How to use labels to make a busy mind more manageable

Oh, those pesky thoughts. When we’re in deep meditation, thoughts, sensations and emotions can feel like the distant drone of bumblebees. They’re familiar and benign; we’re aware of them, but they don’t pull us out of our practice and sense of well-being. Often, however, thoughts, sensations and emotions feel more like a cloud of gnats whining around our heads when we’re out having a picnic. Just when we’ve started to relax and enjoy ourselves, here they come, demanding our attention and taking all the fun out of the experience.

Every meditator has thoughts. In meditation, “thoughts” can refer to a mental event such as remembering that picnic and those gniggling gnats, or the awareness of emotions, perceptions, feelings or sensations. There are times when the mind finds it easy to remain aware of whatever is arising in the mindstream without getting lost in distraction, and there are times when it doesn’t.

One ancient practice that helps meditators stay focused when the mind struggles to settle down is noting practice, also called noting meditation or mental noting.

What, exactly, is noting practice?

Noting practice is a form of mindfulness where we use our ability to recognize and name things to help contain the distracted mind. It’s quite straightforward: as we practice, we simply acknowledge what’s going on, label it, let go, and continue with our session. It’s a gentle, quiet practice. We don’t cry out “THOUGHT” or “ITCH.” Rather, we take a mental note of our experience without any kind of ballyhoo and keep going.

If we’ve decided to make a note of thoughts, for instance, during our usual meditation we’ll simply label them “thinking” when we become aware of them, then go back to the breath. If we’ve decided to note physical sensations, we may choose terms such as “tightness,” or “flow.” The teachings present noting as an exercise in detachment rather than in creative language. We’re replacing the mind’s tendency to notice and embellish with noticing, labeling and letting go.

One powerful thing about noting practice is that we’re learning that we can acknowledge and work with all mental events in exactly the same way, without bias. This applies to:

• Thoughts, whether they’re welcome or unwelcome, boring or titillating, repetitive or creative, silly or astute, etc.;
• Perceptions, such as sound or smell;
• Sensations, such as the physical sensations related to the feet as we walk;
• Feelings, whether they’re pleasant, unpleasant or neutral; and
• Emotions, whether positive, like empathy and joy, or negative, like jealousy and hostility.

The mind is always producing something, that’s its nature. Through noting practice we learn that we can acknowledge whatever that something is—whatever we’re thinking or feeling—and mindfully come back to the breath or other meditation object. This is how mindful awareness becomes a dependable port in many of the major storms that life presents us with, as well as when faced with the annoying little gnat-storms of everyday life – a broken coffee machine, an insect bite, traffic, automated phone menus, etc. Because we’ve practiced this on the cushion or chair, we find that in everyday life too we can note what we’re feeling – FRUSTRATION! ITCHING! IMPATIENCE! ANTIPATHY! – connect with it, name it, and let it go. Just knowing that we have options gives us a lot of space.

Three examples of mindful noting practice

At Mindworks we might practice by using the label “thinking” every time we’re aware that we’ve been lost in our thoughts. That simple word—“thinking”—gives us a turning point that we can use to bring us right back to mindfulness. In fact, labeling IS mindfulness: we’ve become mindful of drifting or daydreaming, and we’re choosing to redirect. No fanfare, no complications, no analysis; simply noting any thoughts, labeling, and returning… over and over and over again. It may seem laborious at first, but soon enough, noting is appreciated as a simple, accessible tool that helps us anchor the mind and stay focused.

Rev. Joseph Rogers, a chaplain specialized in addiction recovery, has found that using noting practice to recognize and work with the feelings of “pleasant,” “unpleasant” and “neutral” is a powerful way to work with triggers. His particular focus is the triggers that provoke addictive reactions. In the instructions he presents in Mindworks Addiction, Recovery and Forgiveness course, Rogers offers a guided meditation in which sensations are acknowledged and classed as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.

“It might go a little something like this: hearing—pleasant; smell—unpleasant; touch—neutral, and so on,” he suggests. “Even if it’s unpleasant, note that just like the breath, each sensation has a beginning, a middle and an end. We’re not trying to change the nature of the sensation; we’re just getting curious about it.”

Another application of noting practice centers on the physical movement of walking, with a focus on the feet. As the late Burmese meditation master Sayadaw U Silananda explained, you begin by being “mindful of the act of stepping while you make a note silently in the mind, ‘stepping, stepping, stepping,’ or ‘left, right, left, right.’” Then you continue to notice the movement of the feet until you are able to “be mindful of four stages in each step: (i) lifting the foot; (ii) moving it forward; (iii) putting it down; and (iv) touching or pressing the foot on the ground.”

With time, noting practice allows us to observe how the mind works and to begin to gain a certain familiarity with its patterns. We may find we’ve been labeling ourselves (often in less-than-complimentary terms) without even noticing. When we observe the comings and goings of thoughts and feelings with impartiality, our position as an observer gives us distance from unwelcome emotions when we need it. For seasoned practitioners, making a mental note of the mind’s productions without elaborating or reacting becomes second nature.

Mental noting is a gentle process, gentle and firm. If the voice that labels a thought is harsh or judgmental, note that too and let go of the harshness or judgment. Practice with kindness. Just like that citronella oil spray you now take along on picnics just in case, it’s good to know that noting is an option that you can pull out of your pocket and use if and when you need it.