Be Here Now: Simple Breath Counting Exercise to Refocus Your Mind

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I find my mind getting really busy and cloudy. At times it’s a general sense of busyness, other times it’s full on craziness. One of the fastest mind-calming exercises that I use is the breath counting exercise.

Here’s how:

Find a comfortable seat.

Soften your eyes, relax your body.

Focus all your attention on the brush of air against your nostrils as your breathe. When you inhale, feel cool air entering your nose. When you exhale, feel warm air exiting.

Start counting your breath. When you inhale, count 1. When you exhale, count 2. Inhale, count 3. Exhale, count 4. All the way to 10. Once you’ve arrived at 10, go back to 1 and repeat.

Keep repeating this until your mind quietens down.

A few rules of this game:

1. If you get distracted, go back to 1

Perhaps you start thinking of lunch, or what happened at work. Perhaps you start thinking of someone or something. Notice when that happens, go back to 1.

2. If you go on autopilot mode, go back to 1

You’ve lost count. You’ve counted to 14, 15, 16… Go back to 1. Pay attention.

3. It doesn’t matter if you never make it to 10.

We all know that you can count to 10! The practice is not in the counting.

The practice is in paying attention and being vigilant to the times when your mind wanders off, and mindfully bringing yourself back to the counts. It doesn’t matter if you never make it to 10. It is more crucial that you catch yourself when you lose focus.

Have you failed if you don’t reach 10?

NO. The magic happens in those little moments when you notice that you have drifted off. Those moments are the highlights of your practice. Those moments, no matter how minute, make your practice a successful one. So don’t get frustrated or upset. It’s always a work in progress. Stay vigilant, find your next moment to train your mind to be more mindful.

The Gratitude Exercise Everyone Should be Doing

You will instantly experience positive feelings if you were to list 20 things that you’re grateful for right now.

Seeing the glass as half full not only gives us more positive emotions, but also helps us to deal with adversity, make better choices, build stronger relationships, live healthier and even improve productivity. While co-relation doesn’t mean causation, research in positive psychology has found these strong associations, which give us good reason to practice gratitude.

This is a gratitude exercise that everyone should be doing on a daily basis:

  1. Set a timer for 10 minutes (or however much time you have)
  2. Indiscriminately list as many things that you’re grateful for as you can

The key here is to avoid discriminating what comes up. Don’t label things as ‘superficial’, too minute or unworthy of your gratitude list. Being grateful for your appearance or the frivolous things that you buy for yourself is not superficial. Your silky hair, the ice cream in your fridge, your family and your health are all things that are worthy to be grateful for, even though some of them might play a more significant role in your life than others. Indiscriminately listing out what we’re grateful for also reminds us of things that we might have taken for granted.

The key here is to keep the momentum going and look for something, regardless of significance, to be grateful for. In this case, the more the merrier 🙂

“If there’s only one thing that you can do today, let it be acknowledging something that you are grateful for.”

3 Lessons from my 10-Day Silent Meditation, Vipassana

Excruciatingly painful, but so rewarding. If the idea of a 10-day silent meditation intrigues you, here’s what you need to know.

I was meditating about 8 hours everyday, and observing 10 days of noble silence, which basically means zero verbal, physical and written communication with anyone. Any external stimulants from phones, music, books, writing materials, religious objects and intoxicants such as cigarettes and alcohol are strictly prohibited during the ten days to minimise distractions. Students are also not allowed to exercise outside of their rooms to prevent distracting other students. You can read more about the teaching and full code of conduct on the official website.

Seriously, I was so intimidated I cancelled my first booking and flew to Myanmar for a vacation instead.

I didn’t feel ready so I backed out. I’m kinda glad I did because when I finally went later in the year, I was as well prepared as I could realistically be – mentally, emotionally and physically. Listen to my friend’s story in his Mostly Yoga podcast, where he shares how he ran away from his Vipassana course (that’s also me in the podcast talking about teaching yoga).

What is Vipassana Meditation?

Vipassana meditation is an ancient nonreligious technique that has been taught and practised for over 2,500 years, with the goal of achieving the highest level of happiness and liberation though self-observation. A big part of the teaching revolves around the ideas of impermanence and equanimityconcepts which I hold very dear today.

“Vipassana” means “to see things as they really are”, without our tinted lenses accumulated from our own past experiences.

It is a requirement for all new students to complete a 10-day Vipassana meditation course – no more, no less.

Locations

There are plenty of locations all over the world but after much research and recommendations from friends, I decided to head to Kuantan, Malaysia. I chose this location because:

  1. It was close to home, and
  2. It has private rooms

There’s a 1-hour direct flight from Singapore. From the Kuantan airport, it’s also extremely easy and inexpensive to book a 20-minute taxi ride to the Vipassana center. All I had to do was to step out of the airport, say “Vipassana” to a lady mending the the taxi booth, got a receipt and got into a car.

The Experience

During the ten days I said to myself – never again. But when I went back to my regular day-to-day, some changes really stuck with me. I found myself back on Vipassana’s website, looking for suitable dates for this year’s retreat.

What was put into perspective for me in those 10 days went beyond what I have learnt over the last 20-30 years of my existence. OK I might be a slow learner but better late than never.

Over the ten days, similar themes kept surfacing:

1. Nature takes care of itself, with neither worries nor expectations

2. Living, dying & unconditional love

3. Pain is a function of the body and mind

They have left deep imprints in my mind and have helped tremendously in the events that have unfolded since I came back in December 2019.

Nature takes care of itself, with neither worries nor expectations

I spent the most intimate and magical moments with nature. I love the city and have never quite understood nature or spent heaps of time in close contact with it.

On the morning of day 6, I had a sudden urge to remove my flip flops and feel the ground against my bare feet. I walked on the pavement, then on the soil. The grass was warm, soft, fresh and clean. I looked down and saw two beautiful butterflies near my feet.

On the same day, I went on walks between sessions, paying close attention to whatever that was happening around me. I saw a bee going about its business – I could see its black and yellow stripes so clearly, from an intimate proximity where we co-existed without fear or hurry. I stood very close to colonies of huge red ants, and none of them ever bit me. The next morning, I went back to the same spot and saw big and small water crystals formed on thin spiderwebs. The crystals looked like magic but they’re actually just another beautiful creation of nature.

We had two monitor lizards living in our midst. Their movements were of no hurry. I watched them dig into the ground, catch fish from the pond, and just mind their own business. I took the pleasure of taking time to observe nature and remember that nature takes care of itself, with no worries and no expectations.

“Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t plant or harvest or gather food into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”

Matthew 6:26

I started to experience the beauty of nature and understand the desire to be close to it. To be in the midst of the dirt and butterflies and to co-exist peacefully. I tried to recall the last time I touched a mimosa… Oh, at Sunday brunch one morning LOL.

Living, Dying & Unconditional Love

It was the day that my pain threshold was at its lowest, my determination dwindling. At the apex of the pain in my leg and shoulder, I appreciated the concept of finding relief only through death, when there’s absolutely no other way to relief intolerable pain. I started to somewhat understand a patient’s decision to not seek treatment, and the championing of euthanasia.

On the same day, the story in my mind was ‘what is my pain’ in the grand scheme of things. I had flashes in my mind of an old lady in a hospital bed all curled up, with tubes all over her. I had flashes in my mind of war scenes filled with murder and torture, and being forced to watch the torture of a loved one. I had flashes in my mind, of the people who came before us, who built up the world that we call home today, a success we often take for granted.

In those moments, I experienced the insignificance of my own suffering.

It was humbling.

I’ve said many times that a big fear in my life is to learn unconditional love, something that I’ve never believed in, and I was worried that I was getting closer and closer to believing and actually feeling it.

Pain = f (Body x Mind)… & Levitation

Each day, from day 6, we practised three separate hours of “Sittings of Strong Determination”. These are sessions where you set a strong resolve not to move an inch, and not to open your eyes, regardless of how much discomfort you’re in.

I sat through all of them faithfully like a good student and by day 9 I was sitting through and tearing half the time, unsure if I was in pain or simply tearing from boredom and my desire to go home. I quietly renamed these sessions “Sittings of Sheer Determination” – because that was literally how I got through each one of them!

The physical pain that I experienced during these sessions were pain that I’ve never experienced or expected. The back pain that I’ve anticipated did not show up. Instead, I had excruciating pain in my left shoulder and both my legs.

There was, however, one particular afternoon session where the pain dissolved into a sensation of tiny little movements in my body, underneath my skin. My mind was so quiet and eventually I stopped feeling the ground – that is the feeling of “levitation”.

It is also worthy to note at this point, that pain is a function of the body and mind.

The mind has the power of amplifying and dramatising the pain.

As the mind stills and quietens, the physical pain become less apparent and less dramatic.

During the 10 days I worked with these uncomfortable sensations with the knowledge that all these will eventually end anyway, and I looked forward to being back with the people I love. Eventually everything ends. Relationships end – in death or otherwise. Pleasant and unpleasant times end. Impermanence is a natural state, and I hope that this concept can serve you as well as it has served me – in being okay with discomfort, in cherishing beautiful moment, and being fully present with people you love.

Till we meet again 🌻

Be Here Now: A 1-minute Grounding Meditation

Here’s a quick, easy and fuss-free mind exercise for those times that you experience any of these:

  • Fear or anxiousness
  • An overwhelming sense of uncertainty
  • Persistent worry about the future
  • Feelings of a lack of control over circumstances
  • A busy and unfocused mind

I also often practice this in the first few minutes of teaching each yoga class; especially when my mind is busy and unfocused.

What “Being Grounded” Actually Means

Merriam-Webster:

Mentally and emotionally stable: admirably sensible, realistic, and unpretentious

Michael Daniels. Shadow, Self, Spirit (2005):

A sense of being fully embodied, whole, centered and balanced in ourselves and our relationships.

Here’s my favourite, by the Cambridge Dictionary:

Someone who is grounded makes good decisions and does not say or do stupid things.

Haha there’s truth in that definition. Jokes aside, here’s your 1-minute Groundedness Meditation guide:

  1. Step your feet on the ground. If possible, close your eyes. Otherwise, just keep your eyes relaxed.
  2. Bring your full attention to the contact between the soles of your feet and the ground.
  3. Imagine roots, like a tree, growing out from your feet into the ground, rooting you firmly and holding you steady.
  4. Stop moving. Choose to be still.
  5. Breathe and continue to focus your attention on the contact between your feet and the earth.
  6. Stay for at least a minute or until the anxiety and negative feelings subside

Make a conscious effort to keep your thoughts and feelings in check throughout your day, and practice this as often as you need to. Have that quiet confidence that you are in full control of what you will manifest in your life.

For more tips on being present, check out the rest of my Be Here Now Mindfulness Series.

Pausing Between Breaths Calm the Mind

Our breathing consists of four parts – inhale, pause, exhale, pause. There is a space between the inhale and exhale and being fully aware of that space is a convenient way of experiencing the spaces in between our thoughts.

The average person thinks about 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day – that’s up to 48.6 thoughts per minute!

The fewer thoughts we have, the more space there is between those thoughts and the more we can experience each moment “as is”, without distractions. The best way to slowly but surely experience those spaces, is to simply sit and watch the spaces between the breathing.

No judgement, no expectations, no need to even try to lengthen the breath or even sit up tall, only to simply take a moment to watch that space.

The Best Time to Meditate?

The best time to meditate is when you are rested, not when you are exhausted.

When you are tired, Yoga Nidra (Yogic Sleep) will be ideal – 30 minutes of Yoga Nidra is equivalent to 4 hours of sleep!

You will get the most benefits from meditation when you are fully focused and awake. If you sit down in quiet contemplation with a specific sankalpa (resolve/intention) you can clear your mind and settle your emotions, thus allowing you to see your thoughts and situation in a much clearer manner, without the disturbance of overwhelming emotions and distractions from the mind.

I’ve curated various meditation exercises under my Be Here Now Mindfulness Series. Pick one and stick with it for 30 days – you’ll find yourself being more present with the people you love, and you might just stop forgetting where you left your phone and keys!

Be Here Now: 3 Steps to Clarity of Thought

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We have an average of 48.6 thoughts per minute. 10% conscious, 90% subconscious.

Silence allows us to witness our thoughts, which helps us to see what’s happening in our minds more accurately and logically, without being caught up with the noise and chatter. Our course of action then becomes more mindful and less haphazard, more responsive rather than reactive.

It’s easy to get caught up in emotions and end up catastrophising the situation.

Your heart rate increases, breath shallows, mind is clouded and you want to take action, or your completely freeze! Now, this is when you really need to hit pause. This is when you really need to breathe. This is when stillness and your breath can work their magic.

Find a quiet, safe spot. Take a seat. Carry all your emotions, thoughts and desires with you; you are human. Be kind to yourself.

1. Sit up tall

Create space for your lungs to move as you breathe. You might also find it more comfortable to sit on a cushion.

2. Take deep breaths in and out through your nose.

As you inhale, visualise your breath flowing smoothly into your nose, to the crown of your head and down your spine, then coming back the same way as you exhale.

3. Count your breath. ‘Inhale, exhale, one. Inhale, exhale, two. Inhale, exhale three…’ all the way to ten. Then start over again.

If you get distracted (it is normal!), start again from one.

Keep doing step 3 until you feel your mind getting clearer and less cluttered.

Setting an alarm to your desired time is also a good idea, just so that your mind doesn’t keep drifting to the clock. When I first started making this practice a daily routine, I set only three minutes each morning, yet the payoffs were tremendous. I slowly increased my quiet sitting duration minute by minute. No pressure, no competition.

There’s nothing else to do. Just breathe and enjoy the silence.

So set your timer, sit, pause, breathe and simply be.

For more meditations, check out the rest of my Be Here Now Mindfulness Series.