Noting practice: A mindfulness multi-tool

Noting is a technical concept in meditation teaching, which means that we notice something with an attentive presence.

It is very empowering for the mindfulness training.

We find the method in several traditions, but especially in insight meditation (vipassana) from Burmese Theravada Buddhism in the line of Mahasi Sayadaw. The method is central to many of the meditation paths in Unified Mindfulness (such as Focus In, Focus Out, and Focus on Rest), and also to many of the teachers of what is called pragmatic dharma – Daniel Ingram, Kenneth Folk, Vincent, and Emily Horn. 

Noting in practice

Noting, also called doing noting practice, has two phases

  1. Detecting a sensory experience. To detect means that you perceive or become aware of something. A sensory experience is an event, large or small, short-lived or long-lasting, in one of the senses.
  2. Focus on this sensory experience with as much concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity as you can.

You then repeat these two phases in a stable and appropriate rhythm as long as you practice the noting.

In this video, Shinzen Young describes noting, and the options of using labels, strength, scope and repetition.

All the options

You can do noting practice in many different ways. Depending on what situation you are in and what you want to achieve, the right mix of opportunities can make a big difference.

Feel free to try to get acquainted with all these possibilities so that you can use them in the best possible way when you need it.

These opportunities also give you a lot to explore and try out, so you can keep your practice alive and fun.

Do you know about other noting options? Please let me know.

⏳ Tempo

  • A leisurely pace allows you to truly be present and enjoy or explore each experience while staying focused on it.
  • A relatively fixed rhythm (3-6 seconds) ensures that the concentration is kept sharp.

Some prefer faster or slower than this. If it becomes too slow, it is easier to get out of meditation. Doing it quickly can be hectic and stressful, but it can also increase the intensity if this is something you want to explore (this is preferred by Daniel Ingram, for example).

Find a rhythm that suits you.

🔖 Using labels

Noting can be done with or without using labels.

Using a label means that you use a word to describe the experience you are noting. This has many benefits:

  1. Using labels strengthens your concentration
    • It helps as an anchor to keep the focus of attention
    • It helps the mind not to be distracted
    • It uses resources from the prefrontal cortex to attenuate impulses from other parts of the brain
  2. Using labels strengthens your equanimity through your inner voice
    • If you say the labels out loud, pronounce them in a low, soft, matter-of-factly, almost impersonal voice.
    • If you label mentally, pronounce them in the same way with your inner voice. Let the tone of your voice help you reach a deep state.
  3. Using labels strengthens your sensory clarity when you use the right label.
    • For instance, you can use REST together with a basic FEEL label for even more clarity, e.g. FEEL REST.

🔊 Strength

You can notice something with different strength. From weakest to strongest:

  1. Just note without using labels at all
  2. Use mental labels when noting
  3. Use spoken labels when noting
    1. Completely quiet (move your mouth or whisper in such a way that others can not hear it)
    2. Spoken labels
    3. Strongly spoken labels

You can freely switch back and forth between different strengths. 

As a general guide, if you are easily distracted, or become spacy, or are easily gripped by your experience, increase the strength of the labels. Once you have regained focus, you can go back to a weaker label if you wish.

You can put a label in the detection phase of the noting, or in the focus phase, or both.

🧿 Scope

  1. Exclusive scope: Just note one of the sensory experiences you are aware of. For example, the labels could be:
    1. see
    2. hear
    3. feel
  2. Inclusive scope: Note all sensory experience you are aware of. For example:
    1. see
    2. hear
    3. feel
    4. see-hear
    5. see-feel
    6. hear-feel
    7. all

🔁 Repetition

Note each sensory experience a given number of times (unless it disappears before you reach the specified number).

You can choose to label each time you re-label or label the first of a series of notings.

  1. Double noting: Note the same thing twice in a row, and then mark something else.
  2. Triple noting: Note the same thing three times in a row.
  3. Quadruple noting: Note the same thing four times in a row.
  4. Note until gone: Once you notice something, keep noting the same thing until all or part of it vanishes. Then note something else. See more about noting vanishings below.

In this video, Shinzen Young describes noting, and the options of zooming, noting vanishings, and stance.

🔍 Zooming

You can choose how big or small area you want to draw attention to for each experience you notice. This is like using the zoom on a camera.

  1. Do not zoom on purpose: Focus on what comes to your attention, no matter how big it is when it comes to your attention.
  2. Zoom in: Limit your focus to a smaller part of the experience you notice
    1. If many sensory experiences are happening at once, you can zoom in on just one or a few of them.
    2. If a single sensory experience occurs, you can zoom in to a part of the experience, such as an outer limit, or a stronger part, or a weaker part of the experience.
    3. Zoom in as much or as little as you want. Do what you find interesting.
  3. Zoom out: Expand the scope of your attention to cover a larger area
    1. If you only notice one or two sensory experiences in a focus area, you can zoom out to cover the entire focus area with attention, and all other experiences you now become aware of.
    2. Zoom out as far as you want, to include more of a sensory experience, other experiences or all experiences.
  4. Zoom beyond: Let your attention go beyond what you notice to find the openness that surrounds the experience. This openness can be a subtle feeling of space or an infinite breadth.
  5. Zoom both ways. Shrink your attention down to a small local and intense area, while zooming out as far as possible. To begin with, you may need to do these in quick succession, until you learn how to do both at the same time.

💨 Note vanishings

By a vanishing we mean;

You have two variants of working with vanishings in meditation:

  1. Note the vanishing when something is lost. If you want to use labels to help your attention, you can use “gone”.
  2. Do not notice the vanishing even if you were aware of it. Just move on to the next sensory experience.

🕴🏻 Stance

You can have either an active or a passive stance when you do noting practice.

  1. Contact Attitude: How you take an active or passive role in contacting a sensory experience
    1. Active contact: Actively look for experiences that are available to note them.
    2. Passive contact: Let the attention rest quietly until something clearly draws in it
  2. Focus attitude: In what way you take an active or passive role after you have contacted a sensory experience.
    1. Active focus attitude: Actively explore the experience you notice
    2. Passive focus attitude: Let yourself drive passively into the experience and let the experience itself control how it unfolds. An example of this is doing nothing .

👨🏾‍🤝‍👨🏼 Social noting

There are many good reasons to practice noting together with other people.

Kenneth Folk writes, “Social meditation brings the benefits of traditional silent meditation while simultaneously cultivating intimacy and strengthening bonds between humans.”

In this video Vincent Horn describes this approach i detail.

For more information and description of techniques, please head over to the Social Meditation Guide.

Image by Nicolaas van Frankendaal, 1759