Friday, April 3, 2015

NOTING AND LABELING IN MINDFULNESS MEDITATION

Should I ‘note’ and ‘label’?’ This question is the ‘to be or not to be’ when it comes to the practice of mindfulness meditation.

For the uninitiated, mindfulness is the sustained presence, both physical and psychological, of choiceless awareness of, and bare attention to, the action (both internal and external) of the present moment from one moment to the next. In the words of Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is the father of the modern mindfulness movement, mindfulness means 'paying attention in a particular way ... on purpose ... in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.' Mindfulness meditation is a special, concentrated and more deliberate and focused form and practice of mindfulness.

Whatever arises, whether internally or externally, is impermanent. Sensations, whether in the form of thoughts, feelings, images, ideas, bodily sensations, or external physical sensations (sounds, etc), come and go. They wax and wane. They arise and vanish. Reality---what is---is that which comes and goes, waxes and wanes, arises and vanishes. Mindfulness enables, indeed empowers, us to live in the immediacy and directness of the arising and vanishing of that which is truly present in the now.


In order for there to be an immediacy and directness about our moment-to-moment experience of life, three events need to occur more-or-less simultaneously. Those three events are as follows: the occurrence of some activating sensation, our initial awareness of (that is, noticing) that sensation, and mindfulness in the form of pure, unadorned non-judgmental observation. If those three events are not simultaneously experienced, then what will be experienced will be nothing but the past. In other words, the reality of the immediate experience will subside. Indeed, it will die! Any consciousness of it will be in the form of an after-thought or a memory, as we glance back to re-experience, and (sadly, yes) evaluate, a past experience.

So, it is essential that our mindfulness should so far as is humanly possible be simultaneous with both the occurrence of sensation and our initial awareness of it. Dwell in the sensation of the moment. The idea is to watch and observe the sensation without thinking any thought connected with the sensation, that is, without judgment, evaluation, interpretation, analysis, comparison, self-criticism or condemnation.

Some teachers and practitioners of mindfulness advocate what is known as ‘noting’ and ‘labeling.’ Noting means to firstly notice---in a fraction of a second, that is---the particular sensation and then focus on (‘penetrate’) the sensation intently but gently for a second or two, unless of course the sensation happens to immediately disappear. Labeling goes further than noting and means that whenever in one’s mindfulness meditation a thought or other sensation arises you quietly, gently and ordinarily interiorly say to yourself, one or two or more times every five seconds or so for some or all of the temporal duration of the sensation, something such as ‘thinking … thinking,’ ‘feeling … feeling,’ ‘touching … touching’ or ‘sensing … sensing,’ that is, some word or phrase that describes without adornment or embellishment precisely what you are noting. Where the sensation, particularly an emotional state, is more persistent or prolonged labeling may involve saying something like ‘there is anger.’ (Note. Never say ‘I am angry’ as that only reinforces your identification with the ‘angry self’ in you as a person.)


Other teachers and practitioners are strongly against any form of noting or labeling.  My own view on this matter have fluctuated somewhat over the years. I tend to the view that, as a general ‘rule,’ noting and labeling are to be avoided. The reason is obvious. The mere act of noting and labeling requires you to intentionally formulate a thought, and then make a mental decision, to note or label. That takes time---the more so when there is labeling---and is a judgment of sorts, with the result that the reality of the immediate experience begins to subside, the reason being that the consciousness which almost invariably arises from the act of noting or labeling is one of an event in the past, that is, an event which has now gone, but which is nevertheless re-experienced as an after-thought or a memory. Even noting involves a period of intently focusing on what you have noticed for several seconds.

However, ever the pragmatist, I see a limited place for noting and labeling where the activating sensation is particularly strong, persistent or otherwise troublesome. To note and perhaps also label sensations of that kind or intensity can be comforting or reassuring and may help to ensure that one’s mental or emotional equanimity if not lost as a result of some troublesome sensation or set of sensations. This is because the acts of noting and labeling, especially the latter, can at times bring about an abrupt end to the particular sensation or set of sensations. As the mind can only focus on one thing at once, noting and labeling can cut short the object of the noting and labeling. Advocates of noting and labeling also say that such practices can be helpful when the meditator’s mind drifts during meditation by stabilizing one’s attention. Maybe. Having said all that, I do not recommend that noting and labeling be done routinely or throughout the whole course of one’s meditation.

The author in Japan in October 2012

So, note or label the sensation or set of sensations (eg ‘thinking ... thinking,’ or ‘there is anger’), but only if you feel you really must do so. Then return immediately to your post, so to speak, of unadorned observation. Let your mind penetrate whatever sensation arises---or whatever be your predominant experience---in the moment and from one moment to the next. Unadorned observation means to be ‘outside’ of whatever it is you’re observing---the outside witness, so to speak---looking at the particular object or thought or whatever the sensation may be. In time, you learn to dis-identify and stand aside from your own thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations.

I am firmly of the view that more than half of our emotional and psychological problems would die from atrophy---on the altar of unadorned observation---if we were to simply look and observe, directly and objectively, with ‘effortless effort.’ If we just did that on a regular and systematic basis our mind would be so much more peaceful and undisturbed. The ‘secret’---although it’s not really a secret---is to maintain a ‘soft’ acceptance of whatever is. You see, there is one thing more than all others which keeps alive and reinforces our false, illusory sense of ‘self,’ together with our self-centeredness and self-absorption, and that is when our moment-to-moment sensation of life is experienced not as something which is happening now, of which we are mindfully aware, but as something which is happening to ‘me,’ or which ‘I’ am suffering---that is, as something being ‘inflicted’ upon us. The problem, as I see it, with all noting and labeling is that they reinforce the illusory sense of an ‘I’ or ‘me’ doing the noting or labeling.

Don’t let reality die on you. Don’t experience it as a past event. Let each sensation arise and vanish of its own accord. Observe it closely, without analysis, judgment, evaluation or condemnation---indeed, watch it, without thinking any thought associated or connected with the sensation. Otherwise, you will instantly lose the immediacy, directness and actuality of your experience of life.


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