Most spiritual seekers experience this scenario on a regular basis: Something knocks them off kilter then they immediately scour their mindful quivers for the best “arrow” to handle the situation. “Don’t resist.” “Stay in the moment.” “Be present.” “Surrender.” “Let go.”
This usually results in feeling overwhelmed with options, which results in a throwing up of hands in frustration.
But I’ve found there is one “go-to” word that mindfulness practitioners can rely on to handle ANY situation. That word is notice.
MBSR and Jon Kabat-Zinn
Why? I’ll get to that. But first, I want to relate the anecdote that prompted this piece. Four years ago I took the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. Developed by famed mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, MBSR is an eight week course that focuses on meditation and mindfulness.
My class was taught by the prominent teacher, Christiane Wolf, a doctor from Germany who also trains instructors in MBSR all over the world. A large part of the course involved Q&A with Dr. Wolf.
Students asked a whole range of questions like “What if my mind just won’t shut up when I meditate?” And “I’m finding I’m so angry at my kids all the time. What should I do about that?” And “What do I do about this near-constant anxiety I feel?”
“Just notice that.”
I realized that Dr. Wolf answered countless questions like these the same way: “Just notice that.” To the point where I thought to myself, “That’s not a very fulsome answer, Christiane. How about a little meat on them bones?”
In retrospect I realize that Christiane was spot on in repeatedly giving that answer. Why? Because noticing is the foundation for meditation and mindfulness. And why is that?
Because when one notices something, who is doing the noticing? By definition, your conscious, present, aware self is the entity that notices.
And noticing is inherently of a non-judgmental, detached nature. So when the student asked what she should do about her anger toward her kids and Christiane told her to just notice it, what she really asked her to do was step outside herself and observe her behavior in the present moment.
Separation is key
Because ultimately, when you notice something, you separate yourself from it. There’s you and the anger. You and the incessant thoughts chattering while you meditate. You and the anxiety you feel.
That separation of all things into the conscious you and literally EVERYTHING else that comes into your field of awareness is the sum total of the spiritual ballgame.
The panacea that would cure humanity’s ills would be that people’s “noticers” take over the driver’s seat in the moments of their lives. So that we’re all just there, present for the moments of our lives. Why would that be so great?
Put the ‘noticer’ in charge
When our noticers are in charge we don’t get lost in our heads as they churn out meaningless thoughts. We don’t fall victim to the emotions created by our drama queen, fearful, never satisfied, egoic selves that dominate the lion’s share of the moments of most people’s lives.
Maybe the most destructive misconception plaguing modern humans is their belief that they are the sum total of their thoughts and emotions. Not so. Your noticer is who you are. It’s your conscious presence. Your essence.
By the way, the previous paragraph is the central teaching of Eckhart Tolle (and his groundbreaking book The Power of Now), Michael Singer, Buddhism, Hinduism and, one way or another, most of the other spiritual traditions.
How this can help you
Fine, so noticing is paramount on the self-realization journey. But how can you actually incorporate this into your life in a useful, beneficial way?
Easy. Just have notice at the ready at all times. It’s all you really need. How does it work?
You’re stopped at a red light. Normally, your mind swoops in and carries you off to Thoughtlandia — what should I make for dinner? I hope my hamstring heals up so I can workout again soon; if not I’ll get depressed. I don’t think I’m going to make the next round of layoffs at work.
But now, in the middle of the ‘what should I make for dinner’ thought, your super hero, Super Noticer, flies into your mind and whisks you (the real, conscious you) away from the clutches of the Thought Dragon and returns you to the land of the present.
Notice your surroundings
And then what? You look outside your car window and notice the beautiful trees swaying in the wind. Then you notice the bright blue sky and the brilliant clouds passing over. Why do you do that? Because the trees, the sky and the clouds are all there right now. In this moment.
How about an even more consequential scenario? Your spouse/significant other says something that absolutely infuriates you. Instead of instantly lashing out, you step back and notice for a few seconds the feeling that is enveloping your entire being.
Now, instead of you collapsing into one entity of fury, there is you noticing AND the feeling of fury inside you. Two entities.
If you’re successful at pulling this off, and this will take practice (more on that soon), you’ll create a space wherein you can respond with presence rather than volcanic rage. And that is critical.
It’s the difference between 1. having a meaningful, constructive discussion that might even end in the bedroom and 2. five days of mutually assured destruction, silent treatment, cold warfare. Which would you rather have?
It ain’t easy
Is it easy to simply separate yourself into the noticer and what you’re noticing? No. And the reason is obvious: All your life your mind has sucked your attention into its clutches without so much as a fight.
In other words, your mind is Godzilla and your noticer has all the brute strength of a chipmunk. It’s not a fair fight.
To get better, PRACTICE
So what can you do? Practice. Just start practicing. The only arrow you need in your quiver is the word notice.
But if you really want to take over the reins of your life and feel peace inside, do yourself the biggest favor one can bestow on oneself: Commit to making this practice the central endeavor of your life.
Really? The central endeavor of your life? Isn’t that a bit heavy-handed? Not at all.
Because what you’re doing when you strengthen your noticer is strengthening your connection with the real you. And when you strengthen the connection with the real you, you get…everything.
Like what? Like access to your true self. And your true calling. Which gets you closer to answering that most central of metaphysical questions: What the heck am I doing here?
Can you think of anything more worth your time and effort than knowing that?