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Vipassana: Noting/Mahasi Style

New to noting. Questions on speed and breath vs open awareness

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I have recently shifted my practice to Mahasi Noting, and have some questions after a few initial sits.

Briefly, my background is a Goenka retreat, then home practice of around 16 months. I usually sit for 50 minutes, 1-2 times per day. At home I have done 7-8 months of Goenka-style scanning, followed by 7-8 months focused on concentration only. Having had good progress with each of this, I feel that now it is time to move into focused insight practice.

Clearly a retreat offering noting training would be ideal for me at this stage, and this will come in time. For the moment I am not able to arrange this, and am committed to pouring it on at home as much as I am able. In the near future I hope be able to arrange a two week stretch of 4-5 hours per day, a sort of DIY mini-retreat with family support.

I have read Mahasi Sayadaw's noting instruction pieces and am endeavoring to follow these as closely as I can. I have also read all the relevant posts on this here at DhO, and of course MCTB. I confess that I have tried only a week of 2/day noting sits thus far, so the obvious message is certainly more practice, much, much more practice. This of course I will do. Meanwhile, I have a couple of little startup confusions and I hoping people here can advise me, to help me press on.

1) Frequency or speed. I find that right now I tend to quite naturally perceive individual conscious events as arriving and departing at a rate of roughly three to six per second, sometimes more. These might be little bits of breath sensation, or somatic or other sensory perceptions, or piecemeal bits of some thought train, or whatever. On the other hand, doing proper noting cycle with well-formed "percieve" and "note" phases, it seems, requires a cycle time of at least a second or two, maybe more.

I am thus troubled by the difference in frequency of my natural perception stream and the cycle time of the noting process. Moreover, some of the individual perceptions are clear enough to be easily "noted" whereas others are hazier, though are still clearly a discrete percept or thought or whatever. I feel forced into three choices:

a) Try to force my perceptions into a rate that enables proper noting. But this feels as though it kills the authenticity or naturalness of the perception stream.

b) Sample only selected sensations from the rapid stream and note these, letting other perception just pass by without formally noting them. This sorta works, and is inevitably what one ends up doing.

However, when I finish noting one item, the next one coming along in the stream may be pretty vague or indistinct. I can either try to note it anyway, requiring a bit of a pause to perceive it more clearly, or I can let it pass and wait a beat or two more for something more "notable". This screws up my rhythm and worse, it often ensnares me into thinking about my thinking about my noting about my perceptions.

c) Speed up the noting cycle by squashing it into a more rapid "perceive and barely note" single step. In the future when my skills are improved, this will probably be fine and a good way to increase my speed. But for now I am sure I need to stick to a formal "touch and note" cycle to get my accuracy and perception skills up, not to mention to develop better focus and stability while noting.

So how best to reconcile the frequency of my rapid "natural" perception stream with my slower noting cycle time?

2) Stick to breath or free roaming. The instructions of Mahasi Sayadaw start with the rise and fall of the breathing abdomen, and then offer plenty of advice on how to handle any kind of mental event apart from the breath, with instruction such as "One should note each and every thought." To best make progress as a beginning-stage Noting practitioner, should I be trying to mainly stick to the breath, and just note departures of my attention to other matters then gently but firmly return to the breath, or should I employ more of an "open awareness" approach?

RE: New to noting. Questions on speed and breath vs open awareness
Answer
8/19/10 7:11 AM as a reply to Bob Myrick.
Hey Bob,

It sounds like you are taking your practice very seriously, one thing that comes across from your writing is that you seem to put more weight on retreats and long practice periods, which in my experience has not been necessary. Believing that you can do this at home, with limited practice time, can be very helpful. I have never been to a retreat and have made progress when practicing only 45 minutes a day so I know for sure that retreats and long meditation periods are not necessary (then again, some people are hugely in favour of them).

Anyway, as for your first question. There are a couple of ways that I have done this. First, you can make one note for a number of linked sensations, such as a note of 'rising' being adequate for the perception of a number of sensations that make up the rising of the abdomen. In other words, it is not a problem for the two (perception and noting) to be at different speeds, as long as attention is being paid to what is there at that particular moment (this is all that matters, the noting is simply a tool towards this aim). Second, you can drop the noting, or note using sound for each sensation perceived if the speed of your perception is too fast for the noting.

As for your solutions, a) is a really bad idea, as what you are looking for is what is there, rather than manipulating what is there so that it allows you to use a particular technique; b) is the way to go, what I wrote above may make this easier, but the important part is the perception, not the noting - make sure that you perceive all that is there, not allowing anything to slip by (as in, it can slip the noting but not your awareness of it arising and passing).

However, when I finish noting one item, the next one coming along in the stream may be pretty vague or indistinct. I can either try to note it anyway, requiring a bit of a pause to perceive it more clearly, or I can let it pass and wait a beat or two more for something more "notable". This screws up my rhythm and worse, it often ensnares me into thinking about my thinking about my noting about my perceptions.


Even if it is vague or indistinct, you should still see whether its physical/thought/emotion/... and note it as such. If you are noticing the vagueness, note 'vague'. If you pause, you can note 'pausing', if you wait, note 'waiting', if you start thinking, note 'thinking'. As for there being a rhythm to your noting, this really is not a point of what you are doing, the point is to be aware of what is there in the speed that is accessible to you, any problems, wonderings, thoughts,... should be noted.

c) Speed up the noting cycle by squashing it into a more rapid "perceive and barely note" single step. In the future when my skills are improved, this will probably be fine and a good way to increase my speed. But for now I am sure I need to stick to a formal "touch and note" cycle to get my accuracy and perception skills up, not to mention to develop better focus and stability while noting.


The speed will change naturally. When you start going through the stages, the speed will differ drastically based on where you are at, so the way to go, as always, is to pay attention to what is there, in the speed that is accessible to you.

As for your second question, on whether to free-roam or stick to the breath, I cant really say which one would suit your needs better, they both work just fine. I have done both and have found both equally helpful. Which one seems to work better for you right now?

All the best and let me know whether this answers some of your questions.

RE: New to noting. Questions on speed and breath vs open awareness
Answer
8/20/10 12:17 AM as a reply to Pavel _.
Helpful comments; thank you Pavel. Your suggestion regarding my second question, roaming versus sticking to breath, is that I really ought to use whatever works best for now. Good advice. Reflection after this morning's sit suggests to me that I ought to try sticking mainly to the breath for now, at least until I feel more confident with the noting process.

With the breath, I find it easy to consciously perceive a little quanta of abdominal breath rising, then note it as "rising", and have completed this noting in time to await the next little bit of sensation. Once in while, I can even begin to notice the "blank" gap of nothingness before the next perception comes along. (I do not for now attempt to note such a gap - if I think I see one, it is too brief and vague, as well as a rare occurrence.)

As long as I am focused on the breath, I find that I can successfully discriminate little chunks of sensation or perception and note each one without missing much. In other words, my difficulties reconciling the rate of the flow of individual sensations with the time required to note them each is not so much a problem.

I tend to get three to five individual pieces on an in-breath, and the same or perhaps slightly more on an out-breath. (I find that this rate can vary breath to breath. Although on a nice quiet sit the breath will have tended to settle into a fairly steady frequency, the little perceptions may come in with a bit of syncopation or irregularity.) Some breaths will have a more pronounced pause when turning around at the top or bottom, and I often get some sort of body sensation, such as a perception of my seat or some part of the body, and I can easily note this and keep on top of things.

Also, non-breath related sensations, such as sounds, somatic perceptions, and what-not can pop in from time to time, and I am generally able to note these without losing my stride. Reflections on any such non-breath items, or on any other thoughts or sensations which come up on can be noted once they're discovered, but these tend to be a bit more problematic. (More on this below.)

In some ways, then, my beginner's noting practice, if I do it with a focus on breathing, seems to have some similarities to my experience with breath focused samatha practice, in particular, this recurrent process of observing departures from the main breathing theme or object, and returning to the breath.

The main differences, however, seem to be two. First, whereas in my concentration practice I was allowing, even encouraging the breath to present itself as a unified whole, now that I am noting, I regard it as disaggregated into individual raw percepts. (Indeed, for me this is easy - in early stages of working on concentration I actually struggled with getting these bits to appear as unified.) Second, noting breath "feels" really different than did concentration on breath. No hint of bliss or soft pleasures with noting so far; rather, it feels mildly irritating, although I don't mind this. Finally, of course, is the obvious difference that with noting practice I am doing the "noting" thing.

I strongly suspect, however, that despite one or two apparent similarities with concentration practice at the beginner stage, noting will lead me in very different directions as I move down its path, and probably more obviously so once I feel my noting skills are stronger and I am able to maintain noting even whilst allowing more open roaming.

On thoughts, just as these were a bit nettlesome for me in early stages of other forms of practice (as for I suppose all meditations), I find them a little more of a challenge with my early stage noting efforts. With concentration practice, I was able to stop getting lost in the content of a thought train initially by learning to actually stop caring so much that this was going to sometimes occur. After a while, the breath concentration and its associated jhana phenomena strengthened to a point where discursive thoughts were naturally relegated to a low simmer on a back burner, bubbling up from time to time but rarely carrying me away from the main theme of the sit.

With my initial attempts at noting, especially when I try to stay mainly centered on breath rising and falling sensations, thoughts can break the noting continuity. Of course I know well that a thought is just another mental event, equally useful as grist for the mindfulness mill as are bodily sensations, sensory perceptions, emotions or whatever. For the moment, however, I find I am once again more vulnerable to getting hijacked by a thought train, lost in the content. When this happens, I might be twenty or thirty seconds or more into the content of the thought before I realize it, and my noting of rising and falling and other things has been relegated to an absent-minded background process. When this happens, I quickly note "thinking" and bring the noting back to the foreground.

Of course, there are always those little seminal thought germs, flitting in and out of the background but not accumulating enough momentum to get firmly into the foreground. These are not a problem; I do not attempt to note them for now because my perception of them is not clear or discrete enough. The problem is when a thought's content comes sufficiently into focus and it carries me off with it. Then my noting of things unrelated to the thought becomes robotic or dies altogether, until I discover what has happened, note the thought and get back on track. Although I am comfortable that this will get better as I gain experience keeping my noting in the center of focus.

Later, however, when I begin to do noting over anything that comes along, I wonder how it will feel. How do hardcore noting and content-intensive thoughts coexist? Pavel, or anyone, I wonder if you could mention whether you are able to have a well-formed thought, be noting the thought, and still have the thought proceed and move along its trajectory and then pass away, all more or less normally all the while keeping mindful noting of this same thought going on? Or is it more a case of a thought coming and going, and then noting it in hindsight?

Thanks again, this new territory is all quite exciting for me.

RE: New to noting. Questions on speed and breath vs open awareness
Answer
8/20/10 1:37 AM as a reply to Pavel _.
Separately, I appreciate your advice to hold confidence that real value can come from a purely home-based, somewhat time-contained practice. In fact, I am sure this is true, although perhaps more true for some people than for others. At any rate, for myself, I don't feel that I am impeding my on progress by holding any hidden doubts about the value of a (consistent) home practice.

That being said, I have committed to moving quickly, for various reasons, and like probably most people here at DhO, also to going far. Personally I see real value in the "high density" practice that a retreat affords, so I think the best approach for me will be a mix of my home practice regime plus more intensive stints when possible, be they retreats or DIY home retreats. Fact is, I doubt I'll get more than one or two in the next couple of years, so it is good that I have confidence in my home practice as well, as I do!

Another point on retreats, in my case, I have found no good teachers where I live. On my first retreat experience I was lucky to have an effective, intelligent teacher, albeit delivering the standard Goenka stuff, which in and of itself is pretty good, especially I think as a hardcore, immersion introduction. Although I have been pretty successful at self-learning in a range of other fields and have done a great deal on my own with meditation, at the same time I hope on future retreats to get the benefit of some more close guidance from good teachers.

In the meantime, what a treasure this forum and its participants !

thanks again.

RE: New to noting. Questions on speed and breath vs open awareness
Answer
8/20/10 5:13 AM as a reply to Bob Myrick.
Pretty much everything you mention is very usual to my practice too - I think that everyone who meditates still has to deal with getting lost in thought here and there, losing focus,... No big deal as long as practice resumes as soon as there is once again awareness of what is happening right there and then (its not so much a catching up as there is nothing to catch up to, its always then and there). So its helpful not to think too much of pace, or rhythm as its really just sensations one after another in whatever speed or order they present themselves.

Later, however, when I begin to do noting over anything that comes along, I wonder how it will feel. How do hardcore noting and content-intensive thoughts coexist? Pavel, or anyone, I wonder if you could mention whether you are able to have a well-formed thought, be noting the thought, and still have the thought proceed and move along its trajectory and then pass away, all more or less normally all the while keeping mindful noting of this same thought going on? Or is it more a case of a thought coming and going, and then noting it in hindsight?


Well, I dont think that I have ever learnt to do hardcore noting (I am not even sure what it would be) - I still have the same issues as when I started, they just do not happen as often or with as much intensity and they get noted more often because I know of their existence and have seen them around a lot.

As for observing thoughts like this, there is a thread here where thoughts were discussed: On Thoughts

Even if you are predominantly using abdomen/breath as your focus, you should still note/be aware of everything that arises, thats what the noting is for. It really is less about meeting some standard of noting practice and more to do with paying attention to your sensate reality with very good accuracy (for which noting is an amazing tool).

All the best and you will see that your continued practice answers all of these questions for you :-)