Noting in the Empire of Selfies

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Jerry Durlack found out he had cancer, and while he wasn’t afraid of the cancer, or of dying, he was scared of the pain that was waiting for him. That’s when I started teaching him sitting practice, but I could tell he wasn’t practicing, he didn’t like it, so then I switched to pranayama, simple yogic breathing techniques, and he grooved on that. After a year I had to travel and had a child so I introduced him to Elaine who continued teaching him pranayama. I always think of him during this time of year, because this is when he got sick. Eventually he went to the hospital, and as soon as I walked in the door he held out his hand. Academics have the best hands because they’ve never worked with them, they’re so soft and supple because they’ve only touched books and computers. We held hands while I told him, “Don’t worry, everything is going along together with you. As you are leaving this world everything else is leaving along with you. There is nothing else you can do.” It made him smile. At the end he could step into the notion that everything was dying, and be uplifted by it.


I think of Jerry when the bell rings. The best part is the fade. You should never hit the bell, you want to coax the voice out of the bell. It’s like being a parent, you want to inspire your kids and help them and in the end it has nothing to do with you. The bell isn’t something that marks time. The first reason for the bell ringing is that it settles the mind. (Four ennobling truths: embrace, let go, stop, act).

When the timekeeper moves to strike the bell, you can let it become your body, your experience of birth and death. The bell is being rung for all beings – for all the trees, and cats, and raccoons, and rocks, and houses. You imagine you’re ringing the heart of every person in the room. You put your whole life into it, you’re expressing yourself as everyone flows through you. It can be easy to think of these jobs – the bell ringer or the person giving the talk – as special somehow, belonging to a hierarchy, but they’re not special, instead, everyone is in their position. Just like this microphone here. This microphone isn’t thinking: oh, I wish I were in the bell ringing position!


This week I’d like to speak about the role of language in meditation practice. One of the big challenges in mindfulness practice is thinking – if you don’t know how to use thinking, then thinking uses you. During sitting practice you can use noting practice to name the sense you are experiencing. It is a simple way to use language in order to stay present rather than being carried away. If you smell something name it “smell.” If you hear something name it “hearing.” So much of what we know about human life and our relationships is mediated through words. And as we cultivate a vocabulary we also cultivate a life.


(The following is a talk by the Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw Agga Maha Pandita U Sobhana given to his disciples on their induction into Vipassana Meditation at Sasana Yeiktha Meditation Centre, Rangoon, Burma. It was translated from the Burmese by U Nyi Nyi)

The practice of Vipassana or Insight Meditation is the effort made by the meditator to understand correctly the nature of the psycho-physical phenomena taking place in his own body. Physical phenomena are the things or objects which one clearly perceives around one. The whole of one’s body that one clearly perceives constitutes a group of material qualities (rupa). Psychical or mental phenomena are acts of consciousness or awareness (nama). These (nama-rupas) are clearly perceived to be happening whenever they are seen, heard, smelt, tasted, touched, or thought of. We must make ourselves aware of them by observing them and noting thus: ‘Seeing, seeing’, ‘hearing, hearing’, ‘smelling, smelling’, ‘tasting, tasting’, ‘touching, touching’, ‘thinking, thinking.’ Every time one sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches, or thinks, one should make a note of the fact. But in the beginning of one’s practice, one cannot make a note of every one of these happenings. One should, therefore, begin with noting those happenings which are conspicuous and easily perceivable.

With every act of breathing, the abdomen rises and falls, which movement is always evident. This is the material quality known as vayodhatu (the element of motion). One should begin by noting this movement, which may be done by the mind intently observing the abdomen. You will find the abdomen rising when you breathe in, and falling when you breathe out. The rising should be noted mentally as ‘rising’, and the falling as ‘falling’. If the movement is not evident by just noting it mentally, keep touching the abdomen with the palm of your hand. Do not alter the manner of your breathing. Neither slow it down, nor make it faster. Do not breathe too vigorously, either. You will tire if you change the manner of your breathing. Breathe steadily as usual and note the rising and falling of the abdomen as they occur. Note it mentally, not verbally.

In vipassana meditation, what you name or say doesn’t matter. What really matters is to know or perceive. While noting the rising of the abdomen, do so from the beginning to the end of the movement just as if you are seeing it with your eyes. Do the same with the falling movement. Note the rising movement in such a way that your awareness of it is concurrent with the movement itself. The movement and the mental awareness of it should coincide in the same way as a stone thrown hits the target. Similarly with the failing movement.

Your mind may wander elsewhere while you are noting the abdominal movement. This must also be noted by mentally saying ‘wandering, wandering.’ When this has been noted once or twice, the mind stops wandering, in which case you go back to noting the rising and falling of the abdomen. If the mind reaches somewhere, note as ‘reaching, reaching.’ Then go back to the rising and falling of the abdomen. If you imagine meeting somebody, note as ‘meeting, meeting.’ Then back to the rising and falling. If you imagine meeting and talking to somebody, note as ‘talking, talking.’

Because we fail to note these acts of consciousness, we tend to identify them with a person or individual. We tend to think that it is ‘I’ who is imagining, thinking, planning, knowing (or perceiving). We think that there is a person who from childhood onwards has been living and thinking. Actually, no such person exists. There are instead only these continuing and successive acts of consciousness. That is why we have to note these acts of consciousness and know them for what they are. That is why we have to note each and every act of consciousness as it arises. When so noted, it tends to disappear. We then go back to noting the rising and falling of the abdomen.


In meditation communities thinking is sometimes treated as the enemy. But if you’ve ever tried to stop language it’s like a hydra, you chop down one sentence and two more spring up in its place. Language can be used to value our experience. We might appreciate someone but it’s only when we say it out loud that something is born. The other person hears the appreciation and their gratitude is born.


How can we label without adding anything? What does the voice of your noting sound like? Is it quiet and soothing or an angry taskmaster? Is the tone complacent or bored? There is an attitude that comes along with noting and it shows up in the tone of voice. If we have pain and we’re noting the pain we might say, “Ahhh, that pain, that pain!” How do you like to talk to yourself? Noticing this tone is very helpful for people who judge themselves negatively. You might have murderous rage about someone and feel like you’re an awful person. With noting practice, you learn to recognize and name it “rage, rage, rage, rage,” without adding on “I’m an awful person because of it.” You want to see and note and then feel what’s showing up. But it’s not necessary to identify with it, to attach to the sensations (oh, there am I again). There’s a brightness behind everything, but it’s not the brightness of yourself gazing. The brightness isn’t about you.

In high school I used to take pictures and everyone’s eyes would turn red. It’s the light from the camera’s flash reflected in the iris, the camera is taking a picture of itself. The camera is always inscribing itself into the image it retrieves. The observer and observed can’t be separated.


We are living in the empire of selfies. We are living in the late empire of ourselves. The main thing I’ve thought about since I was a kid was how everyone is a psychologist and a fiction writer. We have been educated to see and operate in the world in a specific way. If you have a problem you don’t search for the roots in a ritual gone wrong, or the nature of last season’s planting, you begin a psychological search, you talk about relationships. Looking at language can show us how we are constructed, and how we construct the world. I want to talk about how I see my mind working. If I can get close to the working of my mind, I feel like I can share something with you, teach something of this practice. Modern yoga is actually a study of embodied language.

Theory influences practice, that’s why it’s important to read dharma books. Truths are true but only for a while, and the known is always influenced by the knower. There is no permanent truth underneath language. In noting practice we’re examining the examiner. It’s epistemology. To study the script and tone of how you’re looking. But this is also why we have so much anxiety because we can’t pin down the truth, it’s a basic need like sex or food. We’re living in an age of radical uncertainty. The only truth is that truth doesn’t stand for a long time. Modern yoga practice means: studying the script as it changes.

**Painting Rice Cakes**

In Zen there is a saying: you can’t eat a painting of a rice cake. The old model of practice is that there is a world that is deeper than a painted rice cake, the paint is the description, the paint is language. The old model is that there is a world beyond language, that’s where nirvana is. Dogen said no. He said if you follow impermanence to its logical conclusion you will see that sensations do not arise then pass away, arising is already passing away, there are no things that are arising. The hope of teaching impermanence is not to see arising and passing away, but that the world is ungraspable and unknowable. You can only know the painting.

Dogen said: the only rice cakes we have are painted rice cakes.

Dogen: “If you say a painting is not real, then the material phenomenal world is not real. Unsurpassed enlightenment is a painting. The entire phenomenal universe and the empty sky are nothing but a painting. Since this is no, there is no remedy for satisfying hunger other than a painted rice cake. Without painted hunger you never become a true person.”


You’re always in a painting, in a description. You have a story that something was removed from you. So you are on a search. Now you have a story that you’re on a search. We need to be liberated from metaphysical truth because we are the world. Did someone say that before? Only painted rice cakes can satisfy our hunger because our hunger is a painted hunger.


How does this work in sitting practice? The trick with noting is: how do we note so we can stay soft and receptive. Some note in a very hard way and create distance that isn’t helpful. How can we use noting to train us in non-judgmental awareness? It’s not easy, but it’s a training to learn how to recognize something without judging it, without being for or against it, without saying it’s good or bad. It’s a way of training in non-judgmental and non-abstract awareness.

As noting practice continues it becomes a whisper. The primary thing we are doing in mindfulness is not the mental labeling. In our tradition we say: 5% is the labeling, 95% is experiencing what’s there. Some turn it around until it becomes 95% labeling and 5% experience. When we get hooked into our stories, we can use them to keep us from actually experiencing our sensations, it removes us from our bodies.

We can all touch something deeper than who we are. This is “the taste that turns you around.” We need to be turned by the world and we also need to turn the world.
There is an arc to noting practice. In the end: what labels work? And in the end, whatever arises you simply say: yes. Loneliness. Yes. Agitation. Yes. Pain. Yes. The noting practice says: stay here, stay here, stay here. And: I won’t abandon you. Yes.