Introduction to Social Noting
Social Noting is an intersubjective approach to mindfulness meditation. It's a form of Multiplayer Meditation.
As long as meditation is defined as sitting silent and alone, it’s not going to catch on. We are human primates. We are social in our very bones. – Kenneth Folk, “Social Meditation”
Social Noting was originally developed by Kenneth Folk, a long-time Buddhist yogi & teacher who has spent many years practicing in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition, where he mastered the art of Mental Noting. Also, Kenneth has been one of my closest personal teachers, since I began working with him as a student in 2005.
Kenneth developed Social Noting while attempting to find more effective ways to teach the traditional methods of Noting Meditation to his students. He discovered that by doing the practice out loud–traditionally, it was only ever done internally–he could hear how his students were practicing, thus enabling him to give them instant feedback on their technique.
Kenneth also found that by doing the practice out loud, he was able to model the practice for his student’s, giving them the instant benefit of seeing what it’s like for someone with thousands of hours of experience to do the technique. By taking turns noting out loud with his students, what he originally called “ping pong noting,” Kenneth discovered a much more effective approach to teaching tradition noting meditation. He also, inadvertently, ended up developing an entirely new approach to mindfulness practice, one that is inherently social.
While there are many definitions of mindfulness, I’ll describe it simply as the practice of noticing what you’re sensing in real-time. Social Noting, then, could be described as the practice of noticing what we’re sensing in real-time. The only real change, between subjective mindfulness and intersubjective mindfulness is the subject of focus. In traditional Noting meditation one is focused solely on one’s personal experience, while in social noting one is focused on the co-arising of experience between self & other(s). Social Noting shifts attention from a me focus, to a me + we (“mwe”) focus.
Noticing vs. Sensing
It’s important to point out the difference, in this way of describing mindfulness, between “noticing” and “sensing”. Both noticing and sensing are ways of knowing, but they’re different. Notincing is a way of knowing that includes cognition. To illustrate this, we can do a simple exercise. If you take the time to do this yourself, I believe you will get a clear sense of the difference between noticing & sensing. So to begin with, when you notice the palm of your hands, what is there? Well, in order to find out, we have to check…
There is tingling, there is warmth, there is an internal image of my hands.
There are things which I can recognize, and clearly identify with my cognition. I am noticing my hands. Now, what happens, when instead of noticing your hands, you sense your hands? Stop reading this, and take a moment to sense your hands directly.... 🤲
When I do this, and when I’ve seen other practitioners do it, what we find is that our thinking mind goes blank for a bit, as it becomes difficult to describe what we’re sensing with words. The degree to which we’re really able to contact the sensations of what we’re calling “the hands,” itself a basic concept, is the degree to which we become immersed in a type of experience that is non-conceptual & immediate. We are sensing something that we typically relate to as “the hands,” but at a level in which the concept doesn’t appear to be functioning in the same way anymore. We are contacting direct sensation.
“There is a huge debate about what mindfulness is – Is it sensing or noticing? Intention on focusing on breath – requires differentiation of noticing vs. sensing. You use the noticing circuit to disengage the distraction and then use the sensing circuit to re-engage your focus.”
– Dr. Dan Siegel
The purpose of noting practice is to continually engage the noticing function of mind, to help us investigate direct sensory experience. Once we’ve become lost in sensation–often in sensations related to feeling or thinking–the noticing function of mind helps us to identify that there is wandering, distraction, or forgetting. From there, as Dr. Siegel points out, we can re-engage with direct sensory experience. Mindfulness practice includes both noticing and sensing, working together in a kind of virtuous feedback loop.
The Noting Spectrum
In the practice of noting meditation we often use verbal notes or what are also sometimes referred to as labels to help engage the noticing function of mind. One can note silently to oneself, which we call mental noting, or they can note out loud by themselves–out loud noting. Finally, if one notes out loud with others, this is what makes the practice social noting. It’s also possible to drop the verbal notes altogether and practice non-verbal noticing, what has also been called bare attention.
Just as a reminder, the use of verbal notes is always in the service of noticing actual sensations, not in merely categorizing experience. Again, from the point of view of this practice, knowing can take both the form of simple cognitive knowing (i.e. noticing) and direct sensorial knowing (i.e. sensing). Or as insight meditation teacher, Joseph Goldstein put it, the function of a note or label operates in much the same way that the frame around a piece of visual art does. The art frame is meant to draw our attention into the artwork, not to be the central focus. In the same way, a verbal note is meant to draw our attention into the direct sensory experience of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, feeling, and thinking. The words are not the experience, rather they’re meant to put you more deeply in touch with your experience! And with the practice of Social Noting, the practice is further designed to not only put you in touch with your experience, but also to help you contact the experience of others–to develop, as Dan Siegel puts it, both inner resilience and interconnectivity.
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