Meditation 10: Mahasi Vipassana (or The Art of Noting) – Part 1

And when my mind is wandering,

Mono_pensador

there I will go.
And it really doesn’t matter
if I’m wrong, 
I’m right where I belong.
(from ‘Fixing a Hole’ by John Lennon and Paul McCartney)

I like my meditation practice to be simple and yet usually, I also like to have some kind of structure.  The hope being that this structure might just help to reduce the wanderings of my restless mind into those places that lie just beyond my field of conscious observation.  Developed by the influential Burmese Buddhist monk Mahasi Sayadaw (1904 – 1982), this particular method of Insight meditation provides the structure needed to aid concentration and awareness with each passing moment.

My intention here is only to provide a brief overview, based on my own experience and interpretation, of the practical elements of this technique and as such I will not be discussing it within the original Theravada Buddhist context.  If what follows is of interest to you then I must recommend that you seek further, and more expert, advice – ideally in person (such as on a retreat) or via a website or book.  It is highly likely that this advice will come in the form of Buddhist teaching, however there is no need to be Buddhist or subscribe to Buddhist doctrine to partake and enjoy the benefits.  A couple of recommendations that I offer are this article, which is a translated transcript of an instructional talk by Mahasi Sayadaw and the retreat centre where I was taught to ‘note’, Satipanya – on the Shropshire/ Welsh border, run by Bante Bodhidhamma (who also leads regular retreats at Gaia House in Devon).

Okay, so with the passing of that all too brief introduction – owing as it does to the referencing of more detailed sources – I will get right on to my semi-instructional account of Mahasi Vippassana, or as I prefer to call it – Noting Meditation.

Noting – well what is it anyway?

The most popular form of meditation in the UK at the moment seems to be that of concentrating on the breath, which I believe (in the Buddhist tradition) is a form of Samatha.  The idea seems to be that this develops ones powers of concentration between each passing moment, with additional benefits arising out of this.  While Noting Meditation does incorporate a significant amount of breath focus, it also allows the mind to roam by switching the meditator’s attention to the object of the minds wandering.

Most other forms of meditation teach that it is best to avoid language, or any intentional mental formations, and to instead just experience each moment as it is.  There are good reasons for this but it can be difficult to maintain – I for one need an anchor.  Noting breaks from this convention by allowing the use of words to identify (note) and maintain concentration on experience, although one must be careful to select words that are least likely to lead off into unhelpful mental ruminations.

Posture

When meditating I tend to sit cross legged in the formal, and perhaps poncy looking Burmese style – but I do not feel that this is an imperative, as I will discuss in the part 2, noting can be employed in pretty much any situation.   Although the predominant school of thought teaches that sitting cross legged enables the greatest level of concentration and alertness, there have already been several discussions here arguing the merits, or lack thereof, of such a view.  I would personally say that if you already sit cross legged for meditation then continue to do so, but if you prefer to sit in a chair, stand or even lie down then these techniques will still be easy to follow.  The important thing is that you can be safe, comfortable and able to maintain a good level of focus – it’s not easy to do this when you are asleep.

How do I note?

Once you are in your preferred posture it is a good idea to try and settle the mind – again if you already have a routine for this, such as a body scan, then stick with that.  If not then you can begin noting right away.  Perhaps begin with a couple of deep breaths and then start noting the word ‘sitting’ or ‘standing’ or whatever word best describes your chosen position.

By ‘noting’ what I mean is to repeat your chosen word over and over again – this should be internal, there is no need to audibly vocalize.  The word, however, is only a tool by which to frame your experience, so at this point just feel what it is like to sit or stand.  As you are repeating the word (sitting, sitting, sitting… standing, standing, standing) also experience the physical sensation of sitting (or standing) as a whole activity  – at this point we are only settling and focusing the mind.

After a few minutes transfer your focus to the breath, where it will remain for a while before allowing your mind a little more freedom.  As you breathe hold your attention at the abdomen, feeling how it rises with the in-breath and falls with the out-breath.  As the abdomen rises note ‘rising… rising… rising’, and as the abdomen falls note ‘falling… falling… falling’.  As with many other forms of meditation the idea here is not to take control but to experience each breath as it comes.  I would recommend trying to maintain this intentional, Samatha style concentration for around 5 – 10 minutes, the purpose being to nurture a basic level of focus and provide a platform from which the attention can start from and return to as necessary.  So, for this first period just gently bring your attention back to the abdomen each time that it wanders.

After 5 -10 minutes you should be ready to gently release some of the slack from those mental reigns.  Continue to focus on the breath, but now if the mind is stimulated by a distraction change your noting word appropriately.  The word that I would choose depends on the nature of the distraction and I will discuss some possibilities below.

Before I continue, it is worth saying a little about how often one should keep the focus on any given experience.  Some sources say that one should keep the focus where it is, until the distraction has passed.  For example if it is a sound – a dog barking for instance – then one might repeat the word; ‘sound… sound… sound…’ until either the noise has ceased or it has no longer become the main focus of attention.  If the noise has ceased and there is nothing else to grab your attention then return to the breath.  If there is something that muscles in on your focus then make this the object of the noting.

Other sources that I have come across suggest a slightly different approach, where by one notes the distraction in between breaths.  With the example of the barking dog that might go a little like this; ‘rising… rising… rising… falling… falling… falling… sound… rising… rising… rising… falling… falling…’ and so on.

I tend to use a combination of both depending on how pervasive the distraction is and how high my levels of concentration are at the time.  If they are high I might stay with the sound but if they are low and I am regularly wandering without any particular point of focus then I will incorporate the breath as a helpful foothold.

Which Words Should I Use?

As mentioned above it is important that any words used are as neutral and free from judgement as possible, they should be single words and not preceded or followed by any intentional embellishment.  If your face is itching then the word should just be ‘itching’, not ‘face itching’ and certainly not ‘my face is itching’.  You should not be attempting to imagine a face itching or an abdomen rising or a dog barking – although that will happen – rather one is only trying to experience these things as they occur.  The purpose of noting words are not to describe or add to what is happening but rather to assist us in our mindful observations.

The amount of possible distractions is practically infinite and it is not possible to suggest words for each and every eventuality.  Instead I will briefly discuss what I think are the three main categories of distraction Physical, Cognitive and Emotional.

Physical:

For me it is the physical events that are easiest to identify and it is here that I spend most of my time.  I also think that it is the physical occurrences that are easiest to note.  Here are the most common (or perhaps obvious) sensations with examples of words that I use in my practice:

  1. Itching.  I use the word ‘itching’, as discussed above.
  2. Pins and needles.  Usually it’s ‘tingling’ although this might alter with varying intensities.
  3. Pain.  I tend not to refer to it as ‘pain’, which I think has negative connotations. Instead I will note the type of pain – so it might be ‘sharp’, ‘tight’ or some such identification.
  4. Temperature.  Again this depends on what the temperature is, so it could be ‘cool’, ‘warm’, ‘hot’ or ‘cold’.

There are many other, more subtle physical sensations that will arise, such as the sensation of the hands touching each other or the feet touching the floor.  The key word here is touching – as the attention if focused on the hands resting against each other the noting word ‘touching’ can be used.

Cognitive:

Cognitive distractions are very common in my practice and are the ones that lead inevitably away from the mindfulness that I am trying to nurture.  My method of noting thoughts is very simple but it can be more complicated if you wish.  For a more detailed account of how to note various cognitive thoughts you can probably not go too far wrong than referring here, to Mahasi Sayadaw himself.

Rather than analyse the type of thought too deeply I only note the very basic characteristics.  This might just be a word such as ‘thinking’, ‘planning’, or ‘remembering’.  I think that it’s here where it may be easiest to fall into the trap of feeding – rather than being mindful of – an over-active imagination, which is why I like to keep the words very simple and nondescript.  If done effectively the very act of noting will stop the train of thought in its tracks and one can return their focus to the breath, or whatever object happens to tickle our restless fancy.

Emotion:

I find emotion very difficult to identify while I am meditating, unless it happens to be quite strong.  More often than not, however, my emotions are very subtle and do not grab my attention.  When they do it is usually a response to some kind of cognitive activity like anticipating an exam or remembering doing something well, the former might make me anxious and the latter happy – both of which would also be my noting words.

There are of course, a huge array of emotions, some highly intrusive and many understated.   I imagine that with experience one can become able to note many emotions with ease but until this happens automatically I do not think that it is a good idea to spend time searching  – only note what comes to the surface, of it’s own accord.

I like this technique a lot – it is the one that I use most often.  I like the relative freedom that it affords but I also like the structure it enables – with this method, what might be considered distractions can be transformed into phenomena on which we can meditate.  However there is a slight paradox here:  in order to develop mindfulness, which supposedly exists before our brains create their mental formations, we are using a kind of mental formation.  It is helpful then, to consider this technique as a stepping stone from which the active process of ‘noting’ can gradually be dropped.  I would also suggest that this technique is used in conjunction with other styles (not necessarily at the same time), although this is only my personal view.

Noting is not only for use in formal meditation and Part 2 will discuss how this technique can be useful and rewarding in almost any situation – from opening a door to cleaning a toilet.

About Richard Flanagan

I’m an Operating Department Practitioner who works for my local NHS trust in Shropshire, UK. I’m married with two young children (plus two dogs and a corn snake) and am currently undertaking an Open University degree in History. I listen to a lot of music of all genres, but especially Rock (Punk, Alternative etc.) and enjoy cooking, eating and drinking. Although I don’t consider myself to be a Buddhist I am interested in some Buddhist ideas and practices. As such, I was briefly active with Secular Buddhism UK and it was through that group that I came to be involved with the Middle Way Society.

6 thoughts on “Meditation 10: Mahasi Vipassana (or The Art of Noting) – Part 1

  1. Thanks, Rich, this is interesting. It seems to be a slightly more formalised version of Zazen or Just Sitting: more formalised because of the use of ‘noting’ words, though I think I have heard Zen practitioners describe doing something similar here too.

    The flavour of Theravada meditation instruction often strikes me as a bit dry or clinical – has that been your experience? One reason why I use a more breath focused form of meditation is just because I find the breath fascinating: it is a simple but absorbing object with a positive fascination. I suspect I would get a bit bored with just noting or observing without a positive focus. But this is doubtless a matter of temperament.

  2. Hi Robert,

    I agree entirely that this is just like a formalized method of Zazen and when the use of noting words is dropped that is basically what Mahasi Vippisana would become. Zazen just does without the words from the start – it is also one of the methods that I use in conjunction with the noting.

    I do not see why a fascination of the breath cannot be transferred to other things. When explored deeply the feeling of one hand resting upon the other is fascinating, the itch on your face no longer becomes an irritation but rather a source of fascination. Surely the practice of focussing on the breath is only meant as a just that – practice. Are we not only developing this mindfulness so that it can be applied outside of formal sitting?

    My initial preconceptions regarding Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism was that the former would be more formal, dogmatic and stuffy than the latter, but in my (limited) experience that has not been the case. It seems quite equal, I think that both schools have much to offer and much that I tend to disregard, in fact the division (and competitiveness) between the two seems totally unnecessary to me.

    Rich

  3. Hi Rich

    You referred to this blog post in your recent email, I’ll write my ideas about this here.

    Funnily enough, when I went (for the first time) to a local Theravada group meeting on Thursday evening the talk was given by someone that I’ve met a couple of times before and the subject of his talk was… the Mahasi noting technique, and the experience of going on retreat at Satipanya! What a coincidence. So your well-chosen words above were familiar, but actually slightly more detail than I heard on Thursday night.

    I’ve also come across it in a few other places, although can’t say I’ve really used it in formal meditation practice (I’ll write more about this in a comment on Part 2). My current preferred ‘technique’ is a no-technique – for details see the book ‘Thoughts are not the enemy’ by Jason Siff, or maybe I’ll manage to compose some words for a meditation blog post here. Eventually. Siff, the proponent of this non-technique spent a lot of time doing Mahasi-style noting meditation as a monk but he found it wasn’t something that ‘worked’ for him. By non-technique, I mean it is a kind of ‘just sitting’ where meditation is defined as ‘whatever happens during the time that you sit with the intention to meditate’. The idea being that you are gentle with yourself and allow things to come and go, but without any instructions. As recommended, I journal my recollections of the meditation immediately afterwards. The recollection is part of the package. As you said above, I find it almost impossible to be aware of emotions as they arise during the meditation period, but that when I ‘recollect’ the experience afterwards the process gradually uncovers even very subtle emotions.

    I realise now that I’ve meandered around a lot here, but basically what I’m saying is that I’ve found a technique that ‘works’ for me (which isn’t Mahasi noting) and it helps with the being mindful of thoughts and emotions, which is quite a tricky thing indeed (but, it seems, a very fruitful thing – more on this another time).

    In the comments above you mention the sensation of one hand resting on the other (sometimes I do that, sometimes I rest hands on thighs) – that tends to be what I come back to, although the breath is always there and, on some occasions, the pulsation of my heart is rather vivid. As its summer time now I usually sit outdoors, and in those circumstances I tend to be ‘distracted’ out of my meandering thoughts by external sounds – birds, traffic noise, and so on, because they seem more prominent than the breath.

    I make it all sound rather wonderful… of course sometimes I sit for half an hour and mainly spend the time repetitively planning for work or repetitively dissecting and analysing something that went wrong/went well the previous day at work. I’ve come to terms with the fact that sometimes that’s what it’s like when you stop and sit in silence for a chunk of time every day. I’m also getting much better at spotting the subtle ‘internal critic’ that uses terms like ‘should’ and ‘ought’, and investigating where that’s coming from.

    Jim

  4. Hi Jim,

    There are some meditation practitioners who argue that one should choose a technique/ discipline and stick with it, which I have always been a bit suspicious of. Perhaps, this may be good advice if one is seeking enlightenment (whatever that is) or some great epiphany, which I’m not. Rather, I’m seeking more immediate, pedestrian benefits: being a more mindful and attentive parent, husband, employee & friend, or just learning to slow down ‘be in the moment’ (to sound a bit like a cliche).

    As such, I tend to use three practices, which I switch fairly regularly, dependant on circumstances such as how distracted I have been getting and what has been the focus of my distraction. Mainly, I just sit and concentrate on the breath (or try to), but I also use the Soto Zen technique of ‘just sitting’ (Zazen), which sounds like it may similar to your ‘no technique’ practice. I find the Mahasi technique described above to be especially useful if I am particularly distracted. Instead of being a frustrating obstacle, the object of my distraction becomes something useful. Quite often I will start of just concentrating on the breath while occasionally switching, mid session, into noting. There may be some who think that this is an infective way to meditate, but I find it useful.

    Rich

  5. Hi Rich.

    I came across this article (below) yesterday. Can’t say I’m a fan of the style in which it is written, but it makes a passable attempt at explaining meditation and specifically mental noting during meditation in terms of the theory of brain lateralisation:

    http://uk.businessinsider.com/how-to-improve-your-mind-through-meditation-according-to-neuroscience-2017-4

    Crude summary: noting gives ‘lefty’ something to do, to keep him under control!

  6. Ways of keeping the left hemisphere busy as a meditative aid interest me too.

    I like Tibetan chants, particularly longish melodic ones, which I often chant on long solitary car-journeys (autotroutes/motorways especially). I chant with a Brummie accent.

    This has the notable effect of widening my field of vision at the same time improving, I am pretty confident, my visual acuity overall.

    I usually meditate with eyes open and unfocussed anyway, and mostly in a relaxed standing position, balance with knees unlocked.

    Rather than meditating for a set period at the same time of day and in a predetermined place, I meditate when I have a mind to and when circumstances allow. Over the years I’ve come to understand that this suits me best. Little and often.

    My wife has told me that other approaches to meditation do little or nothing to smooth my edges and make me more humanly responsive, and I trust her judgement over my own in such matters. Sometimes one’s better judgements are those that defer to the better judgement of others, or at least give those judgements the weight they deserve.

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