How Labeling Content of Thinking Can Lead to Liberation: A Personal Story
I responded recently to a question online 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 could be described as tuning into sensory activity detached from any story or content of thinking. This woman, however, wanted to know if there were studies on any possible benefits from noting the content of our stories, our thoughts.
Well, 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:
This story took place in the early 2000's. By this time, I was well-versed in the broad-yet-deep system of mindfulness developed by Shinzen Young, and my sensory clarity and concentration were at new levels. The more I studied and tuned into my sensory experience, the more passionate I became about sharing this with others.
I was, early in my teaching career, especially experimental. I was always exploring whatever entirely new way I could come up with to do things, to teach things - and my teacher & mentor, Shinzen, was a big proponent of such experimentation and enjoyed that I did it. We would often share things we'd come up with. His system was based in sensory experience separate from content of thoughts or stories. And did I mention that I like to experiment?
One day, I wondered if labeling content of thinking could prove fruitful, and I started playing with it in my classes & workshops. I had one small group that had been meeting for awhile who responded positively when I asked if they'd like to do a 6-week "deep dive" into exploring this. It seemed that everyone was struggling with thoughts they didn't want to have, so exploring ways to dismantle those - other than the ways we had already explored - was something they were ready, willing and able to do. They wanted answers. We journeyed together.
I started everyone off with identifying any thought that might be a judgement, labeling it “judgement”, and then, if they could, let it go. (And I would do a light, playful tone of voice with "let it go" that I may have gotten from Pema Chodron, I can't remember.) I expected judgement, whether of oneself or of others, to be a chief culprit and main guest star in the show of the thinking mind. And, it turns out, that was pretty much the case - at least for us. Also, I remembered hearing a speaker once say that when the mind was quiet for more than a couple of seconds, it would tend to throw a judgement in there – as if that was what to do when you didn't know what to do! (I remember smiling as I thought, “Oh, the way a woman on a date feels that a silent pause means she is supposed to say something!”) This implied that "judgement" was a default - but I still wanted to explore it and we all dove in.
And so, one day during a guided meditation, I had all of my students note whenever they had a thought that was a judgement, as they had been doing for a week. Then I suggested that every time someone had a thought they deemed a judgement (no matter how minor), to say aloud; "judgement" - in a matter-of-fact tone, quietly, under their breath, almost as if to themselves. Yes, I told them they would be hearing each other, but to the best of their ability keep track of their own thoughts & labeling of judgement, if it came up. I said that the situation itself may evoke judgment - who knows? - but, if it did, be sure to label that "judgement."
What happened next was rather fun. From different little pockets of the room, you'd hear various softly murmured "judgement" ... "judgement" .... "judgement" ..and they started overlapping until there were judgements everywhere - the symphony ultimately expanded and relaxed with a kind of mass rhythm that sounded so much like ribbiting frogs! And it would reach a point when we'd all break into laughter. And it would then be quiet, and slowly, little judgements would pop up - like early kernels of popcorn, of frogs saying "ribbit" - except it was our judgements - until it filled the room, and we'd all break into laughter again which would die down until it all started again. It was a 20-minute meditation I will never forget. What an insight into how much judgement our mind spews out - and how we could laugh instead of be gripped by it - simply by labeling content. Good lesson.
Then, the next week, I added the labels “Past” and “Future” (since it seemed so much of our day was reviewing what happened or rehearsing what we wanted to happen - not being in the present.) So, at that point, we had 3 possible labels, “Past, Future, Judgment.” That ended up proving quite powerful for many students.
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 (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 come 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! This was a big eye-opener for both of them and, in addition to leading to different life choices for both of them, it greatly contributed to their motivation to go deeper with this work to untangle the thoughts they are most affected by - and see other options.
Okay, that was good, ....... but I felt there was more to explore and then I decided to add another category which I called, “Drama du Jour” – i.e. whatever the issue of the day was. I know that I found there was always some story that would bubble to the front of my mind for a period of time and seem to occupy a lot of my attention - i.e. it was the most important thing at that moment, or so it seemed - that is until another thought or story would float to the top. It seemed these "Dramas de Jour" were visiting guests who took up too much room & were a bit too intense. So I wanted a title that was light and helped us have a sense of humor about it, and thus, "Drama du Jour" or "Drama of the Day".
Well, this ended up adding a kind of fun “lightness” and humor to it, as I had hoped it would, so that, again, it proved to help people disconnect from the “poking” and "stickiness" of the negative thinking, and the repetitive nature of the thought became something to make fun of vs. be tortured by. All of us found that the process of labeling created a distance from the thought so that we were not as identified with it, and it was easier to let go of. Labeling - and lightness - helped create equanimity. Another good lesson.
And the last big insight came when, before one of the last classes, as I was contemplating what to do for the next week's class, I had a category of thinking that I wasn’t sure how to label. I didn't know what to call it.
What do I call the idea that others are judging me? As an actress, you are literally putting yourself in front of people to be judged with every audition. Of course you're going to wonder what they think and if it's positive or negative! And if you don't get the part (which is the majority of the time), there's a good chance that at some point you think they didn't like you. However, that fear of what others are thinking extended far beyond auditions, and I found I could track it throughout my life. Was that the case for others, as well?
What do I call this sense that others are judging you? Also, because there's a good possibility that they actually were not judging you - but you still have that experience because you believe they were. I wanted to know what to call that. What do I call those kinds of thought? Projecting? ... Paranoia? ... Self-consciousness? Hmmmmm, no, none of those seemed to do the job.
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. Like it was "me v. them." So, I decided to label any thought that had at the base of it this assumption that the other person was separate from me, (maybe even "on the other team"), I decided to label that thought “Self vs. Other.” Then I'd let it go.
If a thought arose that I could not identify as "Self vs. Other", for this practice, I did not label it at all (although sometimes an automatic "past/future/judgment" label might have come in because that's what I'd been doing for weeks and it was automatic, but I was making no effort to do so), and I simply continued with my day, noting thoughts with a particular interest in this particular kind of thought - was there an assumption of "Self vs. Other" at it's base?
I spent the next 48 hours continuously labeling every thought that had, at it’s base, this assumption, and I 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, I'd have to stop and dig or analyze for a few moments, but that process got quicker & quicker (especially as familiar thoughts resurfaced) and with each labeling and releasing, I noticed felt lighter and lighter - both physically and emotionally. This surprised and delighted me. After every "let it go" it was like my body wanted to float and my mood was more towards a pleased delight. I wasn't sure how this tangible sense of wellbeing could arise so dramatically from simply noting & releasing thoughts.
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 .... hmmmm, not sure how to say this, but my perception dramatically changed in that moment.
How to describe this ..... 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. I was not other than what those things were.
The way I described it at the time was that 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 – everything was ...one ...thing .....and I felt so connected to and part of the world in which I lived – it was quite palpable and wonderful. There was a richness as if I had been in a 2D world before and was now in a much easier, more complete 3D-4D world. ... Yeah, hard to describe.
Now, in telling this story to a monk friend, his first response was, “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. I had to surmise that what happened is a natural state that our habit and style of thinking interferes with, and as I released attachment to more and more of what got in the way, this natural state of oneness (which also had a delight, lightness, love) is what shone through. It arose and took over.
So I would call this a case of how categorizing the content of thinking can lead to liberation. It's just my story, but I have worked with many people who have experienced clarity, wisdom and a sense of emotional freedom from the process of labeling the category of their thinking process. We just get so gripped into our stories and this particular sequence of exercises is just one way to release, to let go of the stories, the identification with them, the grip of them, and simply be present in a grounded-yet-light way.
So, is labeling the content of thinking the only and best way to break identification with and attachment to our negative thinking & judgment? Don't be silly. Of course not. It's not even the first thing I recommend - but that's only because I now have an arsenal of powerfully effective mindfulness techniques (from the UM system + my own) that can get the job done quickly & efficiently. But there are times, depending on the thinking style of whomever I'm working with, when I suggest we play in this way to help them get insights into the content of their thinking.
You can become fully enlightened without doing any of this, I just find myself drawn to practical applications of mindfulness, and this was a story of how leaving the traditional teaching route proved fruitful. And thus I share.
FYI - What is described in this piece is not an included exercise in "Letting Go of Negative Thinking & Judgment" course that I offer. That course has 10 totally different strategic techniques for dismantling negative thinking, that I happen to think are effective individually & sequentially.)