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According to a 2005 article published by the National Science Foundation, the average person has about 12000-60000 thoughts in a day.
Yet somehow it feels like 90% of them seem to rush into our minds when we sit down to meditate.
From novices to experts, everyone who has ever meditated is aware of this phenomenon.
The Buddhists call it the monkey mind. And rightly so.
Just like the monkey jumps from tree to tree, our mind jumps from one thought to another, never letting us settle down and be in the present moment.
Taming this monkey mind or ‘inner chatter’ is one of the greatest challenges of mindfulness meditation or any meditation practice.
A very clever technique to control our monkey mind is called mental noting or mental labeling.
Rather than asking us to stop our monkey mind, mental noting makes use of the mental chatter to help us develop skills to practice mindfulness.
Mental noting, in a way, is becoming mindful of our distractions.
It’s an ancient technique, commonly practiced in Burmese Buddhism and is also a part of Vipassana.
Mental Noting is an important component of mindfulness meditation practice and is often recommended to beginners, as an effective meditation technique to build one’s mindfulness skills.
When you practice mental noting, you are consciously practicing meta-awareness or meta-cognition which is thinking about your thinking.
Metacognitive practices enhance our ability to perform reflective thinking and develop higher self-awareness. Research suggests that it improves learning and problem-solving abilities in adolescents.
But honestly, we could all use better self-awareness to improve our lives.
Mindfulness meditation along with mindful noting can help us regulate emotions and improve our emotional wirings in the brain. [Source]
Practicing mental noting helps us detach ourselves from any thought.
Rather than identifying with any negative thought and react emotionally to it, mental noting will help us feel relaxed and in control of the situation.
We can also take mental note of our sensory experiences, just like thoughts, and choose to pay attention to what is more helpful and really matters at that moment.
How to Practice Mental Noting
Since mental noting is a form of mindfulness meditation, the same three objectives apply to this technique as well.
- Your Intention should be to become aware of the present moment and the object of meditation (and return to it again and again)
- Your Attention should be on what is occurring in the present (on the thoughts, feelings, sensations as they arise)
- Your Attitude must be compassionate, non-judgmental, and curious in the present
The object of meditation here will be your thinking and sensory experiences (hearing, smelling, touching, feeling).
Unlike other meditation practices, you don’t direct the mind’s attention to something (breath or mantra) but you flow with it, by being aware that you are distracted in that experience.
Step 1: Become Aware and Observe
Observe as you pay attention to the distraction (thought, emotion, senses) in a non-judgemental manner as your mind pays attention to it.
Step 2: Acknowledge and Perform Mental Noting
Calmly ‘label’ or ‘note’ the experience at the moment, with a whisper inside your head.
If your attention has shifted to thoughts, observe and label the action as “thinking” and say that “Thinking has just occurred”, “hearing” in case of a sound, “smelling” in case of a smell.
Use the adjective associated with the emotion as the label: happiness, excitement, fear, etc.
Use descriptive labels for bodily sensations: coolness, tightness, feverish, etc.
Step 3: Repeat the Note and Move On
Keep repeating the note in your head until the experience disappears, or ceases to be predominant.
Understand that there will always be distractions around us, but if your mind starts to pay attention to it, that is when you have been distracted.
Let’s say you live in the city and you are meditating in your apartment. Upon hearing an ambulance siren amidst the city noise, if you start to picture the ambulance cutting through the traffic and subsequently about who’s life might be in danger and so on, you have been distracted by your thinking mind.
This is what we tend to do. Our mind starts to think about what we sense.
Thinking can even be something as simple as trying to identify what you sense.
When you practice mental noting, upon hearing the ambulance siren, you would simply acknowledge the fact that you just heard the siren. You will note that ‘hearing has happened‘ and move on, not attaching your mind to think about it.
Practicing mental noting offers you a choice to anchor yourself to the present moment and acknowledge those set of experiences which truly matters to you, in a better way.
You can engage in mental noting during meditation practices when you get distracted and need to bring your attention back to the object of meditation (breath, mantra, etc.) and also during any other activity (brushing your teeth, drinking water, etc.). Practice mental noting as a way to support and cultivate mindfulness.
Mental noting can be very effective to liberate your mind and attention from your thoughts (or other distractions). It can offer you the option of choosing to focus on experiences that matter at the moment to initiate a more mindful way of living.