If you practice mindfulness meditation, you’ve had this experience: you are focusing on your breath, one inhale and exhale at a time, when suddenly a compelling thought arises, distracting you. Maybe the thought is about work, or a relationship, or the vacation that starts next week, or whatever. That thought then leads you down a series of mental rabbit holes until – five minutes in – you realize that you’ve completely lost the breath. It can be humbling to realize how little control we have over our minds. Those thoughts are so compelling!
One powerful way of working with distracting thoughts is the simple technique of labeling. Whenever you notice that your mind has been wandering, silently say to yourself, thinking, thinking, or wandering, wandering. If you’ve been planning your day instead of noticing your breath, you can note planning, planning. If you’ve been remembering an event from yesterday, you can say remembering, remembering, and so on. Labeling our thoughts can have the effect of giving us some distance from them, leading to what I call “dis-identification.” We tend to identify with our thoughts and believe them to be true. Haven’t you noticed this in your own experience? Even if our thoughts are destructive, we give them credence because we are familiar with our mental patterns. That familiarity breeds an auto-pilot relationship to our thoughts. Because of this we tend to act on our thoughts without questioning or examining them. But when we label our thoughts in meditation, it’s as if we are freeing ourselves from the spell our thinking cast on us, as if we are waking up from a dream. We no longer believe the thought automatically. We see the thought merely as an event in consciousness. It may be an important thought that we need to act on; it may be a worthless thought that can be easily discarded. The important thing is that the act of labeling creates some space around our thoughts, allowing us to be aware of them and therefore giving us a choice about what thought to believe and act on and what thought to ignore.
This labeling technique also works with emotions. When we are feeling angry, we can note, angry, angry, or sadness, sadness, or desire, desire, etc. And labeling is something we can do even when we’re not meditating. It can be especially helpful during difficult conversations. If you’re talking politics with a close friend and you find yourself getting angry at an opinion your friend is sharing, acknowledging your anger can give you much needed separation and time to process the emotion. As a result you will probably be less likely to respond to your friend by saying something you might regret.
Research has shown that the inability to identify emotions makes it harder to regulate them.(1) Other research has shown that labeling emotions tends to lead to a lowering of stress levels.(2)
Keep the labeling simple. One word labels are best. The tone of your labeling is important as well. Simply note the bare experience without adding any emotional tone to it or any commentary. If you’re frustrated that you keep getting distracted by your thoughts, labeling THINKING! THINKING! impatiently will just make you feel bad about yourself.
Like just about any other meditation technique, mental labeling doesn’t always work. And it works better for some people than others. But it works often enough to be a useful addition to your meditation tool box.
Bill Scheinman is a mindfulness teacher and corporate mindfulness facilitator in the San Francisco Bay Area. His next 8-week class in mindfulness-based stress reduction starts Feb. 20 in Berkeley. He also offers online mindfulness courses which you can learn about here.
1. Vine & Aldao, Journal of Social & Clinicial Psychology, April, 2014; 2. Craske, UCLA, 2012.