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  • Writer's pictureSharon Bryce

The Gentle Art of doing "Noting"

The Gentle Art of doing Noting - Dealing with Difficult Emotions to improve Resilience

This week we try out a short meditation practice that uses the senses, body and breath awareness to centre as a launchpad in order to explore our thought life. I also introduce the skill of "noting". 

Noting is another simple skill for dealing with difficult emotions. Many of us are struggling with feelings of anxiety and helplessness right now due to fear of Covid - 19 and fear for an individual and collective unknown future which may seem more insecure. Or perhaps this pandemic has already impacted you and those you love personally. Developing some skills in dealing with emotional turmoil in our inner world can help us navigate the sometimes turbulent waters of life with a little more equanimity. 

Anxiety is a kind of fear and fear is an important emotion that exists for a reason - to help keep us safe. But it can become troublesome when its soundtrack in the mind is always playing because we now know that where our thoughts go our neural firing flows. So when we think anxious thoughts all the time, the areas of the brain that process negative emotions get stronger, and this can make it harder for us to feel happy emotions like joy and awe. We don’t completely get rid of all challenging emotions with meditation but we do learn to accept them as a normal part of our emotional repertoire, observe them with a little bit more mental distance, learn what wisdom we can from them, and have more confidence that they will eventually pass.

Research demonstrates an almost 50% reduction in the intensity of difficult emotions when we take the time to find stillness and become aware not only of the breath, but also of the thoughts that pass through our mind. This is Noting. Dr John Kabat Zinn established the Stress Reduction Clinic and research department at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He says that noting anxious thoughts as they arise has an immediate effect. He describes it as like mentally touching “anxiety” soap bubbles - as soon as we do the bubbles burst and dissolve. Overwhelming emotions become less intense and less frequent. This has been my personal experience.

There are different layers of noting. We’ll explore them in the next few weeks of meditation practice. 

This week we drop into the breath and notice what thoughts carry our attention away. We briefly observe each thought without getting swallowed up in its story and note whether the context of the thought is set in the past, the present or the future. Again we are applying a light attention only and the point is to get a general idea of what is going on in our head. We don’t have to concentrate hard and we don’t have to catch every thought. It can be quite useful to have a go at this every day for a week so we get a general idea of what is preoccupying our internal world.

Finding out whether the stream of our conscious thought is predominantly anchored in the past, present, or future can be useful. As I’ve discussed in previous blogs I don’t believe we always have to be “in the moment.” I think we have a wonderful capacity to recall the past and savour pleasant memories as well as reflect and learn how to be more fully our true selves. I think our ability to anticipate and rehearse future scenarios or plan and set goals is great. And I find there seem to be seasons of time when I might reflect a bit more - at the end of each year for example. And seasons of time where I am more focused on the future - the beginning of each year. But if most of our head-space is focused on the future and/or the past it can be problematic. At least it was for me. Because in the final analysis I can’t change the past and I can’t be sure about the future either. What we do have is the present moment. And if we take the time to think about it often the present moment is pretty OK - so we don’t want to miss out on it ruminating about other things. Suffering in life is a given. I’ve found it nourishing and restorative to develop the ability to stay more grounded in the present and  fully experience and enjoy what every pleasant present moment has to offer rather than continually obsessing about the future or reliving and resenting things that have happened in the past. So the simple act of doing a thought stock-take as we meditate, from time to time and noting where the majority of our thought life is residing from a time perspective is helpful. It can teach us a lot about ourselves. It might even prove to be an incentive to continue learning this skill of meditation. I find it useful to journal with meditation. It has been illuminating to look back at my journal and see how my thought life has changed. There is a strong connection between what we tend to think about and our mood. As I watched my thought life become more present, I noticed a corresponding improvement in mood.

Each time we practice the skill of noting we change neural networks in the brain and step out of the loop that creates the repetitive thoughts that fuel difficult emotions.

We are better able to focus, feel happier and more content and this has a positive impact on our relationships.

Some benefits of introducing this meditation practice to my life were:

  1. A generally quieter mind with less racing thoughts, less jumping from thought to thought. 

  2. Less discomfort with difficult thoughts, feelings and sensations.

  3. Able to settle into stillness faster and enjoy it more.

  4. Feeling relaxed and peaceful at the end of the practice

  5. Recurrent emerging themes in my thought life lead to life changes that resulted in less anxiety

  6. Less emotional reactivity

  7. Quicker recovery when confronted with stressful situations

  8. Improved ability to concentrate, plan and make decisions

  9. Improved ability to be in the moment, savour life, and appreciate simple pleasures

  10. Better able to let stuff go.

Its not a magic wand. I’m still very human and there will always be moments when life just sucks. Meditation is a tool that helps me manage my emotional life. 

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