Using Words to Focus Attention: Noting and Labeling

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 4, Part 3 of 18 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

CTT: What else did people experience this week?

Student: I thought it was easy to verbalize my sensations during the meditation, versus having my eyes closed. So verbalizing for me was easier to track the sensations in my body.

CTT: Okay. Yes. If you are ever having difficulty doing an exercise like this and you’re doing this at home, and your mind is really totally jazzed up and spaced out or whatever, you might try just verbalizing aloud. That can help you focus sometimes.

In formal Vipassana systems, this is a technique known as noting. Rather than just be aware of what the moving focus is – let’s say body sensations in this case – you specifically note each one. You can either note just internally by putting a mental label on it – foot, knee, foot, right hand, foot, something like that – or you can actually say it out loud. The latter is adding a labeling process to the noting process.

If you’re really flummoxed and distracted, saying it out loud will help you focus in much better. Then as your concentration improves and you follow it better, you can just drop it to just mental noting. And if you’re doing pretty well on that, you can actually stop the internal, verbal words and just follow the pure sensation itself.

The goal of this kind of controlled attention practice – Vipassana – is to have a really clear and even-handed, equanimous perception of the whole flow of your experience. One of the reasons we don’t normally have that is that we’re caught up in talking to ourselves and imagining things to ourselves, judging things, and that makes us lose a lot of sensory input, a lot of bodily feelings, and so forth.

So you can just try to brute force stop it and say, “I won’t think. I won’t have any images. I’m just going to experience touch sensations.” Sometimes you can do it, but most of the time that’s pretty hard. So this way, as long as that verbal process is going to happen anyway, you put it to use in a way that helps you. Some part of your mind is just desperate to make words.

Good. It can make labels that can fit with whatever the strongest body sensation of the moment is.

But you don’t want to stick with that forever. You want to come back closer and closer to the pure experience. Not that it’s bad to use words, but you don’t want to confuse the words with the realities that they are about. You want to keep those things distinct.

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