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The Galvanising Gift Of Noticing Thoughts

Posted in Meditation, and Mindfulness

Noticing thoughts.
The galvanizing gift of noticing thoughts.

I’ve always loved making people laugh. Accompanied by a smile family photos suggest was equally chubby and charming, from a young age I also knew how to milk a joke for all its worth. Over the years my dad, who is equally fond of making people laugh and milking jokes (sorry dad!), has passed on some of his favourite quips. Imagine my delight upon inheriting this gem:

If you notice this notice, you’ll notice this notice isn’t worth noticing.

I’d revel in the joy of sharing this deceptively empty sentence. Like Bristol’s Primary School Pied Piper, instead of using musical notes to catch rats, I’d use written notes to catch laughter. I’d scribble anywhere I’d expect someone to look: notepads, walls, post-its, school desks, chalkboards. I was having a riot, tricking people into noticing the notice while gazing expectantly for their knee-slapping reaction.

See, it’s only when you notice the notice, that you notice… the notice isn’t worth noticing. But how are you to know the notice isn’t worth noticing until you notice it? The answer is, you don’t. You have to notice the notice to make that realisation.

Fear not. The purpose of this article isn’t to dissect a gag I bored of almost two decades ago, or break the world record for the use of the word notice in various forms in one article (86 times). I resuscitate this gag because it’s a fitting analogy for the paradox of mindful thinking.

Simply Noticing

Avoid attachment. Don’t judge. Accept. Be present. Don’t identify with thought. Don’t react to emotions. Let go. There are numerous ways to explain desirable traits of a skilled mind; many I use in MindThatEgo articles.

To some extent, the rise of meditation and mindfulness in the West has been underpinned by a complexity. We may enquire whether meditation helps reduce anxiety, increases focus, shift depression, increase the quality of our sleep, helps us switch off. Indeed it can help with all of the above. But the more we analyse and intellectually try to understand, the more we can deceive ourselves into believing meditation is complex, when really, it’s simple.

It’s as simple as noticing.

If You Notice This Thought, You’ll Notice…

“Awareness is the greatest alchemy there is. Just go on becoming more and more aware, and you will find your life changing for the better in every possible dimension. It will bring great fulfillment.” — Osho

Awareness is self-healing. This may not be apparent immediately. But if you take responsibility for your inner-world, the moment you become aware of troubling thoughts, emotions or sensations is the moment change begins. Awareness is noticing. That’s it. Notice thoughts as they arise; the voice of the self-critic, visual fantasies or nightmares, repetitive ruminations, flashbacks.

The more you notice thoughts, the more you piece together the bigger picture. If you’re prone to depression, you may notice the critical voice weaving all sorts of sad stories. You’re stupid. You’re unlovable. You’re annoying. You’re too much. You’re not enough. You may notice these cycles of self-talk spark strong emotions, thoughts and feelings feeding off each other as black clouds obscure the blue sky.

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Cultivating The Ability To Notice

Noticing simultaneously allows you to witness the chaotic nature of mind while separating you from said chaos. Without noticing, it’s easy to assume there’s no separation between you and your thoughts. Awareness creates space — the essence of mindfulness. For example, let’s say I’m talking to someone I respect. Mid-way through the conversation, I’m struck by an involuntary, paralysing thought from the self-critic:

 Jeeez, Ricky. You’re boring them and you sound stupid. Shut up already.

Long before I’d started meditating, I had a strong association with such thoughts. I saw them as truth, with no separation between what I was thinking inside and external events. The result was an immediate, overwhelming emotion — severe anxiety, often panic. I’d believe the thought to be true and find a way to end the conversation to save the poor soul I was talking to.

With mindfulness, we cultivate the ability to notice. That’s it. In noticing I notice the thought isn’t worth noticing. I see it clearly. It loses its power, the emotional reaction is reduced. Consequently, it’s easier for me to return attention to the conversation instead of zoning out and honing in on the unpleasant thoughts and feelings.

A skilled noticer knows how to dismiss cognitive junk, simultaneously developing the ability to know which thoughts are worth noticing.

Noticing Is The First Step

“Surrender comes when you no longer ask, ‘Why is this happening to me?'” — Eckhart Tolle, Stillness Speaks

Closing our eyes and turning attention to the breath leads to the  powerful realisation avoiding distraction by thoughts, emotions or sensations is incredibly difficult. Sit for long enough, and I’m sure each of us develops a newfound respect for noticing. We realise our default setting is not noticing the notice. If you’re beginning meditation, noticing is all that’s necessary to kick start your journey — it truly is a galvanising gift.

If you notice this notice…

I’d like to introduce two qualities beneficial to the noticing process: curiosity and playfulness. Curiosity cultivates fascination with the nature of mind. Playfulness nudges you away from judgement and resistance — these thoughts are bad, I don’t want these thoughts — towards accepting the emotional and cognitive landscape as it is, without needing to control it.

Judging What You Notice

Once you find your flow, you’ll notice noticing without additional inner commentary is extremely difficult. Ha! Often the eagerness to calm down, find inner-peace and silence the mind can lead to a new influx of thought when we are distracted; this happens to the most seasoned meditator.

This is the trap door of judgement. Here are some in-the-moment judgements I’ve had during meditation over the years:

  • “Why am I shit at meditating?”
  • “Jesus! Where did that thought come from?”
  • “I’m weird. I’m definitely weird. Meditation has just helped me realise I’m really weird.”
  • “Why am I thinking about a 30-second social situation from 2003?”
  • “If I itch my back does that mean I’ve failed at meditation? Monks don’t itch do they?”… itches back… “You’re a failure Ricky.”
  • “Why am I not relaxed? Why do I sense tension and stress? This isn’t working. I should be calm now.”
  • “Pervert.”
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There are many, many different shapes, sizes, and textures to thought. It’s important we maintain a curious and playful approach to all thoughts we are able to notice, including the above judgements. This is important because we can never out-think thinking. Try it — it’ll only create layer upon layer of thought, possibly leading to thoughts such as: I’m a bad person for judging my thoughts!

However, simply noticing detaches us from thinking in its entirety.

When The Notice Is Worth Noticing

Just eight weeks of mindful meditation can shrink the amygdala, the brain’s “fight or flight” centre. In addition to improving wellbeing by reducing anxiety and depression, a skilled noticer lays the foundation for immense personal and spiritual growth. That’s because self-awareness increases as noticing becomes more frequent, even habitual. All of the profound changes I’ve experienced through mindfulness, meditation and self-discovery started with noticing.

Noticing when anger arises. Noticing when I feel threatened. Noticing when I feel vulnerable. Noticing when I’m appropriately vulnerable and trying to hide it. Noticing when I’m seeking approval. Noticing when I’m seeking validation. Noticing when I’m judging others. Noticing when I’m judging others for judging others. Noticing when I’m acting outside of my values to fit in. Noticing when I’m acting outside of my values to stand out.

Noticing Can Break Self-Sabotaging Habits

One of the biggest changes — reducing my need for validation through romantic relationships — was sparked when I noticed this behavioural pattern. I noticed how I’d place my emotional wellbeing in the hands of a lover. I noticed how I was handing responsibility of the ensuing despair, anxiety, stress, fragility, restlessness, value, you-name-it to someone else.

Noticing allowed me to observe this process. This is a notice worth noticing.

Sometimes it can seem we engage in behaviour, even when we notice the behaviour isn’t good for us. But that doesn’t mean this is an example of noticing not working. Generally we’re acknowledging the outcome, not the cause. Noticing occurs in the moment; when we cultivate the skill, we notice the thought patterns and emotions causing self-sabotaging behaviour.

Science backs this up. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is proven to match antidepressants in reducing relapse in those experiencing depression.

An Exercise In Noticing

Blazing the shining light of awareness on such inner-dialogue can have a huge impact. Consider the following exercise for the next few days: Try to notice thoughts. Nothing more, nothing less. Celebrate each time you notice a thought, and notice if any judgement or resistance accompanies the thought.

After a few days, consider how noticing without judgement has made a difference. Are you noticing quicker or more frequently? Do you experience more space between you and your thoughts? Let me know your experience in the comments.

Maintain a mindset of curiosity and playfulness, and simply noticing can become your superpower, an unsuspecting gift leading to significant change.

If you notice this notice, you’ll notice this notice is worth noticing.

One last thing… did you laugh?

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  1. Jose

    Hey Ricky! What do you mean by NOTICING a thought?

    Can you give an example?

    For example: Lets say im meditating (or trying at least) and I’m thinking about some past conversation, and around 10secs into that thought I become aware of that thought, in other words, I notice it?
    When I do notice the thought, it comes to a halt. The thought stops there. That conversation doesnt go on. Is that how it should be? Or should I be able to notice the thought while IT is going on?

    November 2, 2019
    • mm

      Hey Jose!

      Your example is correct. For me, the moment of noticing is the moment of awareness. I use the term “noticing” because it conveys the process of gentle awareness; in Buddhism there’s a metaphor for awareness being like feather on glass.

      From what you’ve said, it sounds to me like the process you experience is indulgence in the thought of the conversation. So, when you notice, you become mindful, stop actively engaging, and the thought evaloparates by itself.

      The important distinction is between engaging with thought (typically resisting, indulging or fighting) and noticing thought. If you are aware, the rest is up to the mind. I wouldn’t worry about any outcome or result of noticing, let that take care of itself.

      If thoughts continue, continue to notice, bringing attention back to the breath or your point of focus, over and over, rinse and repeat :).

      November 6, 2019

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