Human beings really are remarkable machines. As we traverse time and space, we create stories that give us the illusion of continuity. This is how, for example, we can look at pictures of ourselves as children, pictures in which we bear no resemblance to the adult that we’ve become, and yet still apply a sense of self to that memory. Even though I don’t even share any atoms with that cute kid, I still look at those chemicals on that photographic paper and say: ME.

The poet Louise Glück draws our attention to the reality of our storytelling nature in her poem "Nostos"

We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.

As Elizabeth Strout points out in her analysis of the poem, "We tend to think of childhood as the realm of memory.…But this line flips that idea on its head." Most of us take just a single glance at the world, Glück tells us, and then we construct a narrative from there, a narrative that imports all of those childhood assumptions, all of the information from that glance, and fails to see the present moment for what it is. Why? Because we've dragged into the present all of the baggage that our narrative needs for this moment. We don't live in the present, but we live in a memory of what the present was supposed to be.

It's a difficult pill to swallow. At the same time, our narrative mode, our storytelling nature allows us to build a narrative about the self that can, at times, be truly helpful. The narrative mode allows us to take stock of our growth and development, for example. Nothing wrong with that! The unruly buddha is always looking for ways to grow.

Often, however, our development requires us to disengage from memory and re-engage with reality in a clear, direct way, to see things as they are and not as we wish them to be, not as part of some story that we have created for ourselves. We have to look at the world once again, just as the child does. We have to step out of Glück's notion of memory and into the present.

Here the practice of “noting” is particularly helpful. By noting, we try to get at bare reality, to see things as they are without the layer of story and the illusion of permanence that we naturally want to give them. In noting, we understand the world to be what we perceive and we note what we perceive without judgment and without (too much) interpretation.

When we do this, we come to a few important insights.

First, we come to understand that nothing is permanent. The universe—and we are part of the universe—is absolutely impermanent. Impermanence is the hallmark of all existence. Whatever state you are observing right now—your inhale, the feeling of your feet against the ground, the wind against your cheek, the sound of the bird, the taste of your morning coffee—all of those are impermanent sensations. They will not stick around.

Second, we come to understand that much, if not all, of our suffering comes about by a failure to recognize this impermanence. When we are in pain, we often convince ourselves that it will never end. When we experience joy, we know that it will stop, and we plan for ways to renew that experience. All of this planning and striving is a form of suffering because we are wishing the world to be other than as it is. If, instead, we recognize the impermanence of all things, then we can know that these sensations—be they joyful or painful, happy or sad—will come to an end. New sensations will arise and take their place. Some of them will be painful, yes, but some will not.

Third, if we really pay attention to the arising of these sensations, we will find that even the sensations that feel like they last a long time, do not last that long at all. For example, we may inhale deeply and understand in-breath as as single sensation, but we can divide that one feeling into tens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of tinier sensations. Suddenly, the simple act of breathing becomes an opportunity to slow down time and experience the world not in minutes or even seconds, but in fractions of seconds: a thousand sensations for a single breath. It's like taking a high-speed camera, able to shoot thousands of frames per second, and pointing it at your own experience.

Sounds trippy, doesn’t it?

What is “Noting”?

Sometimes, living the contemplative life means doing things that most people would only do when they are high. But, you don’t need fancy drugs to perceive the world in this sort of way. You just need some practice. Noting is just one of many techniques for doing this.

As mentioned above, noting is seeing the world for what it actually is. We simply sit and note what we feel and what we observe. You can do this anywhere at any time.

  • I have noted in bed at night before falling asleep.
  • I have noted while out for a walk.
  • I have noted while playing golf.
  • I have noted while cooking on the grill.
  • I have noted while waiting at a traffic light.
  • I have noted while...ad infinitum.

My favorite place to do this is in my backyard. We have a wooden fence that separates the yard from a wooded area behind the house. We also have five big trees in our yard. I like to sit in a chair on my deck, focus my attention on that fence, that wooded area, and those trees, and just note:

  • What do I see?
  • What do I hear?
  • What do I feel?
  • What do I smell?
  • What do taste?

I point the high-speed camera at my experience and try to ramp up the framerate. Doing so keeps me present and grounded. I’m in this moment and in no other. I’m experiencing the world as it really is. Time slows down and I start to see things for what they really are.

It’s one technique for being here and being now.

How to Practice “Noting”

So, how do you note? It’s simple really.

  1. Get into a good meditative posture.
  2. Label each sensation you experience with a single word.

That’s it!

But, let’s break it down a little further.

A Good Meditative Posture

Google around for instructions about meditation and you’ll find no shortage of opinions on posture. You’re about to read another one!

A meditative posture is any position that allows you to be alert and available to the moment. There are, of course, different schools of thought on this. Some people, for example, will tell you that you can’t meditate while lying down. Others might tell you that you can’t meditate while slouching or using something to rest your back.

I don’t know about all of that.

I know that slouching isn’t great for me. My back starts to get uncomfortable and soon my discomfort becomes the focus of my meditation. This isn’t wrong, per se, but it is annoying. I don’t particularly want to meditate on the discomfort in my back. Moreover, it triggers thoughts in me that I don’t need: thoughts about whether or not my back will stay that way and whether or not I’m a healthy person. I don’t need that. That’s not where I want to put my effort and concentration.

For me, lying down is also problematic. When I meditate lying down, I often drift off into sleep. That’s great when the sun is down and I’m ready for some shut-eye, but not so great when I’m trying to practice some vigilance, trying to observe reality.

I like to sit upright, usually on a chair or a couch with a back rest so that I can give my lower back some support. Sometimes, I’ll put my feet on the ground, but sometimes I’ll draw my legs up in criss-cross-applesauce fashion. Whatever works in the moment. Sometimes, I even put my feet up on a rest: an ottoman or another chair.

It doesn’t really matter so long as the sitting doesn’t become a distraction to the practice. When is it a distraction? When it becomes something you’re thinking about! So, find something that works, settle in, and get going.

Single Words

I’m looking at the Texas Elm that grows in my backyard. It stretches up some 50 or 60 feet above the ground and reaches out over my deck to form a lovely canopy. In the summer, it shades me from the Texas sun.

It’s a good tree.
Thank you, Texas Elm.

I look at it, and I just start taking note of the things that I observe while doing so. I use a short, single word to label it. I try to label as many things as I notice. This is noting.

I look at the trunk and I see a knot. “Knot,” I say to myself.

Simple. Keep going.

“Branch. Leaf.”

Great. I can note parts of the tree, colors that I see, whatever I want. The key is to try to get more and more specific and less and less abstract. “Leaf” is a pretty abstract thing. Look at all of the things that make up the leaf: its shape, its edges, its colors, its position relative to the sun, etc. Likewise, I could look at the trunk and say, “Trunk.” But the trunk of the tree is made up of billions of atoms. Zoom in on the trunk of the tree. Focus on smaller and smaller spaces. Tiny variations in color will pop out at you, and you'll find much more to notice there too.

I just spent about 5 seconds looking at the trunk and here is, as best I can recall, the notes that I made in my mind: “Brown. Brown. Brown. Green. White. Car. Blower. Black. Dark. Darker. Light. Dog. Gray. Pink. Pink. Birdsong. Pink.”

PINK?!?!

I told you! The contemplative life sometimes causes us to see things that no one else would see, to observe reality in new ways that hadn’t occurred to us before because we weren’t really paying attention.

It sounds crazy, but when I zoom in and start to look at the trunk of this tree, start to pull apart all of the little pieces that make up the thousands of colors that a glance would call “brown,” I see quite a bit of pink. Yes: pink. It’s a rosy, warm color, somewhere between orange and white, but it has a smattering of red in it. It’s pink, as far as I’m concerned.

Am I right to call it “pink”?

There’s no right or wrong here. It’s what I observe, what I sense; therefore, it’s what I note. So long as I’m noting it honestly, then it’s as right as anything could possibly be. The word doesn’t matter too much. Don’t get hung up on whether or not you’ve found the right word to label what you’re noting. Just note and move on!

Don’t restrict your observations to a single sense. All five of them come into play. Because I was focusing on the trunk of a tree, most of my observations dealt with what I was seeing. However, in the midst of that, I also heard a car drive down the road, a leaf blower doing its thing, a dog—my dog, to be precise—barking, and a bird singing. Great! These are all part of the experience; therefore, they should be noted too.

I was in a park. I took a couple of photos with slow shutter speed. This is a trunk of a tree with some autumnal color in the background. I thought it looked a bit like there was a fire behind the tree.
Photo by Paweł Czerwiński / Unsplash

Practical Considerations

Noting can be exhausting, especially if you start moving at a rapid pace. Like anything else, you’ll get faster at it and you’ll have a greater capacity to do it, but only if you practice.

To stave off exhaustion and to keep yourself honest, I have a few practical suggestions.

First, if you’re having trouble focusing, begin with your eyes closed. This will limit your field of observation a bit, though you may still see things in the mind’s eye. Note them, for sure, but you’ll probably find yourself paying more attention to sound and touch. That’s fine. Whatever you sense, note it, even if it’s just a mental image.

Second, consider using some kind of timer. As you practice this, you’ll become more and more adept at it. You’ll note hundreds of things and realize that you’ve only been at it for a minute, but it feels like an eternity. Start with a short time, maybe five minutes, and then move up from there. Fair warning, though, that five minutes may feel like 10 or 20 before you’re done.

Third, as with all things, don’t judge yourself. You will fail at this practice. At some point, your mind will wander, or you'll get hung up on whether or not you used the "right" word. It's OKAY. One of the beauties of any meditation practice is that it trains us to cope with failure. You’ll find that failing isn’t so bad; it’s just another opportunity to practice.

Some Resources

Daron Larson’s TEDx Talk, “Don’t Try to Be Mindful,” is worth a watch. Daron is a humorous guy who looks and sounds like he’s incredibly tightly wound. Just listening to him, I wouldn't suspect he's a mindfulness master, but he sure seems to know what he's talking about!

In this short TED Talk, he teaches the power of finding the present moment as a way of understanding what our lives actually are. Larson talks about the narrative mode of attention and the way that we lose the present to the stories that we are telling ourselves. Plus, he has one of my favorite TED quotes ever: “Your strategy for living in the present will go a lot better when you realize how frequently the present sucks.” Ha!

TEDxColumbus - Daron Larson - "Don't Try to Be Mindful"

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to mention Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. Ingram often gets some flack for his tone—and it can be abrasive—but he does have a knack for breaking down key Buddhist concepts for easier digestion. If you’re on Buddhist journey, then it might be worth checking out. I adapted my practice of noting from his.

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book (Second Edition Revised and Expanded) (Second Edition, Revised)
The very idea that Buddhist teachings can be mastered will arouse controversy within Buddhist circles. Even so, Daniel Ingram insists that enlightenment is an attainable goal, once our fanciful notions of it are stripped away, and we have learned to use meditation as a method for examining reality r…
If you don’t want to commit to the hefty price tag for Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, you might start by reading some if it online at Ingram’s website.

Lastly, if you're interested in Daniel Ingram, Jeff Warren’s experience with Daniel Ingram—"The Anxiety of a Long-Distance Meditator"—is a worthwhile read.