Stressed girl sitting in library

Ever heard of “floating noting”? Probably not—because it’s a cute, rhyming nickname created by yours truly. The practice, though, came from Burmese meditation masters, and it’s a beautifully simple method for dealing with complicated experiences. This is a technique you can use when the “mindful pause”—that 30-second anxiety intervention we covered last month—is not enough. When, say, exams are looming.

How to handle thoughts like “Aaaaah exams aaaaah aaaaah”

“Floating noting” is my term for a practice developed by Burmese meditation masters. Like the “mindful pause,” floating noting works by helping you turn toward your present-moment experience instead of flinching away from it. However, this method is a little more comprehensive, and it adds some extra oomph by incorporating the labeling technique we’ve discussed in previous columns.

The broad principles of floating noting

You can do this practice whenever you like. You don’t need to adopt a special posture or even find a quiet place.

With floating noting, there is no specific anchor to focus on. You let your attention float freely—hence the name. As your attention drifts, various sights, sounds, sensations, and thoughts may grab your attention and take center stage in your awareness. As this happens, you just (1) notice whatever stands out in awareness, and (2) give it a light mental label. As new objects arise in awareness, just continue noting whatever is most prominent.

To keep the labeling simple, we’ll use categories: “seeing” for sights, “hearing” for sounds, “feeling” for physical sensations, and “thinking” for anything that arises in the mind.

Example of floating noting in action

Let’s say the sound of a passing car draws your attention. You just label the experience “hearing.” Then a thought pops up—maybe something like “Aaaaah exams aaaaah aaaaah.” (I had that thought a lot in school.) Instead of getting caught up in the thought, you just label it “thinking.” The thought then triggers a twisting sensation in your stomach, which you label “feeling.”

You may find that breaking your experience down in this way makes it less overwhelming. An anxious sensation or a worried thought becomes less of a problem when you just notice it, label it, it and move on.

Final points

  • Find a nice, steady rhythm for your noting. Personally, I find that noting once every couple seconds feels right.
  • If the same object or sensation stays dominant in your awareness for a while, just keep noting it: “hearing… hearing… hearing…”
  • If more than one object or sensation stands out at once, and you’re not sure which one to label, just pick one.
  • If you look at your experience and have no idea what to label, you can just notice that uncertainty and label it “don’t know.”

Enjoy!

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Meditation helped Jon Krop, JD go “from disorganized mess to Harvard Law School graduate.” Jon can guide anyone toward chill—anxious people, depressed people, New Yorkers, even lawyers. He runs Mindfulness for Lawyers and also teaches meditation at http://jonkrop.com.