Having a 20 minute regular mediation practice is a habit that will impact your life in a positive way for the other 1420 minutes of the day. Mediation reshapes the mind, rebuilds the brain’s grey matter, and fundamentally changes our relationship to thoughts. We cannot help but live differently once we have adopted this practice.
That first big eureka moment with relation to thoughts is “I am not my thoughts, I am the person who sees them.” Many a post could and likely will be done on this concept, but what I want to talk today about is a technique that can help get us to this first big break through.
I often have students ask me “James, I’m meditating each morning but how do I remember to be that calm person later when I’m going about my day?” Many report really enjoying their mediation sessions, but they want to feel this good all the time. As they strengthen the habit and deepen the practice, benefits can’t help but spill over into daily life; for accelerating that process I recommend a technique known as “noting.”
Noting is meditation technique we can use in our daily lives to strengthen our awareness, specifically the awareness that we are not the thoughts we think, we are the person who experiences these thoughts.
The basic technique is as follows: at any point throughout the day when you realize your mind is working hard thinking about something that is not necessary at that moment, essentially you’re going to turn your thinking mind off and just be doing whatever it is you’re doing without the background story. This technique is simple but impactful.
When you realize that your mind is working on overdrive and you are obsessing over something that cannot be changed in that present moment, this technique helps you turn your thinking mind off and pull you back into the present moment.
The first key to Noting is acknowledgement. We say to ourselves “Ok, I’m thinking a lot about x” x being whatever is on your mind. We don’t have to draw any conclusions about why these thoughts are there, we just acknowledge it, and then choose instead to focus on the task at hand. You might just notice what the thoughts were, like “thoughts about planning”or “feeling of doubt” “feeling of worry” “feeling of low self worth” and then just let it go and go back to your task.
The second key to Noting is that decision to let go of the thought we acknowledged. We admit and accept that it was there, but we do not attach to it, identify with it or choose to focus on it. Rather we direct our attention back to the present moment and the current task at hand. This may seem hard at first, but like any new skill, with mindful repetition we can build it into a habit and it won’t feel so difficult.
This technique shines in daily tasks like eating, walking, folding clothes, and washing the dishes. If you have learned to perform a task without needing to think about it, then you may have also learned to fill that mental space with restless thinking.
The habit to overthink during these lulls in our days stems from a desire to be more efficient. It makes sense why at a glance it would seem useful, but many issues of our lives are easier solved when we turn our computing mind off. Problems generally aren’t solved with the same thinking that created them, so giving your brain a break and a reset is often far more valuable that rerunning the same analysis from angle after angle.
Instead, all we are going to do is notice when we are distracted, no need to judge, just to acknowledge. Then we simply return to the present moment without these thoughts. If we find ourselves distracted again, we just acknowledge and come back again. As many times as it happens we can always keep returning to the present moment.
By letting go of this need to think and returning to a place of restful clarity, we are being kinder to ourselves. To give ourselves a break is to demonstrate a bit of self-love and a bit of grace. When we let go of our obsession with solving a problem, we end the suffering in that moment. Often when we do this, at a later point in our day we will either realize that our problem was not so big as it seemed, and perhaps was no problem at all, or a solution will arise in our mind. These peaceful forms of resolution can only work their way to the surface of our consciousness when we give both our mind and our self room to breath.
Stress, struggle and suffering around issues we tend to compulsively think about is self created. Not only are we the author of the problems we hope to solve, but our whole method of solving them tends to be unnecessary and unhelpful. We overthink our daily trials and tribulations, building them up into insurmountable problems. Then in an effort to combat this, we obsess further about the problem because we with a big problem needs a perfect solution. This attempt at a remedy to our original overthinking only compounds the problem. If we have done this our whole life thus far, then it may seem like the only way there is to think. This brings us to our second eureka moment of mediation.
If we are not our thoughts, we are the person who sees them, then the way we think is not the only way we could think.
It’s as if you could wake up one day and suddenly see the world through a different set of eyes. To do this we must choose different thoughts to focus on and resonate with; we must practice asking ourselves “is this useful” about every thought that arises until we learn our way forward. If we continually raise our awareness and put in this work then over time we will change the default programming in our brain to the point where we won’t even recognize the old ways in which we use to think. It may not happen overnight, but with dedicated practice we can rewire our brain to work more harmoniously in our lives.
I personally started using this technique in the shower or while I was toweling off as I realized apparently I’ve always thought I could solve my life’s troubles in 15 wet minutes. Instead of feeling refreshed I’d often just succeeded in stressing myself out to start my day. It’s not so fun to be in constant adrenaline mode. We want to be able to accomplish our goals from a place of peaceful relaxed focus and engagement.
Another excellent time to practice noting is when you are eating or drinking something. Acknowledge what you may be thinking about, let it go, turn off any TV or music and just look more deeply at your food. Watch how it responds to your fork, observe the method with with you cut and move the food around your plate and up toward your mouth. Taste your food! Notice how you chew, how the food separates, how you swallow and how you choose your next bite.
You might realize you’re doing a whole lot of things automatically but they are actually pretty impressive if you take the time to notice. When you turn off the chatter and the distractions, it can feel like we are turning up our other senses. This allows us to get more enjoyment benefit from our food.
We tend to decide about the value of food, products and activities based on their price, quantity and quality, but it’s the quality of our experience with these things that truly matters. You can have the nicest meal in the world, but if you chow it down while watching television it’s going to be a different experience than if you tune yourself in, and tune your thinking mind out.
There are many ways to go through life, and we don’t always have the time for dialed in awareness to every activity. We do however, have that time a lot more often than we think. Play around with noting and you might rediscover a lot of life’s simple joys, and also find some reprieve from the stressful story we tell ourselves a whole lot more often than is useful.