When I learned the meditation approach of Master Park, he explained that if you cannot count backwards from 500 to zero without losing track, then you are not ready to meditate.
This exercise is known as the “Concentration Exercise”, and it is the first exercise taught for beginners to learn how to control their mind.
What is interesting about the Concentration Exercise is that it is multi-faceted. For one, it is indeed an effective way to learn how to keep the mind on one thing. Secondly, it is training your ability to visualize, a very useful and practical tool for both self defense training and life itself. Thirdly, when we visualize, the eyes will naturally tend to gravitate to the third eye point just between the eyebrows as we create a virtual movie screen in our mind’s eye to “see” our visualization.
It has been said that the mind does not know the difference between what is vividly imagined and what is real. There are examples galore for the application of this. For one, a mental practice can be just as effective toward progress as physical practice (a statement for attending classes even when you don’t feel well or are injured!). Always do what you can do.
Successful people in all walks of life have applied visualization techniques to achieve their dreams. There is a saying, “What you can conceive and believe, you can achieve.”
In my earliest years of practicing Kung Fu (the early 1980s), I would sit daily and visualize the lessons. I would go through various forms and techniques all in my mind. I have no doubt that this greatly increased my ability to not only remember the forms, but also to understand and feel them at a deeper level.
In my everyday life I experienced a greatly improved ability to focus which directly applied to obtaining a college degree and later in my studies of Chinese medicine and acupuncture.
True Kung Fu – consistent effort over time
If there is anything you would like to get good at, you’ll need consistency. You’ll need some time. Without patience, perseverance, and a strong will, nothing worthwhile can be accomplished. There’s another saying, “Nothing worth having is easy.”
This does not necessarily mean that the only way to happiness is hard work. What it does mean is that in order for you to make changes in your life, you will have to take some form of action depending on how much change you’d like to experience. I’m reminded of yet another saying, “If you keep doing what you’ve always done you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten.”
Thinking on purpose
What does all this have to do with focus? Everything. With focus you can think on purpose rather than by default.
Thoughts are energy. The energy we put into things is what gives them power. Give no energy to something that normally upsets you and you no longer get upset with it. Put some attention on something good in your life and you can’t help it but to feel good inside. That right there is the key.
When we become more aware of our thoughts we can then decide if they need some adjustment. What are your dominant and most frequent thoughts? Do you know? If you do, then you can begin to see why you are experiencing life as you are – whether you are truly enjoying it just the way it is, or not.
Getting frustrated with the numbers
Is the Concentration Exercise frustrating for you? If so, the answer is two-fold: For one, if your occupation or daily activities make excessive use of numbers, and therefore create stress for you because it reminds you too much of work (working as a trigger in the mind), then maybe visualizing numbers isn’t the best way for you. On the other hand, (and I am of the opinion that this is more likely the scenario for most), it could simply be the “monkey mind” that would rather wonder all over and not be tied to any one thing.
It is not easy to control your mind. If it was, why would we need to practice so much? If someone tells you it is easy it is probably safe to say they’ve never meditated. It’s not that hard to delude yourself when awareness is weak. But I’ll get back that.
If the numbers get stressful for you is it because you have a hard time “seeing” them? Is it because you don’t get very far before you lose it? Whatever it is, the exercise is a good measuring stick to see where you’re at in your ability to think the thought you are choosing to think.
If I start at 50 and can’t get past 47 without thinking of something else – well, that can be stressful!
The same can be said if I start at 50, but I don’t quite “see” it. “It’s not clear if I do.” “Should I continue?” “What do I do now?” “I better stop practicing and ask Shifu!”
Here is the problem, plain and simple: you are still trying to “win.” You’re overly concerned with success. You’re thinking (though maybe not consciously) that you must be wasting your time if you’re not doing it successfully. Hogwash!
If it was so easy you wouldn’t have to do it. May I remind you that the point of the practice is the practice itself?
An essential piece of the puzzle here is to maintain a passive, non-judgmental mindset. If you have a hard time “seeing” the numbers just keep trying. What happens if I say, “don’t think about a pink elephant?” Did you? Of course you did, otherwise the words “pink” and “elephant” wouldn’t have had any meaning to you. They would just be letters on the page.
The mind thinks in pictures. You do not have to “see” with your mind’s eye with the same apparent clarity that you do with your physical eyes (although it can become that clear) but you are still imagining/visualizing it when you give it thought. So don’t get hung up on that aspect of the practice.
When you practice visualization you develop that ability the same way a bicep can be made to develop by lifting weights. Visualization exercises your mental muscle.
Your ability to get out of your own way, letting go of any attachment to results and just practicing for the sake of practice is essential. Expect nothing, and anything that comes is a pleasant surprise.
So, let’s get back to the actual practice and apply the concept of letting go. Here you just do the best you can from whatever number you decide to start with. Stay with it. As you lose track, just take a mental note. How difficult is it really to stay with the numbers? How far can you get without losing track even for a moment? It is, what it is. Accept it. Don’t dwell on it. Have fun with it. Enjoy the process and the experience. No judgment whatsoever. Learn to smile inside when you realize that you lost track again. The ability to laugh at ourselves and realizing how serious we take things is a very healthy trait.
Focusing on the breath
One reason why focusing on the breath can be less stressful is because it is not as easy to measure how well you’re doing. If I keep losing track or not finishing a practice with the numbers I can clearly distinguish how well I’m actually able to focus. I’ll be at a certain place in the count. It’s pretty hard to argue with that. It forces you to be sincere with where you’re at and you may not like it. You may believe (or simply want to believe) you’re further along in the process and in your abilities. But that number is telling. It’s truthful. Remember the line,”You can’t handle the truth!”?
Can you? It’s essential to making real progress. Be honest with yourself. What is really going on when you sit? Remember: no judgment, just observe. No map can help you if you don’t know where it is you are starting from.
You see, it is easy to practice various breath control exercises and not really know if you are losing track or not. How aware are you of losing your focus on the breath? Does it really matter? Sure it does. It is the essence of true mindfulness.
Going back to the concept that you may have of a lack of success when you practice, you are missing something very important. It is in the apparent failure of being able to stay focused that you are having success in another area: awareness.
Look at it this way, as you consciously force your mind to stay on one thing, and it does, you are strengthening your ability to concentrate. However, when your thoughts wander, (and they will), and you take notice of that, you are strengthening your awareness. Either way, you are “scoring points” on one side or the other just by the very act of practice. There is no failure. Just practice.
Concentration gives your meditation strength the same way that you can take a magnifying lens and burn something by focusing the normal rays of light. Without both concentration and awareness, there is no meditation.
The ultimate progression of things is to cultivate an utter and eternal sensitivity and awareness of now. This is the practice of mindfulness. It is just that, a practice.
First, the mind must be quieted, otherwise there is just too much to be aware of. There are too many thoughts. Too much noise. So concentration must first be cultivated. Then, once the mind is acceptably quieted, we can pay attention at the next level.
This is where focusing on the breath is most powerful. If at any time you notice the mind wandering, and you will, you go back to the breath to get it refocused. Once it is again focused, then you can practice awareness. And this is an on-going process during a practice.
Awareness doesn’t function well when the mind is too busy with thoughts so that is when you decide to limit the thought (onto the breath).
A strong will can force the mind to stay on one thing, to be one-pointed. Mindfulness is a part of this too. It is the awareness of what the mind is focused upon in that given moment and notices when it is no longer on that one thing.
It’s a mental juggling act to get beyond the busy mind – all the mental recordings of memories, guilt, fear, delusions – and into the higher realm of Self.
That is where you can take a non-judgmental observation of who you think you are and who you really are (i.e. Self Realization, Nirvana, Heaven, Satori, Awakening, etc.).
Watching your thoughts
As the awareness of this mental juggling act develops and the balance becomes more apparent, meditation can further take on the practice of mindfulness of any thought. Simply watching the thoughts.
Again, when there are too many thoughts you need to get back to practicing one-pointed focus. However, once the mind is quieted you can then spend your practice time cultivating your ability to be completely aware of any thought or feeling you may have. They will rise and fall and all you do is watch. No attachment or judgment, just awareness of its existence.
Each thought or feeling will have a beginning a middle, and an end. Just take notice. Stay completely in the moment.
A little push
Sticking it out even when it gets difficult is the secret to success in anything. Meditation should be enjoyable, and not stressful. But if you don’t push at least a little and you just give up and move or get up altogether whenever you are having a hard time then how can you make any progress? What you really want to do is get control and get back to your focal point. Acknowledge what is happening to draw you out of the meditation and resolve to let it go. Dissolve it. Drop it. Whatever you need to do. This will strengthen your ability to deal with the uncomfortable, strengthen your will, and build a belief in your ability to go to new levels that you didn’t think you could reach.
You have to find a balance between pushing too hard and causing more stress and pushing enough to strengthen the will. Group practice can help a bit in this regard. You don’t want to be the one who moves and messes up someone else on the verge of enlightenment do you? What kind of karma will that bring you?
500 to Zero
Whether or not you prefer the practice of the Concentration Exercise, when the ability to focus your mind is developed you are able to count backwards from 500 to zero at will (though some days are naturally better than others). If you are not able at this time, how well can you really control your thoughts?
If focusing on the breath could be considered “soft” then I would consider the Concentration Exercise “hard” in comparison. But it is a valid exercise to force the mind to do as you choose. You can use it as a barometer.
Into your everyday life
It’s all well and good if you can achieve consistency with the balance of focus and awareness when you’re sitting in meditation. It is useless, however, if you leave it there. Meditation is nothing more than a practice to hone your skills of focus and awareness. You practice being in the moment at hand. But if you let chaos rule and you lose yourself in your normal day-to-day activities then the meditation is little more than a time-out. You could just as well take a nap (you’d be surprised how well that works!).
Sitting meditation is the practice of fundamentals. Where it counts is in your everyday life. Measure progress there. If you believe that you are not progressing in your life then look within. You have the tools.
The purpose is nothing less than to transform your whole experience of life.
Originally Published July, 2005