The Art of Noting

By Jimmy Warden

With COVID-19 still running rampant and no end seeming in sight, it is no surprise that rates of anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide are at an all time high. Not to mention, there are still millions of people who are jobless and cannot put food on the table to support their family or pay their electric bills to keep the lights on. However, a lot of these aforementioned mental conditions manifest from the same place, and that place is the mind.

We often find ourselves going down rabbit holes or even digging “mental graves” for ourselves in the forms of negative self-talk or negative thought patterns regarding our future or perhaps our past. Then, all of a sudden, we find ourselves in an anxious or depressed state of mind which becomes a trigger to turn to negative coping mechanisms, such as drugs, alcohol, or in the worst cases, suicide. If we can begin trying to cultivate an awareness of our thoughts, we can have a better chance of avoiding these rabbit holes or “mental graves”. At the bare minimum, we can at least catch ourselves before we’ve chased the rabbit too far or dug the grave too deep. In order to do this, we must use a mindfulness technique referred to as noting.

Noting can be thought of as an awareness of our attention, specifically regarding thoughts or thought patterns in this case. In more simple terms, we are taking “mental notes” of the thoughts we have. Its purpose is not to notice every thought we have throughout the day for two big reasons. One, it is impossible to recognize every single thought that the human brain creates during the day, even if you’ve trained as a monk. Second, it is extremely exhausting to try to notice every single thought that passes through your head (believe me, I’ve tried). Its purpose is also not to consciously suppress or stop thinking altogether like a mental version of the arcade game whack-a-mole because that is extremely toxic for the mind, body, and spirit. In its essence, noting is simply about noticing thoughts for what they are. Thoughts. No more, no less.

This awareness of thought helps to create a presence of mind that coincides with the body. When you are aware of a thought, it allows you to notice it, let it go, and return to the present moment so that you can mentally be where your body is. This presence is the mind and body connection playing itself out in the world. Wherever you are physically, you are also there mentally. This presence will help you enter a “flow state” in which you’re so engaged in a meaningful task, you become immersed in it, lose your sense of time, and forget about any of the world’s problems that are causing you to feel anxious or depressed (more to come on “flow state” in other blogs and podcasts). When these thoughts pop back up (because they inevitably will), simply recognizing them for what they are (thoughts), drastically reduces the intensity of the emotional sensation that is connected to that thought of string of thoughts, and allows us return to the present moment. However, it does take practice to cultivate this.

A good starting point for cultivating an aware mind is to partake in some simple mindfulness exercises to practice noting. One way is to engage in a mindfulness meditation with a specific focus on noting. I’d suggest finding a quiet place to sit down and know that you won’t be disturbed. I’d sit in a chair, but that’s just my personal preference over the yogi “pretzel” because I can feel my mind and body connection with my feet grounded on the floor and my body pressed against the chair.

To begin, take some long, slow, deliberate breaths in through your nose and then out through your mouth. After at least six deep breaths, your parasympathetic nervous system will take over and bring your mind and body to a calm, relaxed state. Once you feel your mind and body are at ease, you may gently close your eyes if you’d like, but that is not mandatory. Once you’re in your relaxed state, turn your focus and attention towards your breath. Notice if your breath is deep or shallow. Notice where your body expands with each breath. At some point, your mind will create thoughts, and when it does, recognize these thoughts simply for what they are. Thoughts! You can cue yourself by saying that word, or “thinking”, or “there’s a thought”. Create a cue that works for you! Upon recognition, return your attention back to your breath. Try this exercise for however long you’d like. I’d start with an amount of time that feels comfortable for you and try to build up from there. Maybe start with 2 minutes or maybe 5 and work your way up!

If you need more “guidance”, you can also download the app “Headspace” or “Calm” to your smartphone and they will have some guided breathing exercises to help you take note of your thoughts. If you download “Headspace”, we can be “buddies” on the app, and that will give you access to hundreds of guided meditations. Even if meditation isn’t your thing or you’re not ready to try it, you can still note while doing simple activities. For example, you can note while driving or walking. If you’re driving, really try to focus on solely on driving, which means no music and NO PHONE. Feel the sensation of your foot on the accelerator or the brake. Focus on the pace in which you’re driving. Take a quick moment to view the “panorama” that is in front of you. If you’re walking, focus on the sensation of your feet hitting the pavement or the ground below. Are the leaves crunching beneath your feet? Is the pavement unforgiving? Notice your surroundings. What do the trees look like? Are there any animals around? If you’re in a town or city, is there construction going on? Are other people on the street? Do they seem pre-occupied.

Whatever mindfulness exercise you choose to practice noting, the most important aspect is that you engage intentionally with what is referred to as “beginner’s mind”. It is an open mind with no preconceived notions taking the forefront of your mind. The more that you can practice in this way, the easier it will be to transition the practice of noting to real life.

When it comes to real life, we often fall victim to our emotional states. Whatever state we’re in, we feel it’s justified and believe we must see the emotion through by acting on it to make the world around us, right. This choice often puts us in a worse mental state afterwards because there’s a feeling of regret for what we said or did and our relationships with others (as well as ourselves) are affected by our impulses. With noting, we can lessen the intensity of our negative thoughts and emotions, as well as our negative interactions with other people. By practicing noting in privacy, we will have a greater awareness of thoughts that arise in our mind and the bodily sensations that coincide with them.

This, in turn, will allow us to note thoughts as we feel anxiety, anger, sadness, frustration, happiness, or joy percolating within us. We will also be able to note thoughts we have during a conversation which will help us not say things we might regret in the future and develop a greater sense of empathy, simultaneously, because we’ll be taking the true stance of listening for understanding, as long as our focus is on what the other person is telling us. These two layers of noting will definitely take a lot of conscious practice before we can truly get good or great at them.

Now, noting is a great technique, but I would be lying to say that it will make all of your problems go away that are causing you anxiety and/or depression, that it always stop you from using drugs or alcohol, or that it will stop you from committing suicide. If you’re in those mental states on a consistent basis, please seek professional help in the mental health regime.

I will say there is a strong potential that the clinician will discuss the importance of noting and how much it can truly help reduce our feelings of anxiety or depression, as well as the negative thoughts and thought patterns that are causing anxiety or depression. If you’re willing to try noting, I am sure your mental frame of mind will improve because you’ll have proven strategies to help reduce anxiety and depression. It’s just going to take practice. So, what do you have to lose?

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