Among the greatest challenges of mindfulness meditation, or any meditation training for that matter, is getting lost in thought. Some call it “monkey mind,” or “chatter.”

The way mindfulness meditation answers the problem of a distracted mind is very clever. Rather than trying to get the monkey mind to go away, we use it as part of our practice, to develop our skills. If you’ve got a distracted mind, there’s no need to worry—mindfulness teaches us how to use our distraction to improve our overall tranquility!

We’re practicing mindfulness to establish a better relationship to all of our experiences, and one way to achieve this is by skillfully working with our thoughts during meditation.

In the system of Unified Mindfulness, thinking consists of two parts: sonic mental activity and visual mental activity. Visual mental activity refers to any images associated with a person, place, thing, memory, plan, or fantasy. Sonic mental activity refers to any sound you notice in the mind, such as self-talk or imagined conversations with others. The method of deconstructing our thoughts into sound and image helps to release the hold that thinking can have on us. Noting our thoughts as they occur, or detaching from them the moment we have gotten caught in them, is precisely what allows us to develop our mindfulness skills through working with mental activity.

Research has shown that mental noting and labeling help us regulate our emotions and improve the emotional wiring in our brains. This produces a relaxing effect in our body, which helps us detach from thoughts. We stop identifying with our thoughts and reacting emotionally to them. Rather than getting caught up in our thoughts, we train our minds to note and label all sensory experience, including thoughts. Then we have more choice in terms of which thoughts to pay attention to.

The Important Role of Noting and Labeling

Noting and labeling techniques are a significant component of mindfulness meditation practice, because they help to interrupt the endlessly repeating sequence of attachment and identification with all sensory experience.

When it comes to thinking, noting and labeling techniques help us get unstuck whenever we get carried away with our thoughts. It promotes an awareness that the natural characteristic of thinking is a continuous and permanently changing process. Thinking is a natural activity. By riding that activity with our attention, through noting and labeling, we’re freeing ourselves from preoccupation.

Our objective is to deeply participate in the activity of thinking by using our attention to track the thinking activity moment by moment, becoming interested in qualities of our thinking, such as location, intensity, and rate of change, instead of getting preoccupied with the content of our thoughts.

The Noting and Labeling Process

Noting is an attention tool that consists of an instant of acknowledging your object of focus followed by a few seconds of gently keeping your attention on your object of focus.

In the case of thinking, the object of focus is what you’re seeing in the mind, what you’re hearing in the mind, or both. Labeling supports the noting process. As soon as you note your object of focus, you apply a label to keep yourself on track.

To keep things simple, you can use the label “See” to refer to image activity, “Hear” to refer to sonic activity, or “Both” to refer to both sonic and visual activity in the mind. In this way you use the mind to free yourself from the mind.

Go ahead and give it a try!