Mental Noting: An Insight Meditation Technique

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.

Noting breath

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 pain

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.

Noting thoughts

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.

 

Good News: Thoughts are not the Enemy!

The provocative title of Jason Siff’s brand-new book “Thoughts are not the enemy” summarizes an unorthodox approach to meditation. During a recent workshop at the Van Hanh Temple in Santee the post-modern Vipassana teacher simply told the participants to sit with whatever comes up. In contrast to traditional meditation instructions, he also encouraged everybody to follow thoughts into the past or the future without redirecting one’s attention to the breath or some other object. This stands in contrast to most approaches to meditation, including the modern mindfulness movement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A large number of books and research articles suggest that “mind wandering” is the source of human distress, rumination, and delusion. In line with this idea, the implicit goal of meditation is to strengthen one’s ability to re-direct attention away from obsessive thoughts and as a result to become better equipped to regulate one’s inner experience or to move away from the notion of “self” tied to inner narratives. However, at the workshop Jason argued that for many meditators this doesn’t work. Even if we are told to “gently” move our attention back to the breath during meditation there is a high likelihood that thoughts become considered an “obstacle” that needs to be avoided or overcome in favor of some transcendental state of consciousness. I resonated. This had definately kept me stuck for a while.

After a sitting period, there was time to write down what came up during the meditation. Having relatively unspecific instructions gives the mediator the freedom to choose where to go or what aspect of experience to attend to. Thus, the participants were asked to reflect upon and journal about the choices made during meditation. This is an integral part of “recollective awareness”.

I was glad that Jason mentioned “choice”. For me Recollective Awareness seemed to be a rather passive process in which the meditator is asked to drown in a flood of restless and automatic thoughts. But as the critique of mainstream meditation pointed out, “it’s not about choiceless awareness but about becoming aware of the choices we make.”

The recollective reflection period gave me the chance to become more aware of how I want to relate to my inner self-talk and its content. First, it became pretty clear that I don’t want to beat myself up for having thoughts of any kind during meditation. Second, to follow uncomfortable thoughts gave me more insight about where they might come from in my own life. Third, I felt that some thoughts may be more helpful than my judgmental mind tends to assume. Rather than to cut them off, they are something to cultivate. Finally, I figured that once I become more aware of the choices I make during meditation, I may become more aware of the ones that come up in everyday life.

The awareness of the fact that there are choices at all makes a huge difference. Since the Recollective Awareness approach does not tell me where to go this makes me responsible for making sense of my experience and of choosing what seems to be right and appropriate for me at the moment. This individualized approach is highly contextual and lacks the prescriptions given by both traditional Buddhist approaches and the secular Mindfulness Movement. It is more complicated because choices seem to become more self-determined within the meditation process. Although some of my questions were left open, I resonated with a notion of change that takes into account meaning and narrative.

Recollective Awareness is interested in what Jason called “transformative conceptualization”. By exploring thoughts, their causes and contexts one may find that the categories, labels, and stories through which we think about ourselves and others may not really fit our experience. He pointed out that in the process of giving a fuller description of what is going on in the mind one starts to “crack down” the language through which we perceive our worlds.

We may become more aware of multiplicity and the need to come up with new conceptualizations that better fit our personal experience, an experience that cannot be fully grasped by any religious dogma or meditation teacher. From this perspective, meditation is not about a transcendental state without thought but about a more experience-near labeling of thoughts that is open to reconceptualization. Instead of getting away from thoughts, if I understood this correctly, it is about getting away from concepts that categorize us in habitual and unhelpful ways and be open to new ones that are more beneficial and in line with our personal struggles and aspirations.

As somebody who was exposed a lot to Narrative Therapy during my training as family therapist, I was pleased to hear Jason Siff’s perspective. There is an approach to mindfulness that seems to encourage the deconstruction and transformation of stories rather than to cut them out as residual “mind wandering” that can be reduced to rumination and ultimately overcome through some universal experience of stillness. But don’t get me wrong. Although Jason criticizes conventional approaches to meditation and mindfulness I did not feel that I have to give up “directive” practices after the workshop. They will continue to be part of my meditation practice.

I will continue to enjoy the moments of stillness when they come up naturally; and I will actively create them – probably with a bit more awareness of why I feel the need to do so.