My own daily mindfulness practice has gone on for a few weeks now. At first, I would focus on my breath around the nostrils, become seduced by the inevitable mental distraction, catch myself doing it, note the thought and then “compassionately reorient” back to the breath.
Lately, perhaps for the last week or so, however, it has dawned on me that I’ve been skipping that part in the process where I note the nature of the mental distraction. Part of the reason may be that I have not made it a point to write out the distractions proceeding the meditation as I had when I had first begun.
There is another tool that might be of assistance, though for reasons I will explain I have remained wary regarding using it. Still, the technique, known as Labeling, interests me, though perhaps mostly because I keep finding my way back to it. For instance, in the midst of one of the many lectures and TedTalks I have watched regarding mindfulness meditation it was mentioned that Winston Churchill, who had dealt with his manic depression all his life, had come to refer to the ill mood as his “black dog.” This also made me think back to one of the many damn good songs of Jerry Cantrell, this one entitled “Give It a Name,” off his Degradation Trip album:
“Give it a name,
get it out of your home
Out in your backwoods
a doghouse you own
Give it a name
like a howling blue hound
Chasing your fears, man
he’s hunting you down.”
It also reminded my of the Biblical myth of Eden, where Adam established his dominion over the rest of the animals in the garden by means of naming them.
It also reminded me of the meditation practice of labeling, where one, as you might imagine, proceeds to label what arises in their mind. This is essentially what Churchill was doing, though I don’t think he considered it in the context of meditation, and it sounds to me that this is precisely what Cantrell was talking about, though that assumption is also fed by another song of his, “Siddhartha,” on the same album, I believe. It is a song about identifying with the main character in Herman Hesse’s book of the same name — and the themes of Buddhism and identification run through it as well.
In any case, the theme here is objectifying mental contents — seeing them as objects distinct from oneself, a perspective which endows you with power over those mental contents, dominion over the animals of the mind. One becomes distracted by a thought or sensation and then assesses it in order to label it something like “useful” or “not useful”. This mindful objectification is used not as an end in itself, then, but for the purposes of evaluating or defining the rogue impression. It is used as a means of refiling mental contents in an amoral manner. If you’ve read Genealogy of Morals, it is essentially a move from Nietzsche’s slave morality of “Good and Evil” to his master morality of “good and bad”.
This practice certainly trains one in the art of metacognition, but I fail to see how we do not all have that capacity anyway: we are always thinking about thinking, have emotional reactions to our emotional reactions. Labeling constitutes metacognition, then, but this would seem to be distinct from meta-awareness, from true mindfulness, from identification with the witness aspect behind all conscious and subliminal cognitions and sensations.
The articles I have read insist that over time, this labeling process will become nonverbal, as if the ultimate automaticity and subliminal nature of the process should serve one some comfort. This only seems to echo the dualistic nature of the former filing system — the only difference is that it now files according to utility. The object of mindfulness would appear to be to transcend categories altogether, though, not to refile mental contents.
Isn’t labeling how we create the ego and shadow aspects of the personality to begin with, however unintentionally? Labeling could be interpreted as a more mindful use of that process, but it seems to aim at the development of a better ego (and, by default, its corresponding shadow), hence the chorus in Cantrell’s song:
“Slowly all the roles we act out
become our identity.
In the end we are what
we pretend to be.”
Aside from labeling these are other means by which thoughts can be acknowledged, however, and this would be by describing my mental distractions in writing after my meditation, as mentioned before, and labeling them then, and try to discover their triggers, history, utility, and how it relates to other distractions. For now, I’ll explore that avenue….