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Vipassana: Noting/Mahasi Style

Noting: transition from Shinzen to MCTB

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Yesterday I was impressed by Shargrol's detailed introduction to noting with many useful advices (link – summary: preparation, body sensations, urges/emotions, thoughts, freestyle). I rarely encounter this kind of structured approach, because people usually speak just about freestyle noting. (If there are other examples, please let me know).

I think these instructions can help me overcome issues I had. However, they motivated me to precisely articulate what is exactly my problem with noting. Any further advice concerning these specific issues is welcomed.

One of the things I regularly practice (beside TMI) is Shinzen’s noting, which is different from MCTB approach. As you probably know, in Shinzen’s noting, you control your attention, by focusing intently for a few seconds on each sensation you label. I have no problem with this. However, in MCTB noting style, if I understand it correctly, I am not supposed to voluntarily control attention, but just label the predominant sensation in my experience. When I try to do this kind of noting, confusion arises for three reasons:

1) It feels like just saying words without any mindfulness (just like mind-wandering is also saying some words, but related to inner narrative). That makes me doubt whether this technique works for me at all, and whether my mind just converts noting into mantra-like repetition. But if I try to make noting not be mantra-like, then I would have to control my attention in order focus on the sensation more intently, and that would be Shinzen’s technique, not MCBT noting.

2) I often feel like attention is not spontaneously directed to anything (no sensation is predominating) so I don’t know what to label (if I label anything it would either feel artificial or it would mean controlling attention).

3) Usual advice would be “note the confusion/doubt” – however, if the feeling of confusion is constant, do I just spend all time noting “confusion” (that kind of mantra-like repetition would make the level of mindfulness very low), or start noting other things (and in that case I am ignoring an important part of my experience, and there is this feeling like I am doing it wrong).

Sorry if these kinds of problems have been discussed million times before.
 

RE: Noting: transition from Shinzen to MCTB
Answer
4/14/19 3:51 PM as a reply to Griffin.
Hey there Griffin. If Shinzen's method works for you and you enjoy it, then feel free to keep practicing that instead. It is important to feel a connection to the practice as some level of enjoyment will keep you practicing. 

Noting as described in MCTB is based on Mahasi Sayadaw's style of noting. The practitioner is supposed to note the sensations associated with the rising and falling of the abdomen and if something takes attention away from that, then that should be noticed and noted as well.

Noting is really just a tool to keep us present and examining experience in an objective, honest way. Finding the correct label for sensations is less important than actually experiencing those sensations. If there is some aspect of experience that seems solid or permanent, just stay with it for a bit to see if it changes (besides, every note is technically a new moment of experience). If you're able to watch sensations arise and vanish without getting lost in thought, then feel free to drop the 1 word labels.

At a certain point in practice, you'll start to realize that you are noticing all sorts of sensations between notes. Even if something feels solid (butt on the cushion for instance) you may realize that your attention bounces to the other senses and thoughts and emotions and urges are interspersed with moments of experiencing whatever feels solid. With more practice, the rate of noticing/noting can speed up quite a bit and you may be aware of 10 or even more distinct sensations in a second. 

Hope that this helps! 

RE: Noting: transition from Shinzen to MCTB
Answer
4/15/19 5:14 AM as a reply to Griffin.
Griffin:
Yesterday I was impressed by Shargrols detailed introduction to noting with many useful advices (link – summary: preparation, body sensations, urges/emotions, thoughts, freestyle). I rarely encounter this kind of structured approach, because people usually speak just about freestyle noting. (If there are other examples, please let me know).
There is also the structured approach that is taught in the Ajahn Tong tradition. It is simple and it works. I like it and also I have no idea how to do those other very complicated sounding noting approaches  emoticon

RE: Noting: transition from Shinzen to MCTB
Answer
4/15/19 7:40 AM as a reply to Griffin.
Your observation about the different drives behind these different noting systems is very observant and has a lot of sensory clarity to it. Now that you said it, I see it clearly, and that clarifies a lot for me. So thankyou!

Yes, that’s right. Mahasi noting is not about that tug of the senses drawing one’s focus. It’s more about how the monkey mind lets its attention be hijacked in different ways that have to do with what I would refer to as defense mechanisms. It’s about catching them in the act, hence the very rapid noting. Mahasi is more dry vipassana. Noticing all these layers of defense mechanisms with precision and as much distinction as possible is the emphasis. That can really get one’s mind shattered and speeded at the same time. The shattering is about deconstruction. It works great for that purpose. It does however not cultivate the kind of samadhi that Shinzen often talks about. It doesn’t allow the time for ”soaking in” to the experience of what one is noting that is emphasized at least for the beginner’s practice of the unified mindfulness system. I’m not qualified to tell what they recommend for more advanced practice since I haven’t seen them giving instructions at that level explicitly within that system. I have been working with Shinzen’s notings with Michael Taft as my coach, though, and I did use very rapid noting there because I was focusing on vanishings. I think that the difference between the drive behind the noting in these systems diminishes as the practice advances, because later in the practice one’s perception is altered.

I have mixed and matched between the systems. I often find that when I use Shinzen’s notings, I still automatically do Mahasi noting for aspects that are not distinguished in Shinzen’s system when I feel the need to. The Mahasi notes come up as an additional layer sometimes as I’m noticing something in my introspective awareness that stands out as significant in a way that does not have to do with distinguishing between senses and between in and out.

Also, I have done modifications to Shinzen’s system in order for it to work with how my perception works. I’m very kinesthetic, so there are often kinesthetic elements to my thoughts. That is not covered in Shinzen’s system at all, whereas in Mahasi noting that is not a problem. With the Mahasi noting I find that one problem is that the noting itself sometimes causes me to conceptualize more, in order to make all these distinctions, instead of just going with the sensate experience. On the other hand, sometimes having to decide what senses are involved in a sensation does the same thing (which is also why Shinzen offers alternatives for that). So I basically go with what is the least effort for me in order to achive my current goals.

RE: Noting: transition from Shinzen to MCTB
Answer
4/16/19 9:55 AM as a reply to Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö.
Linda, thank you very much for your informative answer. It’s exactly the kind of precise and detailed analysis that I like.

Hibiscus kid, thank you for your advice. I agree, I could just continue with Shinzen, no need to explore every other option out there. It’s kind of my tanha, I have this “gotta catch 'em all!” Pokemon attitude in regards to meditation techniques.

Raving Rhubarb, thanks, I am not familiar with this tradition, I’m going to check it out.

For now, it seems that Shargrol’s instructions from other thread work quite well for me.

RE: Noting: transition from Shinzen to MCTB
Answer
4/16/19 1:14 PM as a reply to Griffin.
emoticon I’m glad that we could both learn from each other. That’s the beauty of community.

RE: Noting: transition from Shinzen to MCTB
Answer
4/17/19 5:36 AM as a reply to Griffin.
To all these helpful contributions I would also add, that the relation between noting and sensations, which make you feel a certain way about the practice, are also part of the insight process. How the noting dynamics vary also depends on the insight stages. Eventually, noting will break the illusion of self, which of course will be confusing (Who is noting what?)

RE: Noting: transition from Shinzen to MCTB
Answer
4/18/19 3:22 AM as a reply to streamsurfer.
I agree, noting progresses dependent on insight stages in a logical fashion.

In fact, were people to read the book I keep recommending and somehow can't get that many people to read, namely Practical Insight Meditation, and paid attention to what is actually said, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, like a car repair manual that one reads not for general content but for specific instructions and the sequence of those instructions, it recommends starting with noting the breath, then things that arise other than the breath, and to even keep attention on those general areas for a while when exploring them.

This sort of careful reading, so against current Twitter trends, might even help the development of level of concentration and stability of attention that the person is looking for. The book is very short, as books go, yet pithy to a rare degree.

For example, from page 5 of that amazing book, "Should an itching sensation be felt in any part of the body, keep the mind on that part and make a mental note, itching. Do this in a regulated manner, neither too fast nor too slow. When the itching sensation disappears in the course of full awareness, continue with the exercise of noticing the rising and falling of the abdomen."

However, if one carefully notices how the instructions progress and change from these simple, initial exercises, one will notice that the technique changes depending on what one is able to perceive and how fast one can perceive it, matching the development of skill as the practitioner progresses.

Eventually, as the mind becomes too fast to note, noting progresses to just bare noticing. However, should the mind regress to being slower, then noting is again recommended.

RE: Noting: transition from Shinzen to MCTB
Answer
4/18/19 6:12 AM as a reply to Daniel M. Ingram.
(Not really a reply to Daniel, I just clicked the quick reply button...)

Lots of different noting styles out there for sure. Ultimately, the goal is be able to have a technique that allows someone to develop momentary concentration and clarity about what is presently occurring. 

Lots of ways to mis-use different noting styles, too. Focusing on breath can be dulling if it is used as sort of a mindless mantra and sensations are not seen clearly. Focusing on rapid fire noting could just enhance a busy narritive mind and be superficial. Noting without structure can sometimes lead to an avoidance of certain types of mind objects (e.g., ignoring feelings or not seeing thoughts as thoughts), but Shargrol's structure noting (which actually is very similar to some of Kenneth's teachings) can be too ridgid for people past the beginner's stage. My belief is people really don't know a practice well unless they can articulate it's downsides, too.

Meditation is like riding a horse --- you want to stay loose in the saddle, but you don't want to fall off. You need relaxation AND alertness. That balance is only something that is learned over time, by hours in the saddle. Same thing with noting practice, it works but it also takes someone willing to put in the time and learn how to balance noting and noticing. It takes hours on the cushion. Shargrol structured noting is really for developing the foundation (or going back to basic for those who over-complicated their noting practice or is less-developed in one of the four categories of mind objects). PIM really holds the hand of someone who can notice the nanas showing up in their practice. 

I guess this is all just to say that although one of my pieces of advice was mentioned in the original post, I'm not a big believer in "the one right way". 

RE: Noting: transition from Shinzen to MCTB
Answer
4/18/19 7:08 AM as a reply to Daniel M. Ingram.
I did read that book, but I acknowledge that I did not do justice to it in my comment here. Indeed, the Mahasi noting starts out slow and then builds up. There is a very clear progression to the noting both with regard to speed and complexity that I do not find in the unified mindfulness system, although the latter has built in progression in other respects.

It certainly builds up concentration, no doubt about that. What I meant was that it is more dry vipassana in the beginning rather than a mix between shamatha and vipassana from start. Maybe I have gotten that wrong, and in that case please correct me.

I still find that the drive between the noting differs between these two different systems, and that was what I was trying to adress. In the unified mindfulness system you are supposed to keep the same speed throughout your practice, as far as I understand, although you are recommended to alternate it with the do nothing method (choiceless awareness) depending on current needs. Shinzen’s noting never reaches the speed that Mahasi noting builds up to, as far as I know, although I may be wrong. They are not really into talking about stages, though, so I don’t think they have that progression of speed either. 

RE: Noting: transition from Shinzen to MCTB
Answer
4/18/19 9:21 AM as a reply to shargrol.
@Shargrol: I agree with your points, and haven't advocated for Mahasi's style as presented in that book as being thought of as the very best or most optimal way, necessarily, but do think that his style is very often oversimplified and misrepresented based on those oversiplifications.

RE: Noting: transition from Shinzen to MCTB
Answer
4/18/19 10:05 AM as a reply to Daniel M. Ingram.
@Daniel, totally agree on people not getting the accuracy/power of PIM, and sorry if what I wrote suggested you were advocating it being best/optimal way. I was more generally saying that out in the meditation world, there are a lot of folks that seem to think there is one right way and fail to see the downsides of particular approaches. As anyone who has read MCTB knows, you are very fair with describing the pros and cons of different practices/conceptual frameworks. 

RE: Noting: transition from Shinzen to MCTB
Answer
4/21/19 12:33 PM as a reply to Daniel M. Ingram.
Daniel, thank you for recommending the book, it basically answered all my questions.

If anybody’s interested, here are my observations, comparing Mahasi to Shinzen, summary of book’s basic exercises and quotes that answered my dilemmas.

So, MCTB doesn’t instruct just one specific approach, such as totally freestyle/choiceless noting (although advanced practice tends to go in that direction), instead it gives many options, but especially recommends Mahasi Sayadaw’s approach, which has a specifics structure.

Comparing Mahasi to Shinzen’s terminology: There’s a combination of active contact stance (breath as the anchor) and passive contact stance (other bodily and mental activities). So, attention is not moving completely freely. Focus range is relatively open, but it seems that the emphasis is put on arising of mental and physical activities, and not on trying to discover all the other minor details that exist in experience. For example, it is important to note your emotions, pain or physical movement, but you don’t actively “search” trying to discover all subtle sounds in the room or scan your body to find the feeling of warmth in your feet (although it may have been vaguely present in the peripheral awareness). It seems that focus stance is passive (sensations “are always present and therefore there is no need to look for them”). Shinzen's noting consists of two phases: 1. "clearly acknowledging" and 2. "intently focusing" for a few seconds. I would say that in Mahasi noting just the first phase is dominant; however, when we, for example, note itching multiple times until it passes, it could be said that both phases are implemented.

***

Practical Insight Meditation presents four basic exercises:

1. Noting the rising and falling of the abdomen.
2. Also noting mental activities that occur between the noting of each rising and falling, as well as body movements.
3. Noting unpleasant or unusual bodily experiences when they occur (when they disappear, returning to the abdomen); instructions for different postures are also given here.
Advancement: when you note (just) the breath, if there is a long pause in between breaths, you note “sitting” (erect position of the upper body) during the pause(s). If noting multiple objects becomes difficult, return to just rising and falling. If breath becomes unperceivable, note “sitting” and “touching” instead of in-breath and out-breath (each “touching” should refer to different spot, for example: lips touching, hands etc.) Seeing and hearing are generally not noted, but if some external object has already drawn your attention, note it a few times and return to basic practice.
4. Noting mental attitudes in regard to the practice itself (lazy, doubt, anticipating, wishing, recollecting, examining, regret, happy…).

***

So, here are questions I posed before, along with answers found in the book:

1) It feels like just saying words without any mindfulness
Book: “In view of this difficulty, you may be inclined to think, “I just don’t know how to keep my mind on each of these movements.” Then simply remember that this is a learning process. The rising and falling movements of the abdomen are always present and therefore there is no need to look for them.”

That makes me doubt whether this technique works for me at all
Note the doubt. Book: “Before you gain sufficient strength in attention, concentration, and insight, you may doubt the correctness or usefulness of this method of training. In such a case turn to contemplation of the thought, ‘doubtful’.”

2) I often feel like attention is not spontaneously directed to anything (no sensation is predominating) so I don’t know what to label
Book: “If there is nothing in particular to note, put the mind on the rising and falling of the abdomen.”

3) Usual advice would be “note the confusion/doubt” – however, if the feeling of confusion is constant, do I just spend all time noting “confusion” (that kind of mantra-like repetition would make the level of mindfulness very low), or start noting other things (and in that case I am ignoring an important part of my experience, and there is this feeling like I am doing it wrong).
Note having this dilemma. Note the feeling that you are “doing it wrong”. However, if all this feels overwhelming, return to more basic exercises until you stabilize your attention. (not a quote from the book)
 
 
 

RE: Noting: transition from Shinzen to MCTB
Answer
4/21/19 1:03 PM as a reply to Griffin.
Thankyou for sharing! Great that you found all the answers you needed by reading the book. Yes, it pretty much covers all the difficulties. Also, it is very clear on how to gradually increase the complexity. That is why I started using it although I was already familiar with Shinzen’s system.

I do appreciate aspects of Shinzen’s system very much, too, and there are a lot of resources that are based on his system, so as I said above, I use both. I don’t know if that’s a good idea, but for me it has made it possible to take part in online events and getting acquainted with other meditators in different contexts. I got my stream entry from what I believe was really a mix between the systems, so apparently that is also possible (although at that point there wasn’t so much noting). Now that I seem to enter a phase where I may need noting again, I probably need to refresh my reading of PIM. Shinzen’s system is what is most fresh in my mind, because of some online events, and I’m not sure that is what is most helpful to me in working with more subtle layers and finding that kind of natural progression. Maybe that’s what I should no now. It might actually help me in finding direction as I start working towards second path.