One of my favorite topics to explore with students and educators alike is that of our thoughts. The more we practice mindfulness, the more clued in we become to the running narrative in our heads. Being able to see our thoughts as nothing more, nor less, than thoughts is an incredibly powerful outcome of consistent mindfulness practice. The more steady our attention, the more we are able to see clearly what our minds are up to.
Unnoticed, these thoughts run the show, governing our emotions, reactions, and behaviors.
But labeling thoughts creates space around them. We are no longer stuck inside of them, beholden to them, but we can see them for what they are: secretions of the brain made up our past experiences and habit patterns that may or may not be true and may or may not serve us. Labeling is scaffolding to pure witnessing by using our thoughts intentionally to see what is there.
For example, if I think I hate Mondays and I don’t want to go to school today I may label this as thinking, thinking and perhaps even feel a little freedom from that thought, which otherwise would create a pall over my morning. I don’t have to agree nor argue with it. It’s just the brain doing its thing, and I am fully seeing it in order to move on.
There are a few practices to develop familiarity with the thinking mind and create that space:
Basic Noting: Each time a thought arises, make a note by silently repeating, “thinking, thinking”
Space Noting: Consciously make note of moments between thoughts.
Past/Present/Future: Each time a thought arises, note it as, “past, present, or future”
Pleasant/unpleasant/neutral: Each time a thought arises, note it as, “pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral”
It is most helpful to practice these in a formal sitting practice first, and then delight when you are able to observe this happening in the moment! You can try watching the breath and making note of when a thought arises, then returning to the breath after each label. Don’t get too caught up in if you are labeling correctly, just set your intention to be curious and compassionate with what you see.