Noting (or labeling) is a practice that I don't think gets enough "air time" in mindfulness circles. And when it does, it's often mentioned in brief, almost as an after thought. I'd like to offer something a bit more in-depth here. My hope is that it gives readers enough to sink their teeth into and try it themselves.
THE BASIC UNDERSTANDING (part 1 of 2)
My Elevator Pitch
The main purpose of noting practice is that it provides insight into a basic characteristic of existence:
everything changes, and is always changing. This slides right into another characteristic of life: it has A LOT of suffering, simply because of the fact that nothing lasts (i.e. everything changes). And a third characteristic challenges our view of who we think we are. If things are always changing - including myself - then who am I, really? In a way, we are much more than we think we are, but we are also not as big and important as we think we are either.
It's important to state that any true mindfulness practice - with labeling or without - will lead toward insight of the above characteristics: constant change, suffering, and the conundrum of who we really are. At this point in my life, however, a mindful noting practice has brought me a fuller understanding of these holistic life characteristics that I would not otherwise possess.
It has improved/intensified my mindfulness practice in a couple key ways: (1) I'm more mindful more often, which means my mind wanders less and when it does wander, I notice it sooner; (2) The vividness of my perception has sharpened, as if my world has gone from SD to HD. Further, I am more in sync with the constant changes of day-to-day life. And it is the compulsive striving to control or cling to that which will changes - or is changing - that causes suffering.
Noting is Knowing, and Knowing Leads to Wisdom
On a more down-to-earth level, noting practice is simply naming whatever is happening now; it is having an experience and knowing we are having that experience. The freedom this simple act nudges us toward is immense. When we are mindful of the fact we are angry, for example, then we are not so vulnerable to anger's vice-like grip. When we know we are worrying, then we have some foothold to climb out of the rabbit hole of intense worrying. Put another way as I've heard it said, "name it to tame it."
This doesn't mean we are trying to subdue any given experience. In fact, the opposite. We are engaging more fully with life.
For any emotion - positive or negative - that is running, the grip it has on us is greatly connected to the degree to which we are mindful of it. Angry and unconscious can be frightening. Angry and conscious is the soil from which wisdom grows.
Mindfulness teaches us to open and feel the totality of life. We are aware of negative experiences, and this can often help them subside. But we also bring full attention to positive experiences; this makes us more connected to the fabric of life. To exclude a part of our life is to exclude a part of our self.
Combining mindfulness with noting, in my opinion, creates a richer experience than one would otherwise have, lest other thoughts or feelings invade the mind. Inserting the mental label helps to keep other unwanted thoughts and feelings at bay.
But Why Add More Words?
Some meditators wonder why one would want to add words to their mindfulness practice, but for those
of us (all of us?) prone to a wandering mind, noting does an exceptional job of reeling us back in. Like bumper lanes keeping a bowling ball going toward the pins, when your mind begins to go astray a gentle note can nudge us back to what is right in front of us. When we are unaware that our minds are wandering, we are more likely to be reactive and feed other unwanted mental habits such as judgement, for example.
And how often do we judge and not know we are judging? How would we know the answer to that question if we are not aware of the fact we are unaware in the first place? How could we know we are not there if, in fact, we are not there to know we are not there?!
Noting - or labeling - an experience is like highlighting a great line in a book; it makes the line pop! We become more aware of it and thus are able to learn more from it.
Noting is the simple act of saying (silently or aloud) a word that describes what you are experiencing in that precise moment (or immediately after). Sometimes two words, and less commonly whole sentences, can be notes as well.
Categories of Noting
The table below shows four categories of experience. Whatever we experience at any given moment, can fit into one of these categories. The second row gives examples of notes one may use to describe their experience. They are examples, so whatever words - in whichever language - work best for you, use those! When I first began noting in 2013, my teacher would type out for me the notes I used and send them to me (since it was over Skype) in the chat feature. What resulted was a table similar to this one, but with dozens of more notes in each category excluding the first one. Not only did my practice improve, but so did my vocabulary!
Senses + "thinking"
Mind states + emotions
Thought + Thinking
touching/feeling, hearing, tasting, seeing, smelling, +thinking
warmth, tingling, expanding, breathing, pulsing, itching, softening, relaxing, tightening, etc.
sadness, happiness, peace, restlessness, love, fear, worry, anxiety, wanting, aversion, distraction, boredom, etc.
planning/futurizing, analyzing, rehearsing, evaluating, wondering, reflecting, remembering, judging, etc.
Formal Meditation Instructions
Find a comfortable position, sitting, lying down, or standing.
Take 3-4 deep belly breaths, and bring awareness to any sense of groundedness with the chair, cushion, or floor beneath you.
Allow the breath to be natural, and be aware of the rise and fall of the abdomen.
Spend 3-5 minutes noting from the first category, "Sense + thinking."
Then add "Physical Sensations" for another 3-5 minutes.
Continue in this way, adding categories until there is nothing you are excluding from your experience.
As your mindfulness improves, increase the amount of time and note all categories from the very beginning.
End either with a few more deep breaths and/or continue noting as you open your eyes and begin to reorient yourself with the rest of the exterior space around you.
PRACTICE TIPS & GUIDELINES
From Sitting Meditation to Everyday Activities
The structure of any given session can vary greatly. You may choose to note only physical sensations for 10 minutes, for example, and call it good. Ideally, when the mind is stable enough, the meditator ought to practice with all categories together, which just means anything is fair game. Also called, "free-style noting."
As your precision and awareness improve, begin to note throughout the day during simple activities such as using the bathroom or washing dishes. Take it as far as noting as much as possible, from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall asleep at night!
In general, the frequency of notes ought to be somewhere in the ballpark of every 0.5 to 5 seconds. Too fast can promote constriction or tightness, while noting too slow can cause the mind to wander. If any of these occur, the instructions remain the same, note, constriction, tightness, or wandering. More on frequency of notes in a bit.
Tone, Intensity, and "Decibel" Level
When you note, the note itself should be feather-light. We are not screaming the notes at ourselves, nor are we trying to perpetuate any kind of mean or condescending tones of voice when we speak them aloud or in silence. When I first learned it, my teacher said that 95% of your attention is on your direct experience, and the other 5% is on the act/process of noting. Generally, low volume and a gentle tone work best.
If it feels like you are noticing two things at the same time, just choose one to note (doesn't really matter which one, I feel). If you cannot decide which experience to note, then note, indecisive. Or, oscillating, if it feels like you're going back and forth between the two.
If you feel overwhelmed because there is a surge of sensations and mind activity occurring, note, overwhelm, not sure, and/or confusion.
If it feels like you are not experiencing much at all and you're not sure what note to use because you find yourself waiting for an experience, note, waiting.
If you notice yourself wanting or striving for a particular experience, such as calm, relaxed, or peaceful, then note, wanting or striving.
If you notice experience seems to be going too fast, that you are noticing so much in any given moment and you can't note it all, then note, noticing or watching.
Bored? Boredom. Restless? Restless.
If you are noticing the ending of an experience, label it as gone. (This one is really interesting because you could take gone as a whole practice in itself by continually noticing the endings of things)
Lastly, if you are not sure what you are experiencing, then you always have the safety valve of uncertain or not sure to use as notes.
MIXING NOTING WITH MINDFULNESS OF BREATHING MEDITATION
Insight & Concentration
Noting is a support for seeing things as they are, as opposed to how we think they are or how we think they ought to be. It is a direct, face-to-face experience with reality, so to speak. In contrast to insight, the purpose of concentration practice is to calm or stabilize the mind to make it more supple and serviceable.
This is done by choosing an object of attention and maintaining awareness on that object to the exclusion of everything else. When the mind wanders bring it back to that object. The object could be almost anything, but commonly, it is the breath that is used. In noting practice, the object of attention is whatever arises in the meditator's consciousness at that moment.
Insight and Concentration are Not Mutually Exclusive
Perhaps the simplest way to conflate these two practices - as far as I understand them - is to add a mental label to the inhale and exhale of a mindfulness of breathing meditation session. With awareness on the belly, mentally say, rising on the inhale and falling on the exhale. Do this for several minutes until the support of the labels, rising and falling, are no longer needed. You'll know they are no longer needed because you'll be able to stay with the breath for several minutes without the mind wandering off of it.
Another way to add noting to an awareness of breathing meditation is by using a note each time the mind wanders. Once you notice that mind has wandered off the breath into thinking for example, simply note, thinking. This will bring you immediately back to the breath. Feel free to be as general or specific as you like. When you notice the mind is planning, note planning, then come back to the breath. Again, this keeps one's attention at least a bit more keen and "at-the-ready", then if they were to not use the note at all.
Variations Regarding Intensity of Practice
Some teachers will say "fast noting" is the way to go - 3+ notes every second for example. Others will say to find your own tempo "sweet spot." And at times I've noticed it's helpful to really space out the notes, whether bouncing around during a typical day or whilst in sitting meditation. For example, if it takes me 5 minutes to walk from my car to my apartment building, I may only note once every 30 seconds, or once every minute.
I get out of my car and spot the crosswalk I need to walk to, so I note, seeing.
I begin walking, and become aware of the fact that I am walking, so I note, walking, combined with the intention to maintain awareness of my body walking all they way to my apartment building.
I stop at the crosswalk and wait for the light to turn: waiting.
Begin walking again: walking.
Mind begins to wander: wandering.
Hearing traffic sounds: hearing.
Listening to traffic sounds: listening.
Remembering I'm walking: remembering, walking
And by this point I have arrived at my destination.
It is nearing bed time, and I have the thought, "I need to brush my teeth."
I walk to the bathroom, and note, walking
I reach for the toothpaste and toothbrush, and note, reaching.
Squeeze the toothpaste tube: squeezing.
See the turquoise toothpaste: seeing.
Open my mouth: opening.
Begin brushing: brushing, brushing, brushing. Feeling the bristles on my teeth and gums: feeling, feeling, feeling. Notice that I'm standing: standing. Notice I'm breathing: breathing in...breathing out. Thinking...mind wandering...seeing (myself in the mirror)...
Bend over to spit: bending, spitting.
And so on: feeling, seeing, hearing, warmth, etc.
The measure I use for how frequently to note is based on the quality of my attention. In the five-minute description above from my car to my building, my intention was to maintain mindfulness the entire time. I counted nine notes above. If in between each act of noting, I am lost in thought, then I would ramp up the frequency. Possibly making the adjustment during the walk, or making the adjustment from the entry of my building to door of my flat.
Sometimes when I know I'm already feeling quite mentally scattered, I'll ramp up the frequency of notes from the get-go. If I feel I already have a strong base of attention moving about my day, then I'll give much more space in between the notes - note less - in order to focus all my attention on direct sensate experience.
In both examples of above, noting becomes a kind of "mind protection." The mind (and heart) is protected from the sirens' calls of the past, and the anxiety-driven landscape of the future.
The heart-mind is the most important thing. Giving into craving and delusion, allowing it to fester in depressive rumination of unworthiness contaminates the mind like algae bloom in a stagnant pond.
THE BASIC UNDERSTANDING (part 2 of 2)
Familiarity & Authenticity
You see, as long as we are conscious, we can be aware. And as much as we try and distract ourselves from own emotions, or avoid our own neuroses or past hurts, this reality lies deep within us: change and healing comes from moving closer and closer to all of life, all of its beautiful colors and prickly textures.
Every moment is important; everything we do matters. And the more aware we are of our moment-to-moment experience, the more familiar we become with who we are, and thus, we can live life more comfortably in our own skin. Since noting practice cuts through - or at least dampens - our mental afflictions, it is a powerful practice to accomplish just that: familiarity and authenticity.
And as much as we try and distract ourselves from own emotions, or avoid our own neuroses or past hurts, this reality lies deep within us: change and healing comes from moving closer and closer to all of life, all of its beautiful colors and prickly textures.
Noting is a technique. So, when its usefulness has dissipated, then it's time to drop it. It is a support for maintaining mindfulness. When mindfulness gets strong enough, it is my personal opinion, that it is no longer needed. Noting inherently implies a self and other, a subject and object. At the "deeper end of the pool" of a spiritual practice, it is said that self and other do not exist, that there is a unity. But that is very much beyond me at this moment.
The Most Important Thing
For the time being, in the words of Shunryu Suzuki, "The most important thing is to remember the most important thing." And my personal stance on this is that the most important thing is NOW, presence through intelligent mindfulness.
Now is just this, nothing more, nothing less. The sounds in and around us. The shifting shadows, colors, and forms in our visual field. The tightness in our neck. When we are aware of reality in such a way, without adding unnecessary judgements, criticisms, or other thoughts that feed mental afflictions, we are less likely to get stuck in a particular mood, mind state, or pattern of behavior. And we are more likely to enjoy our life.