Noticing as a Spiritual Practice
Noticing is a profound spiritual practice in itself because it gets us in touch with what is noticing and experiencing life, with Consciousness, our true self. Consciousness notices; it is what witnesses and experiences life. It is who we are. Whenever we do what our being naturally does, we align with it. For instance, if we say something compassionate to ourselves or to someone else, we align with our true nature because our true nature is compassionate. Or if we accept ourselves or someone else, we align with our true nature because our true nature is accepting. Or if we notice our experience and fully experience it, we align with our true nature because our true nature is what is aware and experiencing life.
Buddhists call this practice of noticing, mindfulness. Being mindful means being aware of our present moment experience, including our thoughts, feelings, intuitions, internal experiences, bodily sensations, sounds, sights, and other sensory input. In any moment, a lot is going on, and it’s all in flux. So there’s always plenty to notice in our present moment experience. The present moment is alive with activity and experience.
What notices and discerns is the true self. The true self is the consciousness that makes it possible to experience life. This Consciousness is a great mystery because it can only be described by how it is experienced, since it isn’t a thing apart from everything else. The wisdom traditions say that this Consciousness is all-pervading and behind and within all creation, although it isn’t important that you believe that.
More important than any belief is the experience of the consciousness that is here right now, experiencing these words and their impact and experiencing anything else that is being experienced. This consciousness is the most fundamental truth of existence. The one thing you can know for sure about yourself is “I am.” How do you know you exist? You are conscious. You experience.
How funny it is that a false self exists at all, since we don’t need it. We need an ego to give us the sense of being a particular individual so that we can function as the character we are meant to play, but we don’t need the egoic mind to define us and tell us how to live this life. We can still be this character without listening to the limiting and negative programming that comes through the egoic mind. The false self and its limiting programming is the illusion that we are meant to shed at some point in our evolution. But until we begin to see through this illusion, believing that we are the false self is exactly the experience we are meant to have.
What wakes up out of the false self and sees the truth about egoic thoughts is Consciousness, which was temporarily lost in the experience of being a suffering self. We all eventually discover that suffering is optional, as we learn to disidentify with the ideas and beliefs in the egoic mind that create the false self who suffers, and we begin to more fully embody our true identity.
Of key importance in this awakening process is the strengthening of our ability to be aware, conscious, and centered in our present moment experience. Usually this happens as a result of some spiritual practice, particularly through meditation. This can also happen by learning to concentrate the mind in present moment experience some other way, as artists, musicians, dancers, or athletes do when they’re engaged in their artistry.
Being fully present in the moment is an experience of our true nature. The more time we spend being present, the easier it is to be present and remain present and the more familiar we become with our true nature and its way of being in the world. Certain pathways in the brain are developed by meditation and other practices that bring us into present moment awareness. So, like any skill, we have to practice being in present moment awareness to get better at it; hence, the emphasis on spiritual practice in so many spiritual traditions. How this is relevant to becoming more aware of thoughts and feelings is that this, too, is something we need to practice and something that is developed through spiritual practices and by being present.
I like to call Consciousness the Noticer because Consciousness is very much experienced as that which notices and experiences. The Noticer is a fitting term because it’s so neutral, like Consciousness. One of the qualities of our true nature besides being aware is that it is allowing and accepting. “Noticing” captures how consciousness touches the experiences of life but doesn’t push them away, cling to them, judge them, or even evaluate them as good or bad, which are all features of the egoic self.
What we are is often also called Awareness, since that word also captures the neutrality of our true self and the experience of our true self—it is aware. This Awareness is just that, without evaluation, judgment, or liking or disliking whatever it is aware of. It embraces everything equally.
Although Consciousness isn’t judgmental, it is discerning and naturally moves toward what is true for it and away from what is not true for it in any moment. This discernment isn’t accompanied by a mental discussion of the pros and cons and potential outcomes of moving one way or another, it just moves.
So when we are in touch with who we are, we naturally move in certain directions, often without much thought or rationale for doing so, which is so unlike the egoic state of consciousness. Every one of us experiences this natural and spontaneous response of Consciousness to life in many moments during the day without thinking much about this. It’s how our being moves through life.
Once we understand the value of becoming more aware of our sensory experience and of what we’re thinking and feeling and of everything else that is happening in our present moment awareness, that alone increases the likelihood that we will be more aware. Valuing being more aware and making an intention to be more aware are the first steps in becoming more aware of our thoughts and feelings.
We can also strengthen this intention by doing certain things, such as stating this intention aloud or in writing and asking for help in becoming more aware in the form of a prayer. And if we follow up this intention with a practice of meditation or some other spiritual practice, we’ll not only be developing the skill we need to be more aware, but we’ll be reinforcing our intention with our actions.
Something else you may want to do to help you become more aware of your thoughts and feelings is to make a list of the things your egoic mind says to you. Set aside a day to take a little time to notice your thoughts and write some of them down. Then spend some time with this list and ask yourself a few questions:
What types of thoughts are on this list? For example, are they judgments, shoulds, complaints, desires, fantasies, memories, likes, opinions, fears, worries, self-doubt, or about time? Which types of thoughts are most prevalent?
Then examine individual thoughts and ask: Is it true? How does that thought affect me if I believe it? Is that thought helping me live this life? Do I need that thought? Could I live without it? Is it useful?
Most of our thoughts are simply commentary about what we’re already doing and experiencing, what we did or experienced in the past, and what we might do or want to do or experience in the future. Meanwhile, the being that we are goes about life, picking out melons, getting something to eat when we’re hungry, resting when we’re tired, and doing everything else we do. Our thoughts often influence these activities, but if we didn’t follow these thought or didn’t have them, we would still pick out a melon, eat, rest, and do all the other things we do to support our existence.
The egoic mind takes credit for running the show called my life, but what’s actually happening is that who we really are just allows the egoic mind to add its input and take credit for the show. This is why the ego is called the false self—because it’s false, it’s a phony. It’s not real but, rather, just thoughts that pretend to know and pretend to be somebody.
The only caveat to the practice of noticing our thoughts and feelings is that unless we also notice our sensory experience, we can get caught up in our internal experiences and not be fully present to everything else that’s being experienced in the moment. Too much emphasis on noticing thoughts and other internal experiences, which may be necessary when we first start a practice of noticing, or mindfulness, can lead to solely watching our thoughts and not being present to the rest of life. When we are noticing only our thoughts, our nose is still glued to the television set of our egoic mind even though we’re not identified with the thoughts anymore.
This doesn’t leave us much more present to reality than when we were identified with those thoughts and the ongoing movie in our mind. Nevertheless, this is often what happens before we learn to be more completely established in the present moment, which would include being fully in our body and senses as well as noticing the coming and going of our thoughts and other internal experiences.
The practice of noticing as it applies to our stressful thoughts and feelings often needs to be more than just briefly noticing a stressful thought or feeling and then moving on, although that might be enough to disidentify with some stressful thoughts or feelings. But if we still believe a stressful thought or feeling and can’t let go of it, then it’s likely that there are other unconscious or semi-conscious beliefs and feelings that are behind the stressful thought or feeling and holding it in place. When that’s the case, we also need to notice and fully experience the feeling in our body and everything connected to it, such as any resistance to it, beliefs, and other feelings.