel more engaged.
I once heard a story about a famous Zen center. The main teacher had died but people kept on practicing under the guidance of his disciples. Meditation instruction at this particular center was very minimal, and mostly people were expected to “just sit.”
The expectation was that over time if you simply practiced mindfulness the mind would learn to be still. People didn’t discuss what they did in their practice, they “just sat.” In beginners classes people were told to “just sit.” Beginners sometimes would be very confused and not know what to do, but true enough, if you do just simply practice mindfulness the mind settles down.
So people kept on gathering in the meditation room and “just sitting” together. Anyway, after some time some of the senior disciples said, “Don’t you think it would be a good idea if we maybe talked about what we do in our practice? That way we might be more consistent in what we say and be able to give newcomers more detailed advice.”
This was generally thought to be a good idea, and one teacher said, “One thing I’ve been wondering about is when we introduce beginners to counting breaths.”
There was a silence, and then another teacher said, “You count your breaths?”
So the moral of the tale (or at least one moral of the tale) is that even within one school of Buddhism — even, apparently, within one teaching center — there are different approaches to meditation. In the wider Buddhist world, counting breaths is commonly practiced in some Theravada and some Zen traditions. But in some Vipassana or Insight Meditation traditions counting is not taught (while in others it is).
When I was on retreat with Joseph Goldstein at the Insight Meditation Society I asked him about counting, and whether he ever advised people to take up that practice as a way of stabilizing the mind. He said that this wasn’t part of the practice as he’d learned it, and that in the method he practiced the words “in” on an in breath and “out” on an out breath performed much the same functions. At the same time, he said, he practiced a “One Dharma” approach which involved taking tools from different traditions and this laid the way open for bringing counting in to the kind of meditation he taught.
Actually, other forms of Insight Meditation practice already do include counting, which is not surprising, since insight meditation comes from the Theravadin tradition, and the Theravadin scriptures include references to counting as part of meditation practice.
Anyway, the point of me saying all this is that saying “in” on the in breath and “out” on the out breath is another way of helping to support the development of mindfulness. This is a form of what Insight Meditation calls “noting,” where we place a mental note on the most prominent aspect of our experience in order to help stabilize the mind.
This technique has the advantage that the words “in” and “out” are directly connected with what’s going on in the breath. The words therefore help point the mind towards the breath and help to keep us connected with it. Numbers, on the other hand, have no intrinsic relationship with the breath and anyone who’s counted breaths will recognize that there have been times when they’ve been merrily counting along in perfect sets of ten while the breath has been completely forgotten.
A variation of the “in, out” method is to “note” only the in breath or the out breath. If you want to calm the mind then say “out” on each out breath and just experience the in breath without noting. If you need to bring more alertness into the mind then do the opposite, saying “in” on each in breath and making no note on the out breath. This replicates what’s happening when we count either the in or out breaths.
On the other hand, counting has the effect of maintaining and developing a sense of purpose in meditation because we build up a sense of continuity from the first to the tenth breath, while the “in, out” method only gives a sense of continuity that lasts the length of a breath-cycle. So there are advantages and disadvantages to each method.
Knowing those advantages and disadvantages can help us to use the method that’s most appropriate at any given time. So if you’re finding that the counting is becoming detached from the breathing (you’re counting but paying little attention to the sensations of the breath) then maybe it would be a good idea to try saying “in, out” for a while.
On the other hand, if you’ve been saying “in, out” and think that the mind is becoming a bit more stable then it might be good to switch to counting to help develop more continuity in your mindfulness.
The first stage is meant to be more relaxing, while the second stage is invigorating, and promotes awareness.
If you haven’t managed to develop enough relaxation, then the second stage can feel a little stiff and awkward at first. The problem is probably that you’re exercising some kind of subtle control over your breath. Breathing is one of these things that’s best done automatically.
In the first stage of the practice we’re just acknowledging the sensation, because we count after the out-breath. So there’s less possibility of trying to control the breath — you can’t control what’s in the past. But in the second stage there is a sense of anticipation — and it is possible to control what’s about to happen. When your desire to control events meets a sense of anticipation, then you find yourself taking charge of the breathing, rather than just watching it.
Since your unconscious is much better at regulating your breathing than your conscious mind is, you find that your breathing is a bit stiff.
This problem will sort itself out soon. You’ll find that you relax into the second stage if you just patiently keep working at it. At some point you’ll get a bit more concentrated and “forget” to control your breath.
However, if you need to, you can always drop back into the first stage of the practice, and return to the second stage when you’re more relaxed. Or you can consciously work in the second stage to develop more relaxation by really letting go on the out-breath.
This suggestion is not based on an assumption that you don’t know how to count up to ten unaided! This is a useful technique that I’ve used when my mind has been very distracted and I need a bit of a hand to get it under control.
What I do is very simple; in the first two stages I count on my fingers as my breath flows in and out. I don’t move my fingers but simply take my awareness into each finger in turn, starting with the thumb of my right hand, working my way through the fingers of that hand in turn, and then continuing from the thumb to the pinkie on my left hand.
This really does help to keep your mind more firmly anchored than when you simply follow the breath alone. So why not use this all the time? Well, you could, I suppose, but I find this technique mainly to be of use when I’m very distracted. Once I’ve managed to get my mind to settle down I let go of it.
The reason I do this is because I find that counting on my fingers is effective but slightly crude as well. I think that if you relied too much on this method it would stop you from developing more refinement in your practice. Perhaps it would be like never getting beyond using stabilizers (training wheels) when learning to ride a bicycle.
Although I said that I don’t move my fingers, I felt that I actually had to do so when I first tried out this method. Unless I physically moved my fingers a tiny bit I found I had difficulty telling which finger was which (and that’s despite spending years trying to learn the trumpet).
Perhaps you won’t have the same problem and can go straight onto counting your fingers without having to wiggle them. I stress that I don’t do this all the time – I only use this method when my mind is particularly unruly and needs to be, well, taken in hand.
At this point it may be a good idea to step back from learning meditation and reflect a little on how it’s going. Learning meditation is not easy – in fact I think it’s one of the more challenging and heroic things that a human being can choose to do with his or her life.
Learning meditation involves learning to see ourselves – warts and all. It requires that we take responsibility for ourselves, rather than using other people as scapegoats for our own failings (“you made me angry”).
There are always ups and downs in learning any skill. Anyone who’s learned to do something like skiing, or roller-blading, or ice skating as an adult will remember thinking, “this is impossible”, and regretting that we ever started. It can be like that with meditation as well, and I’d like to encourage you by reminding you that you are not alone and that you are going through a process that many other people have been through – and come out of the other side of.
One process that many people have been through is the discovery that meditation seems to give you problems you never thought you had. Before, you just had an irritating colleague. Now you realize that you are responsible for your own mental states and that your irritability is a construct of your own mind. Of course, meditation hasn’t created this problem – it’s just made you more aware that you have it. This can be a shock initially.
At first it might seem that it would be more comfortable to retreat into unawareness – but that may not be an option. Once you’ve begun to realize that you are responsible for your own life and emotions, it’s hard to lose that perspective. You’ve looked behind the curtain, realized that the wizard is a little old man pulling strings, and can never again see him as the all powerful Oz.
The problem of self-awareness
A related problem is getting more in touch with emotions that you hadn’t previously fully acknowledged. Meditation can be a very accurate and unflattering mirror. Without meditation it can be very easy to delude ourselves into seeing ourselves as being purer, more patient, more socially competent, or kinder than we actually are. Meditation polishes the mirror, and this too can be a shock to the system.
Cynthia, a child psychiatrist from New England, commented: “I meditated today at the office and noticed that I can really slow down after meditating. I also noticed how irritable I was on arriving home when interacting with others. Ugh. I’m wishing I could be more mellow.” This is a fairly common experience – slowing down enough to be able to see yourself in the mirror.
Another student made the same connection: “It may be just coincidental but I have felt quite emotional in a negative sort of way. I don’t know if opening up in meditation has allowed an opportunity for my more repressed feelings to come to the surface (with some of the busyness out of the way).” This too is a phase that will pass. You’ll still have a more accurate perception of yourself, but it will be tempered by a sense of the progress you’re making.
In a way, the mirror becomes four-dimensional so that you not only can see yourself as you are, but also as you were and as you will be. Seeing ourselves changing, and realizing what we can become, is the greatest antidote to self-doubt that I know of.
In the short term we need to have a sense of trust in the process. The path at first may seem to be hard and rocky, the way may seem almost impassable, but over time your stamina and resilience will improve, and so will your patience and forgiveness of yourself. The path has its own rewards.
If you’ve explored the first and second stages of the Mindfulness of Breathing, you may want to start exploring Stage 3. In Stage 3 we drop the counting, so that our attention is no longer directed toward either the in-breathing or the out-breathing.
Instead we can appreciate these phases of the breathing equally, and also begin to notice that the experience of the breathing is continuous. Our experience of the breathing is an unbroken series of moments of sensation, which we can observe in an unbroken series of moments of mindfulness.
You can also learn more about this meditation practice in my book, Wildmind: A Step-by-Step Guide to Meditation.