Friday, August 27, 2010

Labeling or Felt Noting?

4 Questions About Mental Noting During Meditation.
With great respect, I continue to read Ayya Khema. This time on how to work with strong emotions and thoughts during meditation:
A very important way to work with these is to label them, drop them, and then go back to the breath . . . 
. . . We give the disturbance a name, identify it, so that we know what it is; then we drop it and get back to the breath. The thought or emotion dissolves by itself after having been labeled, because we have become an objective observer. We are no longer subjective. As an observer we watch the occurrence, but we do not go into it, and therefore there is space for the emotion to fold up and vanish.
If Ayya Khema was still alive, I would engage her in the following questioning:
What happens when one cannot clearly identify the emotion and the bodily sensations associated with it?
Even when one 'knows' the emotion that is experienced, doesn't labeling run the risk of tying one into thinking mind?
Instead of labeling, would it be more beneficial instead to engage in felt noting? - I just made up the expression felt noting, to describe the act of experiential noting, in felt, not verbalized sense. When I sit, I am aware of various states, in deeply felt sense. 
Does putting words on experience run risk of reducing it? Even if I know I am experiencing anger, the word anger itself is loaded with connotations that may not do justice to the more complete, felt experience. Same with the breath. Rather than noting 'rising, falling, rising, falling . . .' as instructed by U Pandita, for instance, woudn't a more skillful way be to just be with the experience of each in and out breath?

What is your take?


  1. Hi Marguerite,

    I'm sure that there's some really great advice around labelling thoughts in Joko Beck's book 'Everday Zen'. I don't want to mis-quote her so I'll look up some passages that may help when I get home this evening.

    Much Metta,


  2. May I guess a reply:

    Buddha developed many methods to cut at the habits of mind that create dukkha. There are many meditation techniques to cure various habits. Philosophical Buddhism is more interested in protecting its philosophy than ending suffering. Labeling an emotion is useful. The thinking mind, when used correctly, is useful to help extinguish bad habits. The thinking mind is useful for much. The Buddha was not primarily worried about "reducing experience" but with suffering.

  3. Hi Marguerite,
    What an interesting question. I would say that giving an unknown feeling or sensation a label would be difficult but effective. It might not matter if the label i "true" or not. So much of our time is spent labeling our experience, so we can go on to the next thing. I think this is what she means by giving the feeling a label. On the other hand I do not practice this. I avoid labeling anything, unless it is needed for communication. When the need to label arises I usually make a "joke" about it. Create some kind on diversion instead of making the situation a noun. Then return to being open minded, and open hearted.


  4. Thank you Wes. I have heard great things about Jojo Beck! I really should read her book. Meanwhile, I will settle with quotes, kindly selected by you . . .

  5. Sabio, I understand your point. And I also wonder about the ability of the thinking mind to capture the present experience. When we say pain, what do we mean? When we say anger, what do we mean? We speak from a very relative reality, one trapped by our personal stories.

  6. Chana, I am with you in terms of noting that something is happening. Actually, maybe even more to the point is noticing, all the fine changes moment to moment.

  7. Do you know about focusing... which is using the "felt sense" to understand what is happening within us? I think this speaks to the difference you point about between labeling and felt-noticing.

    I sometimes find that labeling can become somewhat rote and a bit perfunctory for me. There are many times that labeling can help bring some measure of resolve, but there are other times that it seems that whatever is arising is inviting me to more fuller experience before it can resolve. I think there is a way to do this without getting all wrapped up in the story of it, and I can see how the felt-sense (aka felt-noticing, focusing) allows for a more accurate labeling, whether the labels are verbal or not.

    Here is an article by David Rome in Shambala Sun, about focusing:

    Searching for the Truth that Is Far Below the Search

    And another resource on focusing in general, not necessarily tied to Buddhist practice:

    <a href=">Focusing</a>

    I've written about my experiences with Focusing (as part of Hakomi therapy) on my blog as well.


  8. Found it! As usual, what Joko says is incredibly simple and to-the-point:

    "Be specific in your labeling: not just 'thinking, thinking' or 'worrying, worrying' but a specific label. For example: 'having a thought that she's very bossy'...And if the thoughts are tumbling out so fast that you can't find anything except confusion, then just label the foggy mess 'confusion.' But if you persist in trying to find a separate thought, sooner or later you will."

    I think that I may have misunderstood your initial question, but I hope this helps you some anyway.

    Much Metta,


  9. Thanks Wes. So many ways to sit and be present . . .

  10. Stacy, thank you for bringing up 'focusing'. I had forgotten about it. Used to practice it many many years ago.

    This discussion has been most interesting, particularly regarding the range of responses. Where I am going next, is to go back to the original teachings and read once more, where the Buddha stands on this. :)

  11. hi, does it have to be one or the other? can we not use both label and and when they fit..if it's a simple identifiable emotion, label - if it's more of a confusing mix of emotions felt? either way seeing it and letting go..

  12. Thank you Sue! Love your AND approach. Amazing how thinking mind tends to divide, rather than unify . . . :)

  13. Labeling is vitakka or aiming. If you're already able to aim and hit the target, you may drop labeling if you find it disturbing.

  14. Hi Margeurite,

    As I've recently taken up noting as my base meditation practice, so I'll take a shot at answering your questions:

    1) If you can't clearly label a feeling, an approximate label is just as good. The actual label is not as important as the feeling, but forcing ourselves to come up with a label has the convenient side effect of forcing us to pay attention. Also, multiple labels for the same sensation sometimes works for me, though I do have to be careful of a tendency to overdo it and get lost in the details.

    2) Labeling uses the thinking mind as a tool of meditation. Just as you wouldn't expect to suddenly lose your ability to think if you became "enlightened", practice toward enlightenment can make use of thoughts. We should not be subject to our thoughts, but neither should we ignore them. And when engaging in continual noting, our focus becomes our experience (not our thoughts) because we need to have something to note.

    3) "Felt" noting is kind of the foundation of regular noting. If you don't feel it, you can't note it. But if you feel it and don't note it, there's no sense of "dropping it to return to the breath". The label/note is a way of acknowledging the feeling and including it in your practice while still maintaining your focus on the breath (or whatever primary object of meditation one uses).

    4) Labels really only limit experience if you take them seriously. If you just consider them a label, a way of acknowledged the feeling/thought/sensation, then the feeling itself is primary and the note is only a note. Nothing is reduced if we consider the note to be more an arbitrary marker of experience.

    At least, this seems to be how it works in my experience. Oh, and it works much much better if you note out loud, even if only whispered to yourself quietly. There's something about the awareness required to speak the word that really helps bring me out of my head when noting.

  15. Thank you Ian, for being so generous in your sharing!

    Gil Fronsdal had us go through the exercise once, of labeling out loud our moment to moment perceptions. We did this in dyads. The point was for us to understand how little it takes to be mindful. No need to apply too much energy, really.

  16. Yes, that's a good one! I've been working with Kenneth Folk lately, and we've done the same thing. Its great having another presence engaged in your practice.

  17. Thank you Ian. Did you see this recent post on Kenneth Folk?

    I love his approach. You picked a good teacher!

  18. Good discussion; sorry I'm a bit behind in my blog reading. Marguerite, I recall, from a retreat with Jason Siff, that he advocated keeping a post meditation journal. After each sit, one would write down the thoughts that had arisen and were noted. Then, one might detect a pattern that might be useful.

    Recently, I listened to Ajahn Amaro, who gave a Dharma talk on Wise Contemplation. The idea is that there may be some thoughts, that arise during meditation, that one might want to investigate, and others that one should just put aside. For example, if I remember that I hadn't paid the gas bill, I would note it and put it aside. However, if a memory of an argument with my friend arose, and brought a strong feeling, I might want to investigate with hopes of gaining some insight into the feeling.

    What sometimes helps me is to set my intention when I first start to meditate. So, one morning, I may just want to focus on my breath as a way of centering to start the day. Another time, I may want to work on my concentration and not following any thoughts. Other times, I may wish to be more contemplative and start with an open question and follow my breath until something happens. As another poster suggested, our minds are our tools to use as best help us at the moment. Here is the link to Ajahn Amaro's find talk on contemplation.

    In Peace,

  19. Thank you John, for sharing your wisdom. I will listen to Ajahn Amaro's talk.

    I just have one question for you. If we are to be truly present to the moment, does setting a priori intention perverts our ability to be with what is? This is something I have been wondering about a lot lately. It makes sense to start with the breath since that is what is usually present at the start of a sit, but then who is to say? This is different from decision to do one pointed meditation vs. choice free awareness. The former is a practice meant to stretch our concentration muscle, and so that when we practice broader insight meditation, our awareness can be more razor sharp. Am I making any sense? :)