Using words to focus attention

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

Lecture 4, Part 3 of 17 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, mentally look it over for a few seconds. You can either note just internally and/or you can put a verbal label on it – foot, knee, foot, right hand, foot, something like that if your focusing on location of sensations – or you can actually say the label out loud.

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 (CAP) – 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, 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.

[Note added later – Shinzen Young’s websites (, e.g.) have excellent and detailed info on this]

What else happened?


  1. I’ve been trying to be consistent with meditation. I think I’m getting better at, but sometimes I’m not any good at it at all! I totally sucked at it today. I couldn’t go to the park where I like to meditate because it was raining. So I tried it at home, but it wasn’t working out very well for me. I gave up on meditation and decided to sit by the window and watch the storm for a while instead.

    I wasn’t meditating, but I did feel really quiet watching the rain come down. It had all the good parts of meditation. The quietness inside, the feeling of being connected to everything, the vividness of the images and getting lost in them. The timeless quality.

    Is it better to tough it out and do the meditation thing even if it isn’t doing anything but frustrating the heck out of you? Or is it OK to just cut yourself some slack and maybe not meditate for a while if it isn’t working?

    1. You have a lot of talent there, Sandy, but you really should be getting guidance from a good meditation teacher, not from someone like me who is more scholar and beginner than meditation teacher. I can get people started, then they need to get higher level guidance. I again recommend Shinzen Young (

      1. I guess I feel better getting advice from a scientist than just from a guy who meditates. I wouldn’t even have tried meditation at all if you hadn’t made it seem not quite so flaky to me.

        I have looked at the site you’ve mentioned. I tend to feel way out of my league with the material presented. And it doesn’t answer questions like what to do when your meditating turns on the TV accidentally. But I will give it another look.

        1. If your car was running badly, would you take it to a PhD physicist who specialized in quantum mechanics, or to a mechanic at a local garage?

          I can assure you that 99%+++ of scientists know nothing about meditation.
          I’m a rare scientist who knows a little, but it’s just to get people started, I have no idea how to advise them when gets advanced or complicated.
          So don’t give me too much authority!

  2. Dr Tart, I didn’t mean to put you under any pressure, lol. It reminds of the joke “How many PhDs does it take to screw in a light bulb?” (The answer being that no amount of PhDs can change a light bulb because while the PhDs are all debating methodology, a grad student will get tired of sitting in the dark listening to them natter on and change it herself/himself.)

    I don’t find looking for a teacher of meditation very easy or accessible. I actually signed up for a class at university on meditation, but when I got there and looked around, the flaky factor just made me feel way out of my element. I turned around and never went back.

    That could explain some of the pk accidents that happen when I meditate. I stress myself out on some level just trying to meditate because it just seems like something I shouldn’t be doing. I’m trying to fix things, find nice neat explanations and cure myself of the weird stuff. Logically, I know that isn’t likely to happen. But maybe deep down I’m not ready to give up on that yet. So the TV turns on when I’m meditating. It’s like my unconscious is saying, “So there!”

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