Noting is my favorite meditation technique. It is simple, easy to learn, effective, and convenient. It can be done anywhere and at any time.
The Method Itself
How: Make a mental label of what you are experiencing in this moment, then repeat. Aim for a stable, consistent pace of once per second.
Example: Here's how it might unfold for an idealized meditator out walking. He hears a car and he notes, "hearing." Then he feels the breeze against his skin, so he notes "feeling." He wonders if he remembered to lock the door and he notes it "thinking."
What labels should I use?
Use whatever label you like. If you catch yourself trying to decide what label to use, no problem, label that, too: "thinking", "deciding", whatever.
What if I use the wrong label?
No problem. If you notice you've labelled something incorrectly, note "correcting."
Do I have to use labels?
In the beginning, labels are very useful. You attention is weak but your awareness is weaker still, meaning you may be oblivious to how weak your attention actually is.
Personally, I think you ought to learn to note for an entire day before you experiment with dropping labels, but my opinion here is not so important. If you have an intuition that you should investigate noticing without labelling, you should follow your intuition. Your practice ought to feel right and natural to you.
For that stage of practice, here is good advice:
Recognize your mind, and in the absence of any concrete thing, rest loosely. After a while we again get caught up in thoughts. But, by recognizing again and again, we grow more and more used to the natural state. It's like learning something by heart—after a while, you don't need to think about it. Through this process, our thought involvement grows weaker and weaker. The gap between thoughts begins to last longer and longer. At a certain point, for half an hour there will be a stretch of no conceptual thought whatsoever, without having to suppress the thinking.
—Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, "The Inheritance"
Why & How It Works
Noting is a hack to keep your attention on noticing what is happening in this moment. It is often associated with "dry insight" because it eschews developing stabilized attention and instead emphasizes momentary concentration. As you practice, the objects of your experience will become clearer, along with your understanding of the relationship between them. This is your momentary concentration growing more powerful.
By paying attention to your experience as it is happening, you develop insight. You start to understand your conscious experience, how "you" work and why you behave the way that you do. You notice things that jar with your current worldview. Eventually, you realize a new perspective that takes these noticings into account.
Along with the momentary concentration, you are also strengthening your capacity for persevering with a single task. The longer you can note, the longer you can stay with other tasks, too. This is a kind of concentration.
Noting also strengthens your capacity for not clinging to and getting caught up in experience, mindful observation. This will reduce your suffering and give you more space to choose whether or not to engage in your previously automatic, habitual behaviors.
Labelling also reduces emotional reactivity, which enables you to face and understand more and more of your experience. This is equanimity.
Those are just some of the good things noting practice will strengthen. To discover the rest, go practice.
When you first start practicing noting, it's a bit awkward and your mind may still be prone to distraction. It's useful at this stage to do your noting verbally, out loud. When you get distracted and stop noting, you'll stop hearing your voice. This acts as a feedback mechanism which quickly returns you to your practice.
Your first goal should be getting to the point where noting no longer feels awkward.
Once that's reached, your second goal should be noting for an entire day. This seems like it would be hard, but it's not.
Have you ever heard the joke about how to draw an owl? It goes like this:
- Draw a circle.
- Draw the rest of the fucking owl.
My advice for noting all day long sounds a lot like the instructions for drawing an owl, except it works. You see, noting all day long is actually easy. The trick is not stopping.
Now, how does stopping happen? Usually there will be a moment of frustration and then there will be the intention to stop. Most of the time this happens right after you start noting. All you need to do to keep going is to note "intending to stop, intending to stop" until it leaves you alone. This will not take long.
At first the intention to stop may feel very strong, like there is some other very important thing you could be doing. This is a delusion. You already know that everything is impermanent and unsatisfactory, so what could this very important thing be? There is no such thing. Reflect this way and it will leave you alone.
Each time you do this it will be easier than the last. Once you do it the first time, you know you are strong enough to do it all of the future times.
There is one other way that stopping happens, and that's when you become distracted and forget what you were doing. This is also not a problem. Once you realize that you have forgotten and stopped noting, just start again. You are still making progress and soon you will no longer forget.
There are several different flavors of noting. I have taught you the one I like best, but you should pick whichever one appeals to you. They are all effective and, ultimately, your enthusiasm for your practice is more important than any of the minor differences between them.
Traditional Mahasi Noting
In the traditional style of noting, you anchor you attention at the abdomen and note it as "rising" and "falling", along with noting any distractions that capture your attention. Only later, once you have developed your capacities, do you switch to noting without an anchor.
A meditator should focus his or her mind on the abdomen. You will feel it rising and falling. If you don't feel this clearly, place a hand on the abdomen and its rise and fall will become obvious after a while. When breathing in, you will experience the rising movement of the abdomen. Note this as “rising.” When breathing out, you will experience the falling movement. Note this as “falling.”
While doing this you may reflect that observing the form or concept of the abdomen is not what you ought to be doing. This is not a cause for worry. Initially, of course, it is almost impossible to avoid a conceptual sense of solid form. So in the beginning, you must observe objects on a conceptual level. That is the only way that your concentration, awareness, and insight knowledge will mature. In due time, however, insight knowl- edge will break through to the absolute reality beyond concepts.
True insight practice is an awareness of all of the mental and physical phenomena that constantly arise at the six sense doors. However, because concentration and awareness are not strong enough in the beginning, it will be difficult to observe all of the phenomena that constantly arise. You will not be skillful enough to follow all of the objects, or may get caught up in searching for an object to note. For these reasons you should initially focus just on the rise and fall of the abdomen that occurs all the time and is noticeable enough to observe without much difficulty. Later, when your practice matures, you will be able to note objects as they arise.
After about a day, you are likely to feel that simply noting the rise and fall of the abdomen is too easy. You may find that there is a gap or break between the movements of rising and falling. In that case, a meditator should switch to noting three objects, adding the sitting posture itself as a third object. You will then be noting: “rising, falling, sitting; rising, falling, sitting; . . .” In the same way that you note the rise and fall of the abdomen, you must now be aware of the sitting posture of the body and note it as “sitting.” If lying down, note the three objects of “rising, falling, lying.”
—Mahasi Sayadaw, Manual of Insight
Ingram-Style Fast Noting
Daniel Ingram, in his book Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, recommends that a meditator focus on using noting to break his experience into the smallest pieces they can manage, to constantly push at this perceptual threshold, and to have fun doing it:
Just about all of us in this day and age have at least seen if not played video games involving shooting aliens. As the game goes on, the aliens come in faster a nd faster, some taking multiple hits to kill them. Some of these games penalize us for wasting ammunition, causing us to really focus on exactly where and when these aliens are arising, so that we may shoot them exactly when they arise as efficiently as possible before they shoot us.
in this analogy the aliens are all of the little sensations that make up our experience. Shooting them is paying attention to them and seeing their true nature, perhaps with the aid of noting practice (like a gun with laser sight on it). The aliens shooting us is what happens when we do not see their true nature, as they become a hindrance, binding us on the wheel of suffering for the duration of our inability to shoot them. Some may even take us out of the game (cause us stop practicing entirely). The aliens that take multiple hits to kill are our big issues, those things that are difficult for us to break into their composite sensations. Being penalized for shooting wastefully is what can happen if we note sensations that we didn't actually experience because we fell into repetitive, imprecise, mantra-like noting habits.
Further, the speed, precision and playful attitude required for video games is exactly like the feel of well-done insight practices. If you watch some kid playing a fast alien-shooting game, you will notice that they are really going for it. They are shooting very fast and definitely not thinking a bout anything but doing that. This is exactly the sort of dedication and passion that helps with insight practices.
When our mindfulness and investigation are on hair trigger, being aware of every little sensation that arises and passes, we are bound to win sooner or later. The motto, “Note first, ask questions later,” is just so helpful if we are to keep practicing precisely without getting lost in the stories.
Shinzen's Unified Mindfulness
Shinzen Young teaches a restricted version of noting that he's dubbed "See, Hear, Feel." You can learn it via this freely available document of the same name. Since the name See, Hear, Feel is sort of awkward to type out, I'm going to refer to it as SHF.
This chart of his clarifies SHF's relationship to noting:
The unique bit about Shinzen's version of noting is that you used a restricted vocabulary to categorize your experience and, for more complex experiences, you combine notes:
This is a trade-off. It's trickier to become fluent in his style of noting, but it also makes it easier to develop the holistic understanding of your experience that both produces and results from insight. One person on DhO described it this way:
The Mahasi method uses an "open" vocabulary, with the labels indicating the objects of awarness. The yogi must be somewhat creative in narrating their experience. Shinzen's uses a "closed" vocabulary emphasizing instead the sensory modality or one or another of a small number of aspects of it; in other words, Shinzen's labels emphasize experiential activity rather than content. I think this makes it easier to make the jump "from content to insight" because that is much closer to what one is actually noting.
- The evolution of a meditator as he masters noting is known as "The Progress of Insight." You should familiarize yourself with what may happen before you begin, as the process is not all roses.
- Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha further contains a great deal of practical advice and discussion of this style of insight practice.
- Ditto for Shinzen's See, Hear, Feel document.
- More tips at The Hamilton Project.
- Commenters on DhO are enthusiastic about "distracted noting".
- Annoyingly, reading through Manual of Insight reveals that all the noting lessons I had to learn the hard way are contained in it. I recommend starting with Mahasi Sayadaw's Practical Insight Meditation first—it's more suited to an initial exploratory reading.
- My version of noting is the same as Kenneth Folk's. He has a video teaching it.
- Ultimately, practicing the technique is the ideal route to understanding noting.