Lots of meditation techniques have been discovered by the ancient sages to tame the mind. And when we begin practicing any of them, we realize that the mind is a wild maze. Random thoughts keep popping up, and you don’t know how to find your way out. To help you stay centered in the midst of thoughts, you can use the mental noting technique.
Mental noting is a technique used to refocus the mind when it wanders. The method involves taking a mental note of whatever you’re experiencing. Then, you assign it labels like “thinking”, “feeling”, or “planning”. Mental noting develops mindfulness and helps us take a step back to see more clearly.
Keep reading to learn more about the monkey mind, and how meditation works to tame it. We’ll also talk about the mental noting practice and how to do it right.
The inner noise called mind
According to Buddhist principles, the human mind is like a drunken monkey. It’s always jumping around, chattering, screaming, and never settling down. We’re talking about the part of us that only wants to eat, sleep, and have as much fun as it can. It’s the part that won’t shut up even when you want it to.
Buddhists call it the monkey mind because it’s forever swinging from one branch of thought to the other. It wants the next banana, and when obtained, discards it immediately and goes for another one. The mind keeps running in the background, and we don’t even notice it most of the time.
Now, the mind being restless and full of thoughts isn’t the problem per se. The real problem is that we’re too identified with what goes in our heads. Emotions dictate most of our life’s decisions, and random thoughts don’t let us sleep at night. Thoughts spring forth, and we drift away into the land of regret and worries.
Meditation can help us take a step back and detach from the stories in our heads. By sitting down quietly and observing our thoughts, we can tame the monkey mind. It takes consistent effort, but eventually, we learn to see our thoughts for what they are: clouds in the sky. And as soon as we do that, the mind’s sky clears up.
Once the mind is calm and clear, it’s much more powerful and energetic. We discover that the monkey is actually a gorilla, and it can do unimaginable things. Gaining control over the mind means gaining control over our lives. A calm, disciplined mind is the key to real happiness.
What is meditation?
Meditation is an ancient practice where we use different techniques to train our awareness and attention. You can think of meditation as a gym for the mind. It’s where you train your mind to reach higher states of awareness.
Meditation and other mindfulness practices are designed to transform the monkey mind. When you practice a particular technique consistently, you learn the habits and patterns of your mind. Not only that, but you also learn to be more patient and comfortable with yourself. Eventually, the mind starts listening to you, and you become its master.
People have been meditating worldwide for thousands of years, usually for religious purposes. Although meditation has a spiritual basis, it can also be used as a psychotherapeutic technique. There are different meditation practices, and science says that they offer similar benefits for the mind.
For example, loving-kindness meditation focuses on cultivating compassion for ourselves and others. It makes us more compassionate and resolves emotional issues. On the other hand, mindfulness meditation emphasizes on developing a moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness. It stills the mind and has various other benefits.
Meditation begins by choosing an object on which you’ll meditate, such as your breath, a sound, or an image. Then, you sit in a proper posture and settle your mind on the object of meditation.
For example, if you meditate on your breath, you try to be aware of every inhalation and exhalation. In case of a mantra, you mindfully recall the mantra in your head. Or if it’s an image, you close your eyes and hold the image in your mind as vividly as possible.
What is the mental noting technique?
Thoughts are a powerful distraction during meditation. The continuous stream of random images prevents us from being mindful. But there’s a simple method to stay present and direct our attention whenever we find ourselves thinking—the practice of mental noting.
In this method, we simply “note” whatever is happening and label the activity. The labels are objective and non-judgmental, such as ‘worrying’, ‘angry’, or ‘stressing’. Before we get into the specifics of noting, let’s discuss a few benefits or functions of this technique.
The first benefit of noting a thought is that we come back to the present moment. It can be called an “anchor” to the present. It makes us aware and helps us reestablish mindfulness when the mind wanders.
Noting also strengthens our mindfulness and recognition. When we recognize an experience and let go of it, we’re more likely to do it earlier the next time.
Sometimes we rationalize our baseless worries or fears. So noting can even train us to call a spade a spade and be honest with ourselves.
Another function of noting is to detach us from the contents of the experience. By noting, we step away from the story in our head, allowing us to see more clearly. For example, repeatedly noting “lust” may help us let go of our addiction to lustful tendencies.
Finally, it also helps us recognize the patterns of the mind. It can give you insights into how you think and what kind of thoughts are prevalent in your mind. For example, people with anger issues may not realize it until they see how often they note “anger”.
How to do it right
So you decide to meditate for the next 30 minutes, and five seconds in, you start thinking about bananas. Five minutes in, you remember you were supposed to meditate. But now you also have this irresistible urge to keep following the thought and see where it leads you. What do you do?
The mental noting technique can be divided into three steps:
- Become mindful of the fact that you’ve been thinking. Don’t go back to your object of meditation just yet.
- Make a mental note to yourself, “thinking”. Or If you’re getting angry at the vendor because the bananas weren’t ripe enough, note “angry”.
- Relax your muscles, especially your whole face, and return to the object of meditation. Our muscles usually tighten up and the posture is weakened when we’re lost in thoughts. This is also important as you want to return to meditation with a clean mind.
Noting doesn’t involve analysis. It’s as simple as labeling your experience with one word. For example, if a sound disturbs your practice, note “hearing” without thinking further about the sound. Other common mental notes are “touching”, “thinking”, and “feeling”. You can also give more descriptive labels like “coldness”, “numbness”, “fear”, “excitement”, “resisting”, or “planning”.
Usually, you have to repeat the mental note a few times until the experience is no longer a hindrance.
Also, don’t be too concerned with the rigiht note. The idea is to become mindful, detach, and relax. So don’t think too much about which word to use. Just note the experience and move on. But you also don’t want the noting to become mechanical—it would defeat the very purpose. Adding the third step of relaxation helps with this.
Keep in mind that this technique is to be used sparingly. You don’t need to be on the watch for the whole session. You’re not supposed to note every single thought. Use it only when you’re so caught up in something that you lose awareness of the object of meditation. The moment you realize you’re distracted, use the noting to create some space and let go of it.
The monkey mind is always jumping around and never resting. Meditation is supposed to calm it down, but we find that it’s even crazier during the practice. Mental noting is a useful technique to calm down and center yourself. You can use it during your meditation to refocus the mind. Or you can use it when you feel overwhelmed or bombarded by thoughts and emotions.
Mental noting involves noticing every thought and categorizing it. The noting requires mindfulness of the thought, which immediately brings us back to our object of meditation. And categorization detaches us from the contents of the thought, allowing us to let go of it.
I hope you found this article useful. Good luck.