Practicing meditation can be tough. At least, in the beginning, it can be really difficult.
Your mind can get lost in thoughts or space out. Not that it is wrong. As I have always said it is not a problem.
But it can feel hard, not being able to pay attention, when you are starting to meditate.
What can you do to help make the meditation practice easy? I have listed out several things you can do to ‘improve’ your meditation experience.
Then there is noting and labeling.
Noting and labeling are a technique developed by 20th century Burmese Buddhist monk Mahasi Sayadaw.
The purpose of a mindfulness or meditation practice is to pay attention or become aware. It is paying attention in a gentle, kind and non-judgmental way.
Noting and labeling can help facilitate paying attention in this particular way. Or you can say that noting and labeling can help facilitate mindfulness practice in general.
Let’s first define what noting and labeling are.
The dictionary definition of ‘to note’ is to notice or pay particular attention. In other words, noting is same as paying attention.
Noting or paying attention actually has two phases.
- Orient attention or start paying attention or start noticing.
- Focus or sustain the attention or continue noticing.
If you take the example of breathing meditation. You initially start noticing the breath. Or you can say that initially you orient your attention to the breath.
And subsequently you focus on the breath or you sustain the attention on the breath.
Noting is not really something fancy or new. By default in meditation practice, you pick an object of attention like the breath. And you start noting the object.
Also, noting can be done with labeling or without labeling. Usually, if you don’t know about labeling you note without labeling.
It is actually labeling that can really help make meditation easy. As it can help paying attention or becoming aware.
To label means to say a word or a phrase that describes what you are noting.
As you can notice, in labeling you say the word or the phrase that you are noting. There are two different ways to say the label.
- Labeling using the mental voice.
- Labeling using the actual voice.
You can say the label using the mental voice. Which only you can hear.
Or you can label using the actual voice. Which others can hear if they happen to be present.
You can label using the actual voice in three different ways.
- Labeling using a whisper voice, murmur voice or a low-tone voice.
- Label using the normal voice.
- Label using a loud voice.
As you can see, you can label using the whisper voice, which is not mental voice. It is actual sound, but it is low-tone, so even the person next to you cannot hear it.
When you label using the normal voice or loud voice, people around you can hear what you are saying.
Let’s take an example of labeling with breathing meditation.
You being by starting to note the breath. Then you can start labeling the breath. Your word or phrase for breathing can literally be ‘breathing’.
Or you can make it more granular. You can note the inhalation and exhalation separately. You can use label ‘In’ and ‘Out’ or you can use ‘Inhalation’ and ‘Exhalation’ or you can use anything else.
The label has to convey what you are noticing. It cannot be completely arbitraty. For example you can potentially label inhalation as ‘Up’ and exhalation as ‘Down’ also.
But if you lable inhalation as ‘John’ and exhaltion as ‘Charlie’, that might not be very helpful. Although you can establish that relationship in the long run.
Also you want to continue to label during meditation. In breathing meditation as you continue to breath, you want to continue to lable the breath.
Also labeling is done at a relaxed pace. You only want to allow 3 to 6 seconds between two successive lables.
Combinations of Noting and Labeling
Based on the different types of labeling and noting methods listed so far, there are total 5 combinations of noting and labeling can be done.
- Just noting and no labeling
- Noting with labeling using purely mental voice
- Noting with labeling using acutal whisper sound
- Noting with labeling using actual normal sound
- Noting with labeling using actual loud sound
This classification leads us to the question, how to go about choosing a specific combination of noting and labeling.
Think of label helping you focus. When you need help focusing you use label. More you need help focusing, stronger the label you use.
If you think you are having a lot of trouble staying focused, use combination #5, where you use the label with loudest actual sound.
And from there depending on the strength of your concentration go up the list of combinations. When you think your concentration is effortless use no label at all.
Also the key with labeling is that, whenever you are able to note something you label it. For example, let’s say that you decided to focus on the breath as the primary object of attention.
After a while you realized that you were lost in thoughts. As soon as you notice thoughts, you can start labeling ‘thinking’ using one of the options. If the thought persists you continue labeling ‘thinking’ at a leisurely pace.
But if in the next moment, you notice a strong physical sensation, like an itch, you start noting ‘itching’ and you stay with that label as long as that sensation remains strong and demands your attention.
Then as soon as you are able to go back to the breath you can go back to the label ‘breathing’ or ‘inhaling’ and ‘exhaling’.
In short, no matter what the primary object of attention, whatever you are noticing in the moment, that is what you label.
You can use labeling to help focus during meditation.
There are five different ways you can label your experience during meditation.
Depending upon the strength of your concentration you can choose appropriate labeling option.