Why Overthinking Lawyers Will Love Noting Practice

Founder’s Note: This is the blog’s 150th post and somehow I managed to publish it on World Mindfulness Day and have a new meditation to share too. Sometimes little ideas you have grow and sometimes things work out. Thanks to all of the blog’s readers, followers, contributors, and friends.

If you try meditation practice long enough, you are bound to encounter the practice of “noting.” With this practice, you pick a focal point (most commonly the breath though any focal point would do). Then when a distraction arises, you simply note it and and return to the focal point.

In many cases, the instruction to note generally means to briefly identify the distraction and let it go. For example, you might be instructed to categorize the experience as either a thought, emotion, sensation, sound, or mental scene. Though many of us may be familiar with this practice, we may not always know why it’s a good one to do. That’s what this blog post will address.

What Is Noting Practice?

Noting is a mindfulness practice. Like breath practice, noting will help you cultivate awareness and focus. It can also help you cultivate self-compassion as you manage the inevitable frustration that may arise with meditation. Noting, however, offers something more too.

With noting, the act of categorizing mental experiences may help you recognize mental experiences for what they are. For example, anyone who has meditated even once knows that it is not always easy to differentiate awareness of your breathing from thinking about your breathing.

Similarly, it can be hard to realize that you are experiencing a memory or fantasy about the future when you are in it. Once you can get outside of the mental images or thoughts, it can be easy to acknowledge their unreality or challenge their logic. But, when you are absorbed by the thought or scene or sensation or emotion, your ability to manage the situation is much harder.

Noting Practice Can Help You Manage Thoughts.

Noting practices the skill of recognizing when you are having an inner experience and zooming out from it. By looking for and categorizing inner experiences, you can note them without getting sucked into the details. In other words, noting helps you practice seeing a trap for your attention and stepping around it.

In this way, noting is different from self-analysis. It is not seeing a thought and applying more thought to ask why the thought pattern occurs. Instead, the practice is simply note it as a “thought” and then let it go. You avoid the juicy details of the story underlying the thought and you focus instead on the reality that the story is one totally of your mind’s own making.

This is not to say that all of your thoughts are bad or wrong. Thinking and thoughts aren’t inherently bad. The problem that many of us encounter, however, is that we aren’t usually aware when we are thinking. As such, we often assume that our thoughts are correct and helpful. When we look at thoughts critically, though, we are bound to see that some are based on incomplete information, affected by our emotions, or infused with biases.

Any lawyer reading this probably knows why this is an essential skill. We think so much in our jobs that it can be a challenge to stop thinking. If, like me, you have ever struggled with overthinking, learning to just see that you are thinking can be a benefit in and of itself.

Noting Practice Can Help Manage Overwhelm.

The other thing that is helpful about noting practice is that it can separate aspects of our inner experience. Life does not send us experiences in neatly labeled and clearly delineated boxes. To the contrary, we can be inundated with thoughts, emotions, and sensory information all at once.

The cool thing about attention, though, is that it can really only focus on one thing at a time. So, even if you are inundated with a slew of inner experiences at once, your mind can focus on just one. In daily life, this may be hard to see because things may happen so rapidly. With meditation, though, we can slow things down and take experiences one by one.

Over time, this can help us build inner resources for dealing with difficult situations. We may notice a challenging sensation caused by emotion and then see that our thoughts are starting to spiral. We can internally “note” the situation and choose to use an inner resource to maintain steadiness.

Conclusion

Am I saying that noting practice should become a mainstay of your practice? Probably not, but it is one to try because noting is a good skill to keep sharp. I recommend trying the practice out a few times to learn and implement the strategy. Once the skill of noting is developed, you can do it occasionally to keep the skill sharp.

Even if you don’t practice noting regularly, you can use the strategy of noting in your life to catch yourself in rumination or bring nonjudgmental awareness to physical sensations. This is where the benefits of noting practice can really pay off.

If you want to give noting practice a try, check out our new Noting Practice Guided Meditation here:

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.

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Book Review: Stolen Focus: by Johann Hari

I hit a wall last year. People-pleasing and general anxiety were no longer enough to propel me forward. I couldn’t concentrate on anything.

Information of any kind – from school fundraisers to requests from parties in cases – was burdensome. Each email or phone call was just one more thing to consider, remember, and address. I felt trapped.   

As a life-long resident of the Ohio River Valley, I attempted to self-diagnosis by asking, “Is it depression, allergies, or exhaustion?”, whenever this familiar dark sensation appears. It all feels so tragically similar that this fun trio seemed to be the obvious suspect.  

Upon further analysis, this usual explanation didn’t seem quite right. It felt larger than “merely” being overwhelmed by life. There was stress, but not an unusual amount. So, at first, I attempted to tackle my symptoms one by one. I had some aging-related issues to address. I finally started seeing an allergist who greatly improved the quality of my life. I leant into naps and self-care.  

And yet it remained – the feeling that someone was constantly changing channels inside my head. The simplest of tasks required more and more of me to accomplish. It was unsustainable.  

At last, I discovered the culprit hiding in plain sight. The last and ultimately guilty suspect was the glowing rectangle in my hand. Fortunately for me, this item was no smooth criminal because it’s very use help me discover its culpability in my predicament.  

A Youtube show called “Offline”, introduced me to the author, Johann Hari, who took this topic on after a disappointing and eye-opening trip with his godson to Graceland.  After watching people choose to swipe on an iPad to “see” the Jungle Room they were physically standing in he recognized a sickness creeping over all of us.  

Out of this came Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again. Hari begins with himself, describing a self-imposed internet detox. He was financially able to put himself up for three months in Rhode Island with an old laptop, no internet service, and no access to a smart phone. Much like any addiction, he started with some bumpy experiences, followed by a “pink cloud” of euphoria as his ability to digest long and complex books returned. When the end of his retreat grew near a wave of panic washed over him as he wondered how he could keep what he worked to regain.  

Hari understands that, in our modern society, it is hard to completely detach yourself from social media platforms and internet access. He explores in the remainder of the book how one can balance this need while retaining the ability to stay focused. Hari interviews several researchers and fellow authors who have explored the algorithms of media giants, looked at macro trends across the world, and managed addictions.   

Hari approached his sources with an open mind, which I appreciate in this current ultra-binary climate. He gives a thorough explanation of each person’s position and their reasoning (citing to their work in the Appendix), whether he ultimately agrees or disagrees with them. I found this rudimentary, but foundational, journalist step strangely and depressingly refreshing.   

Many non-fiction books I’ve recently come across are a soft to rock hard sell of the author’s point of view. As a reader, I felt more at ease reaching an “ala carte” set of conclusions about modern technology and where it is going. Hari leans pessimistic, believing modern smart phones hasten and exacerbate the impulsive thinking and action of world leaders at a time fraught with multiple emergencies. (I, on the other hand, agree with the school of thought Hari describes – smart phones are a new technology that we can and will healthily adapt to… eventually.)  

While the background to dopamine-fueling algorithms was enlightening, I was much more interested in the practical suggestions Hari provides throughout the book and summarizes toward the end. One such suggestion is an app that I now have downloaded on my phone called, Freedom.  

Freedom is a VPN that blocks anything from one website to the entire internet. Much like learning to keep cookies and soda out of one’s house (ok, my house) to avoid eating or drinking these sugar-laden snacks, this app is designed to keep you from temptation. Do you have a trigger-finger for one-click Amazon purchases? A little too curious too often about what your exes are up to these days? This app helps you help yourself.  

When I finished reading Hari’s book, I felt so relieved that I wasn’t alone in this struggle. Perhaps ironically, I posted to Facebook to share a summary of what I learned with friends. Within seconds people responded with similar concerns/relief that it wasn’t necessarily aging or undiagnosed ADHD.   

Much like Hari, as I continue to tinker with the right amount of phone use, I have improved my own attention span.  If I can, you can. I recommend Stolen Focus as a great first step in striking a better balance and improving your relationship with your smart phone. 

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.

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