I responded recently to a question on-line of whether or not there was any possible benefit to noting (and possibly categorizing or labeling) the content of our internal thinking process.  In general, mindfulness would be about watching the sensory activity detached from the story. This woman wanted to know if there were studies on any possible benefits from noting the content.  This was my reply:  

I can’t speak of studies but I can share how this practice of noticing content of thinking led to several “breakthroughs” for my students – and ultimately for myself:

Many years ago (like 17?), I asked my meditation teacher, Shinzen Young, about this as I wondered if labeling content could prove fruitful, and I asked him what categories he might suggest. He said that “Memory, Plan, and Fantasy” were the only 3 categories he had really worked with, and he encourage me to explore it and get back to him (as he always did about everything. 😎) I found that ALL plans, for me anyway, were fantasies, so that left 2 categories.

And then, the following year I was teaching a 6 week class where we were deconstructing the thought process, and I played with this labeling of content to see if it proved to offer insights to the participants. I started everyone off with “judgment” (since Shinzen had also suggested at one point that when the mind was quiet for more than a couple of seconds, it would tend to throw a judgment in there – to which I responded, “Oh, the way a woman on a date feels that a silent pause means she is supposed to say something!”😜)

And so I had all of my students note whenever they had a thought that was a judgment. At one point, I even had everyone do this aloud (in a quiet muttering tone) – and it was hysterical! It was like a group of ribbiting frogs. It would start with one here and there until the whole room was saying/ribbiting “judgment” and then we’d all laugh and it would get quiet and then start up again.

Then, the next week, I added “Past” and “Future” (since “memory, plan, fantasy” were, for me, just that.) So, at that point, we had 3 possible labels, “Past, Future, Judgment.” That ended up proving quite powerful for many students as one man (who was in the class because his brother had died and his wife had left him for his best friend), realized that most ALL of his thoughts during the day were of Past with Judgment, and one woman, for example, (who was in continuous fear that she would do something wrong) realized all her thoughts were really judgments of the future (and of things that most often never came to pass.) In both cases, it proved to be quite productive as each person saw how they were missing the present moment of most of their days, and this labeling process enabled them to not attach as much – and be less affected by – the negative thinking.

Then I decided to add another category which I called, “Drama du Jour” – i.e. Whatever the issue of the day was. This ended up adding a kind of fun “lightness” and humor to it, so that, again, it proved to help people disconnect from the “poking” of the negative thinking, and the repetitive nature of the thought became something to make fun of vs. be tortured by.

And the last big insight came when, between classes as I was contemplating what to do next week, I had a category that I wasn’t sure what to name. What do I call the idea that others are judging me? (which, as an actress, is basically what an audition is – and thus an all-too-familiar event.)  I couldn’t call that judgment because, as in my thinking, there was a high probability that the other person was not actually judging in the way I was projecting – so do I call that “Projecting”? “Paranoia”? “Self-consciousness”? Then, as I dug deeper, I realized that at the base of all such notions of others judging me was an assumption that they were separate from me. So, I decided to label any thought that had at the base of it this assumption that the other person was separate from me, and I labeled that thought “Self vs. Other” (and then I let it go.)

I spent the next 48 hours continuously labeling everything thought that had, at it’s base, this assumption and said, “Self vs. Other” and let it go. (Needless to say, this assumption was at the base of a LOT of thoughts!) After about 40 hours, I started noticing that I was feeling lighter and happier. Sometimes it took a moment for me to identify the “Self vs. Other” at the base of the thought, but that process got quicker and with each labeling and releasing I felt lighter and lighter.

Then, less than 48 hours after I began, I pulled up my car in front of my house and “popped” another “bubble” of thought with a “Self vs. Other” label and then my perception dramatically changed in that moment. I looked at the sidewalk, the tree, the car, the gate, and I still saw these things, but they were the same thing as I was. The way I described it at the time was: it was as if we were all under water but we were also made of water – except instead of water, it was … like a kind of … energy or something. I was unable to see separation in a very dramatic way after that – and I felt so connected to and part of the world in which I lived – it was quite palpable and wonderful. I even spoke of it when I was asked to substitute for Trudy Goodman at a meditation a week later.

A monk who happened to be present and heard my talk came up to me afterwards and asked, “Why did you just not focus on Oneness?” And I said that simply had not occurred to me – I wasn’t going for oneness, I was simply playing with labels of content of internal thought and this happened.

When I told Shinzen of this, he got excited and, of course, was trying to see if he could put it into his system of the day, but he needed a one-word label – he didn’t like “Self vs. Other” – and thought of using “separation”, but I was pretty set that it was the acknowledgment of those 2 parts that led to my experience. Then, as with other insights, it was forgotten and we all moved on – but the fact that the insight into the common nature of all came from labeling the content of internal thinking was something I was not going to forget. This is a chapter in a book I’m writing and the first time, since then, that I’ve shared this story publicly. I can only hope it’s interesting and/or helpful.

(After I wrote this on-line, someone asked the following question:  “To clarify, whenever a thought came up, you labeled it “self vs. other” if it was relevant to that? What if it was not relevant to self vs. other, or were there none of those?”  And this is how I answered:)

When I was doing this practice, it was after a week of noting “judgment” and a another week of noting “past” & “future” of every thought that arose – so for this particular 48 hour period, I was solely interested in exploring how many thoughts had “Self vs. Other” at their base. So, for that period, I examined every thought and if it was “Self vs. Other”, I labeled it and let it go. If it wasn’t “Self vs. Other”, I kind of automatically noticed if it fell into one of the previous categories I’d been using for the 2 prior weeks.

I found that a majority of thoughts ended up being labeled “Self vs. Other” but for thoughts that weren’t, I did not deliberately, intentionally label them anything at all (although, as I said, the process of labeling had become somewhat “automatic” by that point.) But my interest for this period was simply seeing how much of my thinking process included this particular “category” of thoughts. (And there was no question that a surprising majority of my thinking process included thinking that had a “Self vs. Other” assumption at its base.)

Now, let me say here, that  just the act of noting and labeling (which I had been doing quite consistently for at least a couple of weeks by this point) obviously had an effect of detaching identification with the thoughts, so that should be acknowledged here, as well.  I’m sure that “primed the pump” or “prepared the soil” – or whatever metaphor you want to use for having acted as a “warm-up act” for the “final show” of insight that happened here.


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