Does counting count?

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 2, Part 4 of 15 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

CTT: I tried to give you a relatively pure – Can I use a word like pure? – a kind of pure psychological context for controlled attention practices last week. I’m sure it contains some more subtle assumptions that I’m not even aware of but which fit pretty well in our culture generally since I’m a product of that culture. And probably some subtle assumptions that rub up against some of the assumptions you have and may produce unnecessary friction. So if you find funny resistances or conflicts at any time, those may be very good points to bring up for us to talk about. Because then we may discover some hidden assumptions that are actually problems here.

With that introduction, I would like to hear from people who had difficulty practicing this concentrative meditation during the week so that we can fine tune those instructions a little better. I know for some people it was probably great, but the ones with difficulty are more interesting.

Student: I had difficulty with a lot of things. One thing is I don’t know if I was cheating. I was counting. I would count to four as I was breathing out, then pause for two, and then I’d breathe in and count to four. I was really focusing on my breath but also the numbers and counting. I didn’t know if that was, if the counting was a diversion from being attentive to my breath.

CTT: Did you Lords of Karma get that confession? (Laughter) Cheating. (Laughter) Oh yes. Well let’s put it this way, the goals of concentrative meditation are about calming your mind and focusing your mind and I gave a general technique for doing that. That doesn’t mean that it’s the best possible way to do it for every single person.

If you found that counting like that helped you focus better, that’s great. Sometimes I will count when I’m doing that kind of thing. I’ll just count the number of breaths. I generally do that when my mind is very restless, you know? Especially the verbal part of my mind, it’s going to have some words, right? It’s really restless to think about something. So I give it some numbers, one, two. It’s not a very rich diet but it’s something for that mind to chew on.

There are meditations that are probably better for people with extremely restless minds. I remember one which I was sworn to secrecy on, but I’ve forgotten the details so much that I know I can’t give out the secret of it. It was for people who were very restless, and it involved visualizing a transparent figure 8. There was a red ball moving around in it in one direction and a blue ball moving around it in the other direction while there was a mantra being recited silently in your head and a brief, deliberate breathing rhythm to keep up. You know, for the mind that needed to keep busy, that kept you busy! Of course it was almost impossible to do.

If adding that kind of deliberate counting helps you, fine. Now remember the goal eventually is to get your mind relatively quiet. Remember I say relatively here, not absolutely, relatively quiet and yet you’re still attentive. So there might come a point where you would find that counting is something of a distraction and you didn’t need it anymore. So it’s all right to experiment. Just don’t experiment in a new way every 10 seconds, because then you’re not trying to hold your mind steady on anything. (Laughter) Good. That’s a very useful comment.


  1. Dr Tart,

    I’ve been reading your Blog, and I have to admit that I find the idea of intentionally quieting one’s mind to be very odd. I have unintentionally become quiet inside, although it is more of a quiet feeling felt in the gut rather than something you think about. I’ve had things like knitting, drawing or just watching birds in the park trigger it. It does tend to make everything seem strangely more real and quite beautiful, which is OK. But it can also lead to very anomalous sorts of experiences that are difficult to describe or understand. It sort of makes you feel like everyone else is sleeping. Personally, I would like to hit the snooze button and join them.

    Why do people try to do this sort of thing on purpose?

  2. Dino, I think most people believe that waking up will be a good experience. I think that for most people it probably is a good experience. The real problem is waking up to a world full of zombies.

  3. Sandy I kind of envy your achievement. I never had that experience of everybody being asleep though I had lots of other mind-exploring events that might be called unpleasent or odd. Neather I am very big fun of awakenings (always in bed too long) but I strongly believe that consciousness enhancing requires explorers spirit without many expectations of “paradise”. It is very common that people think that meditation achievements must be somehow nice and relieving , they say “if that makes you happy than it is right method”. I think that aspirant should be prepared to quite a few “cold showers”. It is no reason to quit if our exploring site is in the land of zombies

  4. And something else for the field of meditation (if dr. Tart reads this). Some time ago I came across the information that there are people with “talent” for jahanas (meditative absorptions). Those who are inclined (and successful) in denying reality (as neurotic defense mechanism) seams more able to develop such a deep concentration that they easily cease to hear sounds in their surrounding . Do you know anything about that?

    1. Dino, I do not think it is so far fetched or pathological. I’m not 100% clear what you mean by meditative absorptions but have had the experience even as a meditation novice of becoming focussed on one object of mental attention so completely the rest of the sensorium “collapses”, ie fades into the distant background…. almost all there is in ones experience is the chosen object. It is the objective, not an end in itself but the process of getting that focussed forces us to clear the ubiquitous mental clutter we all seem to have that would interrupt such one pointed focus. This may be approaching what they call samadhi which is a very highly focussed state of attention on some chosen object, to the point you might say its an “altered state”. Collapsing of the sensorium is rather routine and is part of the description of the experience I have heard from others who are highly seasoned experts…. see the comment below regarding Alan Wallace. In the mp3 files he probably comments. That dude has top notch training and tons of experience.

  5. Dino, I envy you for being brave enough to want to explore such facets of consciousness. I’m not so brave. The only thing that makes me unique is a talent for having accidents. I’ve had two NDEs, both of which were just accidents. The first one was when I was only two, so I’ve been odd as long as I can remember. While you have been on a journey to explore the frontiers of consciousness, I have been trying to figure out how to belong in this world. I already know about the other place.

    Actually, I’m not really sure it is another place, or even another time. I’m starting to think that there is really only one place, one time, but with different perceptions that filter it in different ways. It seems like everything we need to know is right in front of us if we could just open up our eyes and see it.

    I don’t want to be brave. I don’t want to explore facets of consciousness through meditation. I haven’t even tried to meditate. I want to be normal. I just have to figure out how to get there.

  6. @dino:
    I think one of the great accomplishments of Transpersonal Psychology – still way in the future, unfortunately – will be to discover what kind of meditation has what kinds of effects for what kinds of people, so we can steer people to spiritual growth methods that are effective for them, personally. Meanwhile, it’s no surprise that people have different things they are good or not so good at…..

  7. On controlled attention: for the folks at ITP or anyone else interested in the power depth and clarity of a focussed mind Alan Wallace teaches an exceedingly simple (also challenging) technique for developing a highly focussed controlled and stabilized attention. He was taught this by the Dali Lama and others of the top living Tibetan lamas.

    See : this link below for mp3 files of a Lucid Dreaming weekend in which his instruction was especially clear regarding basic meditation using Shamatha. During this weekend, in spite of myself (overdoing the alcohol for a few years) I had an experience they call deep Samadhi almost immediately while carefully following Alans instruction. This has quite completely changed my life. I do feel most of us westerners need effective psychotherapy first (not just blah blah chit chat but down in the gut experience) first to crank down invasive afflictive emotional states most of us are saturated with so methods like Shamatha have a chance be the fine tooth comb to clear afflicted emotions and send us into Samadhi and other higher stated, or deeply stabilized crystal clear and focussed attention. It is astonishingly effective.

    1. I notice the link offered is to another weekend with Alan Wallace at the same site. I have brought this to the attention of the site administrator.

  8. Regarding finding methods that work for different people:

    Why not start with basic health effects from each method? I know there are some studies on stress and meditation, but this is surely a field that could benefit from more funding. I practise a form of Qi Gong myself, which I wouldn’t exactly classify as meditation, but the goal is similar as it is for many types of meditation. Having participated in some of the larger training courses (approximately 200 students practising from 9 to 18 days) of my particular method, I’ve seen many different personality types practising this method. I don’t know about other methods, but for this one it doesn’t seem to matter much which kind of personality type you have. Sure, some suffer a bit in the beginning (their mind racing like crazy, emotions flying all over the place), but eventually (and rather fast depending on your own effort) it seems to help everyone get calmer, and the health effects seem to come about even if you’re calm or not.

    It is hard to get any health personnel or scientists to participate in (and help fund) studies though. A lot of studies have been done in China, but we’d like to do studies on this method here in Europe.


  9. @Tor:
    It’s ambiguous to say whether something is “meditation” or not, as the word is used in so many ways by so many writers….But my attempts in my career to clean up terminology in several areas have never met with any success…..So when I read articles on “meditation” I see this as meaning little than “something different” unless the writer specifies very clearly what specific sorts of mental exercises are done and what results from them.
    This paragraph is probably another result of my attempt to get folks to use terms more clearly…part of me never gives up! I’m not criticizing you here, Tor, just blowing off a little steam really. Meanwhile keep teaching people your method! Almost any form that teaches people better focus skills can be useful to the usual mind wandering in our ordinary state.

    1. Dr. Tart:

      Since I have never been involved in any kind of meditation I can’t really say, but I suspect that the term “meditation” is misused in the same way as the term “qigong”?

      One can not just say that one practises qigong alone. Qigong is a general term including, as far as I know, more than 2400 individual schools. So one has to specify the name of that school too, and in that name lies the specifics of exactly that method.

      I agree that sometimes articles writing about studies on meditation, qigong, yoga etc, are way too carefree. Especially when I see other methods claiming the benefits from the general term, when their specific method haven’t been tested at all.


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