Meditation is the countin’, countin’ out time. By this I mean observing the breath, counting the breath – so that an inhalation and an exhalation is one, an inhalation and an exhalation is two, an inhalation and an exhalation is three and so on.
A full round of inhalations and exhalations would be a count of 108 for me when meditating. Under normal circumstances this takes around 30 – 35 minutes, depending on how fast or how slow I might be breathing; as a ball park figure that is usually the time it takes to do a round of 108. In Buddhism 108 is a scared number, corresponding to the number of beads found on a Buddhist mala or rosary, similarly there are 108 beads on Hindu rudraksha malas as well. So 108 in breaths and 108 out breaths seems appropriate.
Everything in fact revolves around 108 when I follow the breath count in meditation. The figure of 108 can be broken down into four parts, into parcels of 27, 54, 81, 108. A 27 count taking around 8 minutes, a 54 count taking around 16 – 17 minutes, an 81 taking around 25 minutes and a 108 around 30 – 35 minutes. These are rough figures of course, they are somewhat dependent on the speed of the breath, the depth of the breath but as for ball park figures, they will do. Moving on further from 108, if I sit for just over an hour whilst counting the breaths I would reach 216 (2 x 108) after somewhere between 60 – 70 minutes, sitting for 2 hours whilst counting the breaths would see me reach a figure of 324 (3 x 108). If I have 45 – 50 minutes in which to sit I can set a 162 target count target, whilst if time was tight but I still wanted to use it in a meaningful way I can set a 54 target which as mentioned before would take around 16 – 17 minutes.
There is no doubt for me that using the breath count method has been a very useful tool in building up my levels of concentration. It is a simple fact that whatever your chosen object of meditation, it will only be effective, or begin to be effective, when a certain degree of firmness and stability in concentration has been attained. Otherwise, no matter what your meditation object is, be it the deepest philosophical emptiness or the profoundest state of the non-dual state imaginable, if you have an inability to concentrate, a tendency to become distracted by thoughts so that the object of meditation is lost, then the whole exercise runs the risk of being little more than a complete waste of time.
The following is from S.S Cohen’s book Advaitic Sadhana –
Meditation is simply the repeated attempt to withdraw one’s thoughts from the multitude of objects around and fix them on only one object – the subject chosen for meditation.
For a complete beginner a target of 27 in regard to the observation of the in breath and the out breaths is reasonable enough. It is more than likely that when doing this exercise for the first few times, even with the target set relatively low at 27, the beginner will still lose count of the breaths due to being distracted by thoughts running through the mind. If this is the case the simple thing to do is either start back at the beginning if the mediation has only just begun, or if the 27 target is near, go back a couple of counts from where you think you got to, then start from there, if you think you were at 24 but can’t be sure, go back to 22 and go from there. This principle can be applied throughout the course of your sitting. When the count targets are bigger and the count is lost, the rule is to always go back 10, so if you think you have reached 156 but can’t be sure, go back to 146 and resume from there, no need to go back right to the beginning, just apply the subtract 10 rule to the count figure approximation and that will be fine. Of course the 108 figure and its various permutations is not a figure set in stone. Try counting up to 10 if that is more comfortable, or 21, or whatever it is that you feel good about. No worries, no matter, as long as you get down to it.
The words written above cover some of what you need to know in regard to using the breath count as a tool to build up concentration, also to knowing roughly how much time is being taken by your meditation. Needless to say in an ideal world there should be no need to be aware of the time, to just relax, but the reality for all of us is that time does indeed impact on what we do and to therefore to have an idea of where we are in regard to it is useful.