Noting how the stories in our heads start, about ourselves and about others
Each morning, I start my day with a ten-minute meditation using the Headspace app. There is a technique called “noting” that is used in some of the series, including the one I’m doing now. In meditation, this is the skill of noticing when your mind is wandering and saying “oh, that’s thinking” or “oh, that’s feeling” and bringing your attention back to the breath. The key is not to judge or analyze, simply to note. Of all the tools I’ve learned from meditating, this is probably the most helpful to me. By noting, I’m getting better at preventing or at least turning around those death spiral thoughts: those that start when I latch onto a thought I’m having and turn it into a narrative or a scene that I play over and over, either rehashing how I did something wrong or kicking myself for not doing it differently or coming up with ten different scenarios for a conversation I may or may not have later that day, scripting out both sides and automatically creating conflict. It’s exhausting. These stories in my head are not the kind of daydreaming that leads to creative output, they’re the kind that leads to depression and anxiety.
Since these death spiral thoughts don’t serve me, you’d think I’d want to just stop them in their tracks, avoid them all together. Yet, importantly, this practice is not about trying to stop the thought or feeling, it’s just noting that it exists and choosing to focus on something else. It’s noting that thoughts and feelings change from one moment to the next, and that by letting them freely flow through my mind instead of holding on, I can separate my true voice from those that are there only temporarily. Trying to stop them is a forced, unnatural, stressful state, one that usually involves getting down on myself for having them in the first place, and it’s kind of like trying to stop eating potato chips when the bag is right there—if it’s all you’re thinking about it, it’ll be hard to stop doing. Practicing noting in a meditation makes it easier to do during the rest of my day. I can note when I’m creating scripts, when I’m berating myself, when I’m living in the past or the future instead of the present.
I’ve also found that, in addition to helping with the death spiral thoughts about my own internal dialogue, this noting technique helps with the death spiral thoughts that involve other people. I bet you know these well: getting angry or annoyed at someone’s actions in traffic, on the sidewalk, in the store, at work. True, it can be helpful in these moments to consider the other person’s angle—maybe they’re running late or had a fight with their spouse or simply don’t know how to write an email without sounding dismissive. I struggle with this technique sometimes, simply because living in a city and having a job that involves other people means there are some days it seems I am creating these stories almost without a break and it gets to be a level of suspension of disbelief that I can’t handle. Not everyone can be in a hurry, statistically speaking at least one of those people is just an asshole. But calling everyone an asshole just because one of them might be is certainly not a helpful way to get through the day.
This is where noting comes in for me. Instead of the ubiquitous, “what are you DOING?!” when an Uber driver erratically pulls over and double parks in the middle of a busy street, I can note, “there’s a car stopped in my lane, I’d better move over.” As evident by this sentence, it’s not about denying there was a problem or pretending another person wasn’t involved. It’s not about not caring that it happened in some Pollyanna wide-eyed version of the world. It’s about taking control of the situation instead of getting angry that I was a victim and calling another human being that I don’t even know an asshole. The anger I feel when I get cut off in traffic isn’t only about the danger or the stupidity. It’s also about the disruption of my own plans for how I want to move. I expected to move freely, I wasn’t able to, you took that away from me how dare you. I expected to run on the right side of the path, you’re walking towards me on my side, you should move not me and you’re an idiot if you don’t. That’s the part of me that will personalize the attack by all these assholes surrounding me rather than taking it in stride. Noting helps in these anonymous interactions by giving me that moment to remember that I’m not a direct target of an action but collateral damage. That doesn’t let the other person off the hook, but it at least gets me out of the martyr mindset and replaces that mentality with a sense of ease and control. Even in situations where it does feel like I’m being directly attacked—an email addressed just to me, a turn of phrase in a conversation I’m having—it gives a moment to allow for me to respond rather than react, to make space for a productive outcome rather than a fight.
If we can note when those situations arise, and remove the element that we insert based on our own expectations not being met (expectations that are either difficult or impossible to communicate so therefore difficult or impossible for others to understand and meet), it’s easier to navigate the obstacles life throws at us. It’s a lot easier said than done, for me especially when it happens in conversations with those closest to me, but I’m going to continue practicing.