Meditation at its simplest: Count your breaths

Is there any other way to count on your fingers other than by tens? Sure, you could count by fives but that’s kind of the same thing. Or ones. But that’s not what I mean. We’re such a product of our culture that few of you probably said by threes or by twelves—the answer I was looking for. But the ancient Babylonians counted by twelves not by tens on their hands. How?

Is this really a “Votive monument with Hammurabi raising his arm in worship,” OR could it be an ancient cuneiform tablet explaining the Babylonian Breath Meditation? (From the British Museum via Wikipedia)

It’s surprisingly simple: each finger has three segments. So use your left thumb to count your left fingers, starting with the tip of your pinky. Counting two would be the middle segment of your pinky, three, the third segment. Then to the tip of your ring finger, and so on until you get to 12 at the base of your pointer finger.

When you get to 12, clear your left hand and put your right thumb against your right pinky tip, indicating one group of 12—kind of like a rudimentary abacus. Now count again with your left hand starting with your pinky tip. Get to twelve again and move your right thumb to your second pinky segment, indicating 2 groups of 12, or 24. Using this system, the Babylonians could easily count to 144 on their fingers, rather than just 10. And no toes required.

And possibly this is why so much of our world is organized by 12s (or by 60s as Babylonian math was sixty-based or sexagesimal): clocks, of course (5×12 seconds, 5×12 minutes, 2×12 hours), circles (360 degrees) and angles, and geographic coordinates.

A pretty neat bit of history, eh? And a good starting point for a meditation.

Counting Breaths

In Walking Meditation, the authors, Nguyen Anh-Huong and Thich Nhat Hanh, try to break down meditation as simply as possible, encouraging novices to not get discouraged and giving them simple ways to keep in the meditative moment. Surprisingly there is a lot of nature-based imagery, from walking barefoot to mantras connecting you with “Mother Earth” and “the green planet.”

But it’s their simple reminder to count your breaths that I found most helpful:

“Now, as you breathe in, follow the air that enters your body through your nose, feel the rise of your abdomen, and quietly say, “In, one.” With your out-breath, feel the fall of your abdomen and quietly say, “Out, one.” Say “In, two” on the second in-breath, and “Out, two” on the second out-breath. Continue for ten full breaths. Counting your breath in this way helps you to cultivate mindfulness and concentration, which are crucial for nourishing peace and happiness.” (8)

I’ve found that complete focus on your inhalation and exhalation helps to drown out any other thought. Try it. Count your inhalation (one) and your exhalation (one) and try to keep reading this essay.* I couldn’t. My brain is fully focused on the number, making exiting that moment difficult. So at times I’m really struggling to meditate, I switch to a simple breath counting meditation. Of course, one can still get lost in thought and stop counting, lose one’s count, and get frustrated. But I may have a way to help with that: The Babylonian Breath Meditation.

The Stages of Life in Three Breaths

The Babylonian Breath Meditation

Let’s bring it all together. Put your left thumb tip on the tip of your pinky. Breathe in slowly and calmly—thinking ‘one’ to yourself and then exhale slowly and calmly, again concentrating on one. Move your thumb to your next pinky segment and count two. When you complete twelve breaths, put your right thumb on your right pinky tip and start again, counting one, with your left pinky tip.

The calm repose of 130 meditative breaths.

Funnily, these hand positionings kind of have the feel of yogic mudras. In fact, at 13 breaths, with both thumbs touching your pinky tips you’d be doing the Varuna mudra, or mudra of water, according to a bit of quick research, which supposedly helps balance water in the body and alleviate constipation. Not sure about any of that but kind of a nice coincidence. At 91 breaths you’d be doing the Shuni mudra, which helps intuition, and at 130 breaths (holding the tips of your two index fingers), you’ll reach the Gyan mudra, which supposedly sharpens concentration—and if you make it to 130 counted breaths, you’ll definitely have done that!

Anh-Huong and Hanh note elsewhere to not try to make every breath the deepest, if that’s tiring.(25) Try taking three really deep breaths, starting by fully exhaling (so your body naturally fully inhales), and then allow your breathing to return to normal. Then inhale deeply again after a bit—for example, during one hand cycle, take 3 deep breaths per every twelve (such as the three breaths on the pinky). But again, the point of this is utter simplicity and presence in counting, so just focus on the numbers if concentrating on breath length is distracting.

Try this meditation when you have only a few minutes (doing one or two cycles) or when your mind is racing too much and you need a clear anchor to help return to the present. I look forward to hearing how it goes!

*I like saying just the number better than ‘in, one’. And actually, thinking it, not saying it, so that I can breathe in and out through my nose. But do whatever feels best.

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2 Responses

  1. Robert Engelman

    Brilliant, Erik. Where did you get this idea (the 12 count on the four fingers)? For me, it feels more comfortable and natural to start with the index finger and end on the pinky of each hand, rather than the reverse. But maybe the tradition was your way? Do we know about this tradition?

    For what it’s worth, I’ve recently learn that Zen teachers also counsel counting one to 10, but saying each number mentally only on out breaths. So: inhale wordlessly, then a long (in English) “one” on the full out breath. Another wordless in breath, then “two” on the full out breath. Count to 10 and start over. This has lately seemed to work well for me. The Babylonian finger method has been fun to try with this method as well!

    • Erik Assadourian

      Glad you like it, Bob. I remember hearing about Babylonian counting methods and then read more on the web (there are a few links in the post). What I read didn’t specify which direction ancient Babylonians counted from (index to pinky or vice versa) so do whichever feels most natural. In karate, to make a proper fist it’s all about squeezing the pinky first–so maybe unconsciously I chose to go in that direction!

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