More ON Mental Noting
How and When to use Mental Noting
Mindfulness meditation is about attending to our present moment experience without getting lost in thought and distraction. Sometimes, the volitions of our thinking mind can be difficult to work with and prevent us from being fully present, causing us to forget and become preoccupied with the contents of our thinking mind.
Mental noting is a simple, yet powerful tool to help us increase our capacity of mindful presence.
When to Use Mental Noting:
- Practice as usual: Inviting a calm, stable awareness to your present moment experience. Using the sensations of your body breathing as the primary anchor, letting everything else in contact with your 6-Sense Spheres arise, exist, and pass away within your field of awareness.
- Note Your Breathing: If you notice excess thinking, restlessness, idleness, forgetfulness, etc., try giving the breath a simple note. While breathing in, note - in-breath. While breathing out, note - out-breath. If the breath is long, simply note - long-breath, etc.
- Note Objects of Awareness and Return to Breath: As you are practicing, you will notice all kinds of things come into your awareness, such as sounds, sensations, memories, concepts, emotions, etc. This is normal. Often, however, these objects of awareness will distract us. When you notice that an object of awareness has captured your attention, practice mental noting.
How to Use Mental Noting:
Mental noting supports us in letting go of the volition of discursive thoughts. Let your labels be simple. It is tempting to judge or analyze the object of awareness. Try not to over complicate the note to the point where you are adding excess conceptual overlays on top of your experience. Apply a simple, one-word note to your experience, let go, and move on. Bare noting supports bare awareness.
Sometimes you may find mental noting useful in calming the distracted mind and sometimes you may find the technique itself distracting. It is perfectly appropriate to experiment with the technique of mental noting - it isn’t a fixed technique.
Skillful Areas to apply Mental Noting:
The traditional teachings and practices related to the cultivation of mindfulness and meditation are concerned with skillful means. Specific domains of our human experience have been identified as powerful places to contemplate because they are key and cultivating the skillful means for personal awakening, health, and well-being.
During this course, we are focusing on a few fundamental areas/domains to help us establish a skillful practice and realize mindfulness within our everyday life.
As you're learning and practice grows, you will discover more areas for contemplation. For now, consider applying your mental labels to the areas of contemplation that we have learned so far:
- The Domain of the Body: This domain of contemplation includes the posture, the breath, and the senses. For example, when feeling the sensations of in-breath, we can note - in-breath. If hearing a sound, we note - hearing, without judging or analyzing further about the sound.
- The Domain of the Perceptions, Feelings, and Volitions: This domain of contemplation relates to being in contact with an object or event. According to our perception, we experience the object/event as pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. When we notice that our experience is pleasant, we note - pleasant. When we notice that our experience is unpleasant, we note - unpleasant. Also, this domain of contemplation includes awareness that our mental state always has a volitional energy. For example, if our experience is unpleasant, our attitude of mind will incline itself toward aversion, trying to push the experience away. In this case, we can note - aversion, try to let be, and return to the process of breathing. Also, our mental state can manifest as attitude of mind. If we notice our attitude is impatient, peaceful, etc., you can note - impatient, peaceful, etc.
- The Domain of Mental Formations: This domain of contemplation relates to being in contact with an object or event. According to our perception, we experience the object/event as pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. When we notice that our experience is pleasant, we note - pleasant. When we notice that our experience is unpleasant, we note - unpleasant. Also, this domain of contemplation includes awareness that our mental state always has a volitional energy. For example, if our experience is unpleasant, our attitude of mind will incline itself toward aversion, trying to push the experience away. In this case, we can note - aversion, try to let be, and return to the process of breathing. Also, our mental state can manifest as an attitude of mind. If we notice our attitude is impatient, peaceful, etc., you can note -impatient, peaceful, etc.
- The domain of Mental Formations: This domain of contemplation relates to how our mind manifests in any given moment. In other words, it relates to what is going on in our mind. Examples of mental events include thoughts, concepts, emotions, etc. Mental events reflect how we are relating to our life experience. During this course, we will further explore mental events and how to work with them. For now, during practice and daily life, try cultivating bare awareness to mental events through the practice of Bare Mental Noting. When you notice that a mental event has taken up a lot of mental space and activity, make a mental note. For example, if you notice that you are planning, make a mental note - planning. If you are lost in thought, make a note of it - thinking, and return to your breath. If old memories of the past arise, note - memories. Even emotions can be noted, i.e., happiness, sadness, anxiety, etc. Sometimes we will need to make a note over and over again. This is normal. You can repeat a specific note until the experience no longer appears.
- The Domain of the Five Hindrances: This domain of contemplation includes awareness of the hindrances to awareness. If restlessness, sloth and torpor, aversion, grasping, or doubt arises, simply note them.
Benefits of Mental Noting
- Maintains present moment bare awareness: The mind is less likely to wander off if one keeps up a steady stream of relaxed noting. If the mind does wander, the noting practice can make it easier to re-establish mindfulness. Mental noting gives the thinking mind something to do rather than leaving it to its own devices.
- Acknowledges or recognizes what is occurring: the clearer one’s recognition, the more effective one’s mindfulness. Naming can strengthen recognition. Sometimes this can be a kind of truth-telling when we are reluctant to admit something about ourselves or about what is happening.
- Recognizes patterns in one’s experience: A frequently-repeated note reveals a frequently-recurring experience. For example, persistent worriers may not realize how much they worry until they see how often they note - worry.
- Disentangles us from being preoccupied or overly identified with experience: Noting can help us ‘step away’ so that we might see more clearly. For example, noting - wanting, might pull us out of the preoccupation with something we want. This may not be immediate, but by repeatedly noting - wanting, wanting, one may be able to be aware of the wanting without being caught by it. As an antidote to drowning in strong emotion or obsessive thinking, mental noting is sometimes called a ‘life preserver.'
- Maintains a non-reactive form of attention: By applying calm and equanimous noting to what is happening, we are less likely to get caught up in emotional reactions. Noting helps us to see mindfully while remaining free of what we see. The tone of the inner voice that notes may reveal less-than-equanimous reactions to what we are trying to be mindful of. The noting may sound harsh, bored, scared, hesitant, or excited, to name just a few possibilities. By noticing and adjusting the tone, we may become more balanced and equanimous.
The Noting Practice has a Number of Pitfalls
- Noting may become rote or mechanical: When one notices this, it’s often useful to pause and relax before starting again. Another hazard is focusing too much on noting at the expense of being mindful. One version of this is the ‘check-list approach’ to mindfulness – one believes it is enough to simply note an experience. Noting is mostly a slight nudge to encourage mindfulness, so that attentiveness to the felt experience increases.
- Noting may become an attempt to control or drive one’s experience instead of simply recognizing it: Or, noting may be used to create an artificial distance from experience: naming becomes a substitute for feeling. Relaxing and allowing the mindfulness to become more receptive can help with this.
- Noting can become a hindrance to meditation if one starts thinking about what word to use: Sometimes beginners to mental noting are too concerned with the ‘right’ note. The most obvious label is good enough. If a vague note such as here or this, helps one stay present, it has fulfilled its primary function. While precision in noting can sometimes sharpen mindfulness and help with insight, there is no need to analyze one’s way to greater precision. Some people find that as the mind becomes more peaceful in meditation, they may need to adjust the relative ‘loudness’ or ‘intensity’ of the noting to keep it in harmony with the meditative stillness. As the mind becomes quieter, so should the mental noting be lessened. It can become a softer and softer whisper. At times words are no longer needed – a soft 'hmm' may suffice.
A basic principle of the practice of mental noting is to use it when it is helpful and to avoid it when it is not. Mindfulness practice aims to cultivate awareness, insight, and liberation. It can be quite satisfying when noting supports these aims. It can be a reminder that all of one’s faculties can be used in the service of freedom, including our cognitive functions such as naming our experience.