Monday, January 31, 2011

Naming your experience

As you expand your meditation to include thoughts and feelings, you may find it helpful to practice naming, or noting, your experience. Begin with mindful awareness of your breath and then start silently naming the in-breath and out-breath. When you get really quiet and focused, you may even want to include subtleties such as “long breath,” “short breath,” “deep breath,” “shallow breath,” and so on.
Keep the naming simple and subdued, like a gentle, nonjudgmental voice in the back of your mind. As Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says in his book A Path with Heart, give “ninety-five percent of your energy to sensing each experience, and five percent to a soft name in the background.” When you become adept at naming your breath, you can extend the practice to any strong sensations, thoughts, or feelings that draw your attention away from your breath. For example, as you follow and name your breath, you may find your focus interrupted by a prominent emotion. Name this experience softly and repeatedly for as long as it persists — “sadness, sadness, sadness” or “anger, anger, anger” — then gently return your attention to your breath. Take the same approach with thoughts, images, and mind-states: “planning, planning,” “worrying, worrying,” or “seeing, seeing.” Use the simplest words you can find, and focus on one thing at a time. This practice helps you gain a little perspective or distance from your constantly changing inner experience, instead of becoming lost in the torrent. By naming particular thoughts and emotions, you’re also acknowledging that they exist. As I mentioned earlier, we often attempt to suppress or deny experiences we deem undesirable or unacceptable, such as anger, fear, judgment, or hurt. But the more you try to hide from your experience, the more it can end up governing your behavior, as Freud so wisely pointed out more than a century ago.
Naming allows you to shine the penetrating light of awareness into the recesses of your heart and mind and invite your thoughts and feelings to emerge from their hiding place, into the light of day. You may not like what you encounter at first — but then you can name your self-judgments and selfcriticisms as well. Ultimately, you may notice that you’re not surprised anymore by what you discover about yourself — and the more you make friends with your own apparent shortcomings and frailties, the more you can open your heart to the imperfections of others as well.

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