Noting or naming my inner experience has helped me to be more aware of what is going on in my body and mind without getting automatically carried away by it. It enables me to get some distance from the mental chatter or bodily discomfort and to become a participant observer of my experience. Noting is a simple exercise that can make meditation more insightful because things that usually keep me busy unconsciously come out into full awareness.
There are many ways to note breathing, body sensations, emotions, and thoughts. I think creativity is key. Come up with your own labels and find names that match your experience best.
It helps me immensely to focus my attention on the breath when I note it’s quality in each new moment. When I want to focus my attention on the breath, I can note “rising, falling, rising, falling” with reference to what I feel in my abdomen or chest. Counting the breaths is also a way of noting that can help keep track of what is going on in the body. In some meditation traditions it is recommended to continuously count to ten and the start again from the beginning. For me personally this has never worked very well.I become more focused when I note the nature of my bodily experience of breathing such as “quick” or “short”, “slow” or “steady”. Is the in-breath shorter than the out-breath or the other way around? If this is the case, I can note “short, long, short, long…” until I observe a change in pattern that calls for different labels.
Noting can help me to manage pain through meditation. I try to be as specific as possible and I don’t just settle for a broad term like “pain”. My intention is to note how it exactly feels. It may be “sharp”, “stiff”, “itchy”, “heavy”, “raw”, “tight” and the like. I don’t want to encourage anybody to sit through heavy pain that comes up because of an uncomfortable meditation posture. Noting pain makes most sense when there already is a physical problem such as migraine or back pain. I might enter meditation in awareness of it or it might just spontaneously strike my attention because of the hightened sensitivity that comes with contemplation of body and breath. If I continuously observe it, I might gain insight into the nature of the sensation.
What seemed to be one unified unpleasant sensation addressed with a vague label at the beginning, may have multiple aspects, some of them may have been completely hidden before because I avoided to explore them more fully. The same is true for emotional pain as I will illustrate in another post. If you become aware of the actual nature of pain in a more objective and dispassionate manner it may even disappear, but this is not necessarily the case. Through the practice of noting I can externalize bodily discomfort.Instead of avoiding or juding the sensation I develop a more accepting and compassionate relationship to it. This practice makes it easier to manage difficult sensations in everyday life. Sometimes all it needs is a shift in perspective to alleviate suffering.
When my mind wanders and I start to think about other things rather than to focus my attention on the object of meditation this can also be noted. I can simply note “wandering, wandering…” as soon as I start to think of doing the laundry, going shopping, or any other task my mind is preoccupied with. When my mind is directed into the future and what I still need to do, I might also note “planning, planning, planning” and let go of it.
Some people find it difficult to note because they get caught up in associations of thoughts and stories that take them away from the present moment. This technique is not about investigations on cause and effect. I can ask myself the question “What is it about?” but there is no need to name more than what is most apparent. Here it is important to stay with the present experience and give it a name and nothing more.
As a qualitative social researcher I often feel like coding my experience similar to an interview transcript. The aim is to identify, name, and categorize a phenomenon without judging it in any way. I just summarize what presents itself in a word or two on a continuous basis. Sometimes it gives me insight into how my experience works. It is about the processes that go on in the mind-body rather than their content.
Try out noting to externalize breath, sensations, and thoughts for a while and see if it helps to focus your mind or to gain insight into what is going on with you in the present moment. Be aware that you might reach as state in which your thoughts become “light” and your attention more focused. This is the time when noting may actually become distracting. Once noting leads me into a still and calm state or I just slip into such as state without noting, the noting itself becomes superfluous. In this case, I don’t use it, or just drop it and stay with the concentration I have gained. This can lead to other forms of insight.