Noting and Labeling

Concentration is the ability to attend to what you consider important while allowing unrelated sensory activity or information to play out in the background of your awareness.

Most people get discouraged by how difficult it is to rest their attention on one simple sensory aspect of experience at a time. They are convinced that being pulled away by distractions every few seconds is evidence of a unique and permanent shortcoming. 

However, adjusting your expectations based on the length of the human attention span can help you develop your ability to concentrate. 

Mindfulness practice involves tracking aspects of ordinary experience as precisely as possible while allowing these observations to come and go with less interference. The noting technique creates a structure for maintaining both of these qualities of attention. Using mental or spoken labels is a technique that supports noting.

Let’s consider what happens in the absence of these strategies. First we select something to notice. Let’s say we’ve picked the breath. We set and start a timer and then we try to rest our attention on the physical sensations related to breathing. When the mind wanders, we gently steer it back to rest on the breath. That’s it. Each time we return to the object of our attention practice, we strengthen the ability to concentrate.

Our minds wander. It’s what they do. This is a significant part of what we’re becoming more familiar with over time. Given free reign, our attention is very likely to slip right back into its familiar thinking grooves without our noticing this for several minutes.

If we break our practice time into smaller segments, however, it can feel more like using a leash to take a dog for a walk. This gives our awareness less wiggle room for exploring. Every few seconds we reestablish the connection with what we’re doing – paying attention to direct experience.

Consider all the skills that require some mechanism for staying mentally orientated. Musicians and dancers count measures of music in their minds to learn a new piece, stay oriented within it, and to keep track of their cues. Nurses mentally tick off heartbeats while waiting for their thermometers to register a temperature. People working out at the gym count the repetitions of an exercise and swimmers come up with methods for counting out components of a particular stroke or for attempting to remember which lap they’re on.

What is Noting?

Noting is very similar to these techniques.

To note something means to notice it clearly and then to focus on it intently and gently for a few seconds or until it comes to an end.

Let's look at these two distinct parts of noting:

  1. First, there is an initial noticing. We try to be very clear about what it is we’re observing. Sometimes we let our attention be drawn to a sensory experience. Sometimes we intentionally draw our attention to it. In either case, we take a short time to be as clear as possible about where we’re about to spend the next few seconds. 
  2. Second, there is a period of allowing the attention to rest on the target.  It is important to practice in this way without evaluating what we’re noticing or getting caught up in its meaning. Remember that we are working with direct experience instead of the content of our personal narrative. Try your best to allow what you’re observing – just this one aspect of it – to be just as it is for a few seconds.  

With practice, the first phase begins to take less and less time, leaving more time left over for the relaxed observation.

And we can get better at the initial noticing by working with labels. 

What is Labeling?

Noting strengthens attention; labeling supports noting.

To label means to think or say a word or phrase that describes what you are noting.

For breath awareness, as an example, the commonly used labels are INHALE/EXHALE, RISING/FALLING, IN/OUT. Some meditators count their breaths up to a specific number such as from one-to-two, one-to-four, or one-to-ten.

The strategies I practice and share were developed by Shinzen Young to be specific enough to make clear distinctions among complex ordinary sensory phenomena while being general enough to develop experiential attention instead of the common default mode of narrative attention. The basic labels — SEE, HEAR, FEEL, IN, OUT, REST, FLOW, and GONE  can be cleverly combined to fit any situation. In this way, the ordinary experiences of daily life provide endless opportunities for developing attentional fitness.     

Speaking the labels out loud can be a powerful way to train your ability to concentrate. If you have the opportunity to practice in this way, I highly recommend it. There is something about the tangible presence of the spoken words that help keep us from drifting too far away from what we’re attempting to observe. I like to use spoken labels when I’m applying mindfulness strategies to walking or running or when I’m feeling particularly scattered. If I’m in a situation where I would feel self-conscious speaking the labels, I’ve found that mouthing the words can be just as effective.   

When you speak the labels out loud, use a low, gentle, matter-of-fact tone of voice. When you think the labels, create the same tone in your mental voice. The tone of voice actually helps put you into a deeper state of focus and concentration.

Note and label at a leisurely pace, allowing somewhere between four and ten seconds between each label. This pace allows you to soak in and savor each experience as you note it. It also establishes a rhythm and feedback loop to help you become aware right away when your mind has wandered off.

Remember: You Always Have Options

You can shift gears from spoken labels, to mental labels, to no labels at all based on the degree of concentration you’re experiencing.

You can even miss some aspect of experience that you didn’t notice until it had already passed. Don’t worry. You will very have plenty of other opportunities to. Realizing that you missed something is actually an excellent sign that your precision is growing.

You can be behind in your noting. Maybe the sensory event is nearly over before you realize it’s there. Not a problem. Pick it up where you find it and savor what’s left. You’ll find that the more concentration you have, the more your noting will sync up with an ordinary experience as it comes and goes.

Savor the Benefits of Practice

Practice frequently enough to give these techniques a chance to work.

If I don’t walk the dog consistently, she will continue to pull on the leash and bark at strangers and trash cans when I do take her out. If I commit to daily walks, however, I may find that she soon begins to respond to the clear boundaries that I consistently and gently impose and the praise she gets for demonstrating the desired behavior. I come to appreciate the way she responds to the consistency by being a bit less likely to get caught up in every potential distraction. This leads to even more praise. We both start to look forward to our walks because we've experienced these and other benefits of the exercise.

Something similar happens when developing the skill of concentration. The nervous system comes to enjoy exercising this natural capacity. It's as if it's been waiting for you to allow and encourage its development all along.