Three By Three

One of the most common difficulties meditators have is attending to the experience of the present moment, without quickly finding themselves lost in thought. A momentary sensory distraction, thought, or feeling provides a bright, shiny object for the attention, removing it from our intended object of awareness, and sending our minds spinning off into past or future hopes, dreams, anxieties, or stresses. Without developing a foundational skill in not just applying mindfulness, but sustaining it, progress on the path to awareness and transformation is hindered.

Understanding that minds are conditioned to wander, that the default mode network is continually hitting the reset button to get us back into narrative modes of thinking instead of simply being, we can afford some patience and understanding that this is going to happen. We can also reasonably expect that, as we practice training our minds and the associated hardware of the brain, we may develop some skill with noticing our present moment experience more frequently, for greater lengths of time, and more deeply. Doing that, moment by moment in our formal meditation, helps us off the cushion to be more present, responding to life’s events with increasing equanimity.

There are many ways to help with this perfectly normal situation, from counting the breath to thought labeling. Each individual may benefit from trying a variety of ways to help develop sustained attention; none of them is the “right” or “wrong” way to do it, and each may be more or less appropriate throughout one’s development as a meditator. This new method is simply one of many, and can add to a portfolio of contemplative options.

One of the limits that sometimes happens with counting the breath, for example, is that one becomes very good at counting to ten and not losing a beat, but the mind still wanders. We become so skilled at associating counting with each out breath, that it becomes rote, and fades into the background while the train of distracting thoughts and feelings takes center stage, and our attention. Creative ways to deal with this by making the counting more complex may seem to help, but may also simply bring the attention into thought, and further away from experiencing the present. Interestingly, thoughts themselves are not the problem; they are a part of what’s going on, right here, right now. As we exercise attending to present moment experience, building that stability of attention, there’s no need to judge thoughts arising any more than we would judge ourselves for hearing sounds or seeing objects. We simply notice, and return to our object of attention.

Three By Three meditation is designed to help with that returning by providing a structure that cultivates experience of the present while engaging the mind, returning attention before it wanders very far, and supporting noticing beginning, middle, and end of each breath and sequence.

Overview

The basic structure of Three By Three is contained within nine breaths. Starting with the beginning:

  1. Fully experience the in-breath, and with the out-breath, count silently to yourself, “one”.
  2. Fully experience the in-breath, and with the out-breath, count silently to yourself, “two”.
  3. Fully experience the in-breath, and with the out-breath, count silently to yourself, “three”.

Transitioning to the middle:

  1. Fully experience the in-breath, and with the out-breath, count silently to yourself, “one”.
  2. Fully experience the in-breath, and with the out-breath, count silently to yourself, “one”.
  3. Fully experience the in-breath, and with the out-breath, count silently to yourself, “one”.

Transitioning to the end:

  1. Fully experience the in-breath, fully experience the out-breath.
  2. Fully experience the in-breath, fully experience the out-breath.
  3. Fully experience the in-breath, fully experience the out-breath.

Under the Hood

Begin the meditation by taking your meditation seat with calm presence, sitting with awareness of the movements of sitting on a chair or cushion. Sitting upright, attentive, but not tense, settling into a stable posture reflective of the sense of having arrived. Setting an intention for this practice session of experiencing the breath, and if your mind wanders, just noticing it with lightness, and gently returning your attention to breathing.

As the bell rings three times, allowing yourself to arrive even a little more, hearing the sound, noticing what you feel in the body with each ring. Notice the richness of the tone, how it changes, hearing with curiosity and opening your awareness just a bit more, each time.

This meditation has full attention on the in-breath, every time, beginning, middle, and end of each in-breath and beginning, middle, and end of each short sequence of three breaths. We start with that full engagement with the in-breath, and in the first set, with the first out-breath, count silently to yourself, “one”, allowing yourself to still experience the vividness of the sensations of breathing, while lightly engaging the thinking mind in this beginning count.

With the next in-breath, we again fully embed ourselves in that experience, following the breath from the beginning, middle, and end. Then with the next out-breath, count silently to yourself, “two”, and again experiencing the breathing wherever you feel it most, in your belly, your back, your chest, your nose, whatever your attention finds, and alighting it there while the mind silently voices “two”.

In the end of this short sequence, opening up even a little bit more to the experience of the beginning, middle, and end of the in-breath, feeling it in your body, wherever that spot you’ve found, riding the awareness of the vividness of sensation. On the out-breath, count silently and with a light mental touch, “three”, again experiencing the beginning, middle, and end of the out-breath.

Trasitioning now to the middle short sequence, we suffuse our awareness with the full richness of experiencing the in-breath, all the way through. And like the beginning, we count silently to ourselves, “one” on the out breath, following that all the way with our attentional spotlight on the part of the body where we feel it most. Fully experience the next in-breath, and with the next out-breath, once again count “one”, having only a background sense that this is the middle breath. Inhale with presence, and with the last exhale of this short sequence, again silently count “one”, gently aware that this is the end of the three.

Finally, transitioning to the end of the full sequence, we fully experience the in-breath all the way through, as we’ve done with every in-breath, opening ourselves just a little bit more. With the out-breath, we also fully engage ourselves in the sensation itself, only having a very background awareness that this is the first, but setting aside counting at all. Breathing in, being aware of breathing in. Breathing out, being aware of breathing out. Breathing in, being aware of breathing in this last time in the full sequence, and breathing out, being aware of breathing out.

Once the full cycle has been done, start again, counting to three, then counting ones, then not counting at all. Having an awareness of the beginning, middle, and end of each breath, an awareness of the beginning, middle, and end of each three breaths whether counting or not, and having an awareness of the beginning, middle, and end of the entire sequence. This helps our mind not wander very far as we only have a few breaths before changing the cycle in some way, while still practicing full experience with each breath, and progressive awareness of experience with less dependence on counting, each time.

If you do lose track, which is likely to happen sometime, that’s perfectly normal, there’s no need to create a story around why it happened, or beat yourself up about it. Just welcome attention to this new beginning, counting the breath to three, then counting ones, then experiencing just three breaths. As time goes on, you may want to experiment as your stability with the exercise grows, by adding on a couple of more fully mindful, no counting breaths to the end. Then return again to the full sequence, counting three, counting ones, and not counting.

Over time, you may try longer and longer periods of just being aware of breathing without counting, establishing that balanced and gentle awareness, noticing how it may continue once your formal meditation session has ended. You can also do a full sequence during your day, when first getting up, showering, going to work, before a conversation, waiting in line — any circumstance when it comes to mind, you can bring awareness to your breathing to cultivate presence and equanimity in the moment.

As you hear the bell ring three times, allowing sound to wash over you, becoming part of the experience of hearing, opening to it a little more, each time. Notice any inclination of the mind to move on to the next thing, to “check out” of the present, and set that aside, welcoming your attention back to the present. When you can no longer hear the bell, slowly and mindfully open your eyes if you’ve closed them when it feels right for you. Still here, still here, set an intention for yourself for later on in the day, finding a few moments to fully experience just three breaths.

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