Question:

Would you be willing to share your thoughts on the difference between “noticing” thoughts and feelings and “being distracted” by them? I feel like there’s a difference between the two.

During my meditation I’m often noticing thoughts or feelings and, more often than not, am able to watch them drift away and come right back to the attention on my breath. Occasionally, I’ll “ride off” into the thought or feeling for extended periods (10 to 15 seconds, or sometimes as much as minute) before noticing. At these points, I’ve been using the noting method that you recommend. I’ve been calling these moments “being distracted” as distinct from “noticing.”

Would you characterize these experiences differently and if so, would you recommend that I spend more time “noting” the things I “notice” or keep my practice in a way that I’m only “noting” the things that “distracted” my attention?

Would love to hear you thoughts. In the meantime, keep being great!

Andy’s answer:

Thanks for writing in. Noting is a very interesting technique and often much misunderstood. It is tempting to think that we have to be on guard the whole time, trying to catch every single thought. But it is not really like this and you are quite right in saying that noting and distraction are different from each other.

To begin with, it is important to use noting sparingly in the practice. We do not need to note every single thought or feeling, but simply notice when we are caught up in something so completely that we have lost our awareness of the breath or whatever the object of meditation might be. In that moment of awareness, the moment we realize we’ve been distracted, we use the noting to create a bit of space, as a way of letting go, and to gain some clarity and learn more about our habits, tendencies and conditioning. We don’t need to think about any of this in the practice itself. It all happens very naturally.

But noting can only happen when awareness is present. By definition, we cannot be both distracted and aware at the same time. The one thing to add is the feeling that arises when we “ride” the thoughts, as you describe. In this instance, we see the thoughts, but the momentum behind the thinking (or our unwillingness to let go of that chain of thought) is so strong that we do not step back sufficiently to note clearly and objectively. It feels as though we are separate from the thinking, but there is a subtle level of engagement and interest in the destination of that thought. It is so subtle, almost unnoticeable, but in time and with practice it becomes clearer and as a result we find it easier to let go much earlier on…perhaps avoiding the chain occurring altogether.

Hope that’s helpful.

Warm wishes,

Andy