Friday, November 3, 2017

Alternative Noting

The kind of noting described so far could be done anywhere, but an alternate or additional form can be used off the cushion, which is to describe actions being performed.  The practice of focusing on the breath is often noted as the "rising" and "falling" (of the diaphragm), or sometimes "in" and "out" if noting the breath at the tip of the nose.

Walking can be noted as stepping, or during slow meditative walks as a sequence of lifting, moving, placing, pressure, etc.  Getting a glass of water, there might be reaching for the cabinet handle, grasping the handle, pulling the handle, reaching for the glass, holding the glass, moving the glass, reaching for the faucet, turning the faucet, moving the glass, filling the glass, reaching for the faucet again, turning the faucet, raising the glass, turning, sipping, tasting, swallowing, etc.


Table of Contents for How to Meditate

If you've gotten this far, you may be interested in some other resources for learning about noting style meditation.

Getting In Touch With Emotions

Realize that when you are having an emotional experience, there may be many things going on.  There could be a primary emotion such as anger.  Easy enough.  But there could also be tensions in the body that are related to the anger.  One of the better habits to cultivate is an ability to quickly scan through the body and notice where there are any tensions.  A lot of that tension can often be let go of immediately, once you are aware of it.  In addition to the emotion of anger, and the body tensions associated with anger, there could also be angry thoughts.  It may be worthwhile to remember these components of body-emotion-thoughts and when one is experiencing any of these that are related to emotions, maybe check out the other parts of the body-emotions-thoughts triad, and see what else can be noticed and let go of.

This is similar to the idea of breaking things down into their component parts.  What is this sensation made of?  Where is it in the body?  Does it stay the same?  Adyashanti once made the analogy of being like a mad scientist, exploring the feelings that you are resisting or fearing.  What is that nasty depression like when you break it down in this way or stop fighting it?  Or that rage or fear?  Plunge into it and first try to just let it be what it is and break it down, again and again.  Be curious, as curiosity is a great tool for maintaining awareness.   What are the basic sensations, where are they in the body, what does that feel like, what are the thoughts, might I be able to let go of some of that?  Could I just let that be without resisting it?

I hesitate to get too deeply into the beliefs underlying these things, because we are trying to break everything down into component parts, and simultaneously we're trying to avoid going into stories and narrative, but I should also mention that on this emotional axis and the body-emotion-mind experiences that are woven there, there is typically a belief, an opinion, an assumption, that underlies the resisted phenomenon.  Letting go of the underlying belief can facilitate the letting go of all the various sensations.  If you are aware enough of your psychology to go down that road, I recommend keeping the concepts to the simplest pointers possible such as "Dad was controlling", and then go right back to noting basic phenomenon.  Nothing to see here, move along - it is just phenomenon like any other.

So the recommendation for things you are resisting is to lightly explore the usual suspects of body, emotion, and mind, investigate a bit without creating a bunch of stories about it, let go of what can be let go of, and ultimately let everything just be with as little resistance as possible.  The background of the meditative path is one of relaxation, which is about letting go of the tensions that we are often unconsciously creating.

Sometimes we may be dealing with something that is more persistent or troublesome emotionally.  This requires more of the same.  The pointer is to work in a very continuous way on feeling, accepting, allowing, acknowledging, opening up to it, making friends with it, holding the space for it, letting it be, letting go.  This aspect of treating everything that comes up in a non-judgmental way, relaxing with it, allowing it, is a very important part of the practice.

Next:  Alternative Noting

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

General Theory

At first the verbal quality of the notes themselves might be relatively primary in awareness.  It's a new task where we have to focus on the words and choose them, and it may take some time to learn to label experience effortlessly.  The underlying goal is to pay attention to what is happening, and there can be more than one thing happening at once.  Just try to label what is more or less predominate, and understand that not everything will get formally noticed.  Try to notice what you can.

As you become familiar with the practice and you've learned a decent palette of notes, it should become as easy as picking out the color red on a palette of primary colors.  As it gets even easier, the goal is to put most of your attention on the object, the actual experiencing of seeing, hearing, feeling, and very little on the mental/verbal note.  Perhaps something like 5% of your attention might be on the note itself.  Noting is a tool, but the goal is to be continuously mindful of the primary objects, the actual seeing, hearing, and feeling.  Almost your full attention should be on the objects, moving from one object to the next, maintaining continuity of mindfulness like stepping from one lily-pad to the next, keeping continuously aware, relaxed, and open.

Notes should typically be kept simple - one word, straight to the point.  We're not trying to go into long descriptions, stories, or concepts, in fact we're trying to avoid that.  All we need is a simple pointer, a placeholder, a checkmark to see that we're doing the main job of mindfulness.  Although we are using a tiny bit of conceptualization in the form of the note, as long as we keep it simple and are well practiced, there is very little conceptual processing, and it can become second nature.

We can also see noting as a process of breaking our experience down into its component parts, seeing what we are made of.  There are a lot of ways to break down our experience, one concept is that it all comes back to the 6 sense doors - the 5 basic senses plus thought.  Everything can be labeled as seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling, and thinking.  While you are meditating, forget your ideas and assumptions about a body or your life, what the room looks like, or what is outside.  Just keep dissecting your experience into little bits, the basic building blocks of your experience.

It is helpful to view all experience, the objects of awareness, as processes happening in the present, here and now.  To that end, notes are often verbs ending in "-ing", the present participle in grammar.  Even when they are not, it is implied, as everything is a process.  For example if we note pressure or angst or relaxation, what we are really noticing is feeling pressure or feeling angst or feeling relaxation.

Absolutely everything can be noted, everything can be put into the note-o-matic experience processor.  If you are having trouble coming up with a note you can always relax and note "this" or "don't know" or "blank" as a catch-all, but in such an instance maybe you could also look a bit deeper, perhaps noting "searching" or "wondering" or perhaps because of that struggle there may be "anxiety" or "frustration" or "grasping", and maybe "resistance" to your frustration.  Don't go crazy searching for the right note, but understand that over time you can become aware of more of what you are experiencing.  Certain relaxed spaces may seem at first to be empty of gross sensation and thought but might be noted as relaxation, peace, tranquility, etc.

Next:  Getting In Touch With Emotions

Table of Contents for How to Meditate


Third Stage - Grasping and Resistance

Once a basic palette of notes is established, most of what we experience is being noted.  But I've left out another important dimension or two.  For all these basic objects of awareness, there is a dimension of whether these things are perceived as "pleasant", "unpleasant", or "neutral".  This gives us some information about how we are built, what our biases are.  This dimension is sometimes based on inherent qualities, and sometimes learned.

This dimension of pleasant and unpleasant is closely related, and almost identical to, another dimension that we might call "grasping" and "resistance".  Usually these will line up, as we will grasp for things that are pleasant and resist what is unpleasant.  But occasionally, for example when long term goals are involved, we might find that these don't line up.  An endurance athlete may learn to love the intense unpleasantness of pushing into the "red zone", knowing that this is how they win.

The dimensions of pleasant/grasping and unpleasant/resistance begin to tell us a lot about our relationship with our experience.  The goal of meditation is to become okay with all experience, and so when we notice that something is unpleasant and we are resisting it, we can actually note the resistance itself, let the resistance just be there like it is, and see if maybe we can let go of some of that.  And if we can't, we let that be okay too.

It becomes very important to note things like grasping and resistance as these are the areas where we really learn to surrender and let things be.

And although we've spun the pleasant side as, well, pleasant, it turns out that if we are desiring or craving something, there can actually be an anxious, furtive, needy quality to the grasping, a sense of lack or want that we may eventually come to see as unpleasant.  People tend to notice this long after dealing with the more typically unpleasant side of things.  Once again, more to let go of.

Noticing "grasping" and "resistance" are a major key to unraveling ourselves.  Other similar words would include craving and aversion, and expansion and contraction.  Use what works.

Next:  General Theory

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

Second Stage - More Detailed Noting

A second stage might be to begin to flesh out the feeling component into basic physical sensations like "pressure" or "tension", as well as basic emotions such as "anger", "joy", "sadness", and "fear", and to flesh out thinking into a few categories like "planning", "wondering", "remembering", or "imagining".

We don't have to get crazy with a million notes, but I will list a few more here for reference.  Pick and choose what works for you.

Feeling physical sensations:  pressure, tension, release, itching, tingling, twitching, pulsing, throbbing, warmness, coolness, softness, hardness.  It doesn't have to be complicated.  99% of the time I find myself using pressure or tension.

Feeling emotional sensations:  Besides the basic emotions of anger, joy, sadness and fear, there can be related subcomponents:

Related to anger: disgust, frustration, annoyance, rage, irritation, aversion.
Related to joy: love, bliss, exhilaration, wonder.
Related to sadness: depression, grief, hopelessness, despair.
Related to fear: anxiety, worry, surprise.

There is also a category of mind states that might not fit neatly into thoughts or feelings, such as amusement, curiosity, compassion, relaxation, tranquility, anticipation, apathy, boredom, etc.

I would say that when I am noting, I am probably using less than 20 notes on a regular basis.  It's just a tool to keep us aware, and it doesn't take tremendous variety to go beyond the benefit of a simple mantra.

Next:  Third Stage - Grasping and Resistance

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

First Stage - Basic Noting

A brief word about posture.  Posture is important only in the sense that we need to be reasonably awake, alert, and free of pain.  From the standpoint of lower back health we might also want to sit in a reasonably healthy posture as long as we're going to be sitting for a while, so some kind of decent upright posture is typically recommended.  On the other hand you could even meditate lying down, but it will be more likely that you might fall asleep.  You don't have to sit on the floor, or on a meditation cushion, or in a lotus position, or with your fingers in a certain position.  Sitting in a chair is fine.

A first stage of noting might be to note all phenomenon, the objects in your awareness, as either "seeing", "hearing", "feeling", "thinking", or if you're having trouble picking a category, perhaps "don't know" or simply "this" to represent whatever you can't quite put a label on.  Try to maintain a pace of around once per second or so, keep to a loose rhythm, and just do it, do it no matter what.  Noting may seem a bit clumsy at first - it is - it has perhaps more of a learning curve than other techniques, but it just takes some practice to get used to it and develop a palette of notes.  Persistence tends to work here, it took me a few months to really feel natural about it.  I persisted because a number of fairly intelligent and reasonable people said that it worked really well for them.

You don't have to note forever and always.  If your meditation gets quiet and stable and you can sit without technique for a while, go ahead.  Just be aware, and if you find yourself wandering, go back to the technique again.

Note what you are aware of regardless of whether there is much of anything there or not.  So if your attention is on the visual component, say the back of your eyelids, you would note "seeing" regardless of whether you are seeing something specific or it is pitch black.  Your attention is on the visual component so you note "seeing".

Noting is typically done silently for practical reasons (group sits, etc.), but noting out loud is actually a powerful and recommended practice.  It is much harder to drift off into thought while noting aloud.  When you can, try using out loud noting when you are having trouble staying aware.

Next:  Second Stage - More Detailed Noting

Table of Contents for How to Meditate

Intro to Noting and Meditation

The style of meditation I most often recommend is called noting.  The technique of noting style meditation is to notice what you are aware of, and to label it with a simple "note" such as "seeing", "hearing", or "feeling".  By doing this at a steady, frequent pace, about once every second or so, it forces you to be continuously aware and present.  As you practice, it requires you to be mindful, because each moment you must prove that you are mindful by naming what you are uniquely aware of in that moment.

Noting could be seen as a more powerful form of mantra, a dynamic or adaptable mantra.  Rather than repeating the exact same word or phrase, each moment we must come up with a unique description of what is more or less predominate in our awareness at any time.

This practice is one of the most effective at interrupting the mind's natural inclination to go off and think about the next thing.

Some may be put off by the structure of it, or the verbal nature of it.  My advice is to train the mind with high quality practice by whatever means you can.  If that's noting practice, fine.  If you can just sit without any technique, and by pure natural talent and willpower you can be present and aware during 95% or more of your formal meditation practice, then maybe do that.  I list many techiques for this kind of mental skill training in Basic Meditation Styles, find what works for you.

But I would definitely look for something that gets the quality very high.  Quality in the sense of a very high percentage of time aware and present.  My belief is that getting the practice very pure, at least for a few important developmental years, is pretty important.  As my guitar teacher pointed out, practice makes permanent.  If your mindfulness practice is sloppy, and you're spacing out left and right, to some degree that is indeed the mind that you will make permanent.

For some, it may even be that the very effectiveness of noting technique ends up putting them off.  With noting being so good at getting in the way of our natural conditioned desire to think, at some level people don't like it - and at first it's hard work.  They want to think, to daydream, to fantasize.  They don't want to go on a thought "diet".  People often feel they should just be able to "wing it" without technique.  They consciously or unconsciously prefer half measures.  They come up with excuses for using a less potent style of meditation, one with less rigor, so that they can end up spending more time doing all that daydreaming that they want to do.  Just have some awareness of how you are doing on your percent awareness meter, the percentage of time you are actually present and aware in practice, and be careful not to trade short term desire or inertia for long term peace and tranquility.

Regarding thought, there's a fine line in that we don't really want to assume an outright aversion to thought.  One of the basic themes that comes out of the contemplative path is that everything is okay just as it is.  But that is the end goal.  In the interim, the problem is that we have spent perhaps a hundred thousand hours overemphasizing thought and our identification with it.

My practical advice is, for perhaps a few years, lean a bit more into bodily sensations.  If you can let go of thought a bit, and can pay a bit more attention to what is going on in the body, you are restoring a kind of natural balance.  We have unconsciously prejudiced ourselves towards thought, and we're not going to be able to immediately let go of that.  We need to pay more attention to the body, kind of an affirmative action for the sensate world.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with thought, but we are essentially prejudiced bigots with respect to it, so affirmative action is required.

Advocating a relatively hardcore kind of effort can cause problems in some people.  They may become overly concerned about practicing correctly.  "Am I doing it right?" or "Oh no, I've spaced out again!"  The way to practice is to learn the simple basics and then be nonjudgmental about the results.  If you're practicing in the direction of being continuously aware, relaxed, and open, you are practicing correctly.  If you space out, that is very much to be expected, particularly at first.  More about that later, but the basic advice is don't beat yourself up about it.

It's also worth considering that the more effective a practice is, the more likely someone will eventually stumble across some buried psychological problems.  In the exact same way that enough psychotherapy or experimenting with psychedelic drugs will likely bring all your psychological issues to the forefront, so will intense meditation practice.  Sitting around daydreaming, not so much.  But this is the path, to learn to become okay with all the parts of ourselves.  As layers are peeled back, sometimes it will be tender underneath.  You have to acknowledge and surrender to that tenderness, that pain, until you are okay with that newly uncovered layer, and then you continue and perhaps begin to peel off yet another layer.

Again, you're up against perhaps a hundred thousand hours of practicing grasping at thought.  When you do drift away and come back, understand how natural that is, and understand that it is a good thing you came back to the present.  This is what we want - to come back to here and now, so be pleased with the coming back part, and just go right back into your practice, and maybe this time with a little bit of extra energy or intent.  Back to it, back to it, again and again and again.  You just keep putting the puppy on the newspaper when it starts to pee, and eventually it learns.

Next:  First Stage - Basic Noting

Table of Contents for How to Meditate