As long as meditation is defined as sitting silent and alone, it’s not going to catch on. We are human primates. We are social in our very bones. Isolation is punishment. Silence is dull.
Here is another definition: meditation is the bringing of attention to experience, and training in meditation is training in attention. By this definition, neither isolation nor silence are required; we can train together, and that is good, because together is what we were born for.
Social meditation brings the benefits of traditional silent meditation while simultaneously cultivating intimacy and strengthening bonds between humans. Social meditation is engaging in a way that only social activities can be. And social meditation provides a built-in feedback loop; when two or more people are taking turns reporting their experience in real time, there is little time for mind wandering. Meditators stay on task, thereby increasing the efficiency of training.
Every silent meditator knows that for every hour of practice some considerable amount of time is lost to mind wandering. It may happen that in one hour of silent practice, only a cumulative five or ten minutes are spent with the attention continuously on the objects of meditation. The bulk of the period is spent ruminating, worrying, planning, reflecting, fantasizing, drifting, or sleeping.
With social meditation, ten minutes of practice equals ten minutes of time on task. The feedback loop of reporting aloud while taking turns ensures efficiency. Accountability to another human being generates motivation.
In its simplest form, social meditation is Mahasi Sayadaw-style choiceless vipassana done aloud while taking turns. Each meditator calls out a one-word description of the phenomenon that spontaneously arises in experience. Here is an example:
(Continuing to alternate)
There is no right or wrong answer; whatever arises in experience is called out (noted). This exercise, in which two meditators take turns noting their experience aloud is called ping-pong noting, pop-noting, or social noting. Social noting can also be done round robin style, in a circle.
Instructions for teaching social noting to a group:
1) Briefly explain the technique. “We are going to notice whatever is predominant in our experience and call it out.” At first, limit the vocabulary to the five senses plus thinking. The options for spoken notes, then, are seeing, hearing, tasting, touching (or feeling), and thinking.
2) Demonstrate this by noting aloud for about 30 seconds. Get a volunteer or confederate to note with you in a dyad to further demonstrate the technique.
3) Explain that you are not deliberating forcing the attention around, just noticing where attention goes by itself.
4) Offer the pressure-relief valve of “uncertainty.” You can always say “uncertainty” or “don’t know” when you don’t know what else to say.
5) Set up three or more people in a circle. Up to about ten people can be in this demo group. If your group is larger, put the demo group at the center so others can see and hear. Eventually, everyone will do the practice, but the demo group will be cumbersome if you try to include too many people.
6) Explain that those in the demo circle will take turns noting. Review the instructions: you are going to call out whatever naturally arises in your experience, using one of the six words we discussed.
7) Say, “here we go,” then call out your note and look to your left to cue the next person. Go around the circle once or twice, verbally nudging people who take too much time. Give feedback. Explain the importance of pacing. Ideal pacing is one note every 1 to 3 seconds. “This is not chess. Have your note ready when your turn arrives and pass the baton to the next person. Otherwise, people drift off. If you don’t know what to say, the right answer is ‘uncertainty’ or ‘don’t know.’”
8) Take questions, but don’t spend much time on this; a minute or two for clarification should be enough. It’s important to get people doing the practice rather than talking about it.
9) Go around the circle a few more times, spending another minute or two noting.
10) Introduce more complexity in the touching/feeling category: “OK, now we’re going to add more options for notes, subdividing the tactile category.” Explain that where you have been noting “touching” or “feeling” you can now note pressure, tightness, coolness, hardness, softness, aching, itching, burning, stinging, etc. This is cumulative, so everything we’ve talked about so far is on the table including the new possibilities. In other words, you can still note seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, and thinking.
11) Go around the circle a few more times noting in this way.
12) Introduce mind states. Mind states are ephemeral emotions and attitudes. Alertness, interest, curiosity, anticipation, fatigue, anger, annoyance, joy, acceptance, aversion, impatience, fear, love, compassion, and uncertainty are all mind states.
13) Demonstrate noting mind states in isolation. First note by yourself, and then demonstrate in a dyad with your confederate. Take questions for clarification, but don’t spend much time on discussion; keep the pacing so people stay engaged.
14) Remind everyone that “uncertainty” is not only a mind state, but also the pressure relief valve; if you don’t know what to say, the right answer is “uncertainty.” Then drill mind states in isolation (for the time being, don’t note anything except mind states, so they can get the hang of it) with the group, round robin style.
15) Put it all together: Go around the circle a few more times with the instruction to note from the entire palette that we’ve discussed so far, including seeing, hearing, tasting, touching/feeling (in all its subdivided detail), thinking, and mind states.
16) Assign dyads. I usually assign the dyads myself, walking around the room and pointing, “you and you are together,” etc. Otherwise, this can bog down into introductions and chat sessions. Keep the momentum going. Have people sit or stand together in their dyads.
16) Ring a bell or say, “start!” to begin the dyad noting. Circulate around the room giving support and encouragement. Emphasize pacing. Ring the bell or say “OK!” to end the dyad session after about five minutes. Take questions or comments, then lead more dyad sessions or end the meeting as appropriate.
Some students will want to go deeper. In order to further systematize the technique, meditators can be taught to think of their experience as being divisible into four categories. The four categories presented here are an adaptation of the four satipatthanas (the Four Foundations of Mindfulness of Theravada Buddhism):
1) Body phenomena (the five physical senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, touching (or feeling), and smelling).
2) Feeling-tone (vedana) The pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral aspect built in to every instance of experiencing a phenomenon from the first (body) group above. For example, seeing neutral, hearing pleasant, tasting unpleasant, touching unpleasant, smelling unpleasant. Any given body sensation might be either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral in any given instance. The ability to identify which feeling-tone is presenting in any given moment is evidence that a meditator is bringing attention to momentary experience.
3) Mind states (ephemeral emotions and attitudes). Examples are: annoyance, compassion, irritation, love, anger, anticipation, dread, optimism, anxiety, uncertainty, fear, empathy, worry, shame, joy, wonder. Uncertainty is special in that it is the pressure-release valve; when the meditator doesn’t know what to say, she can always say “uncertainty.” Meditators are encouraged to note welcome or unwelcome mind states without preference. In this way, negative or shameful mind states are normalized. All mind states are seen as acceptable, morally neutral, and a natural aspect of human experience.
4) Thoughts. Thoughts are categorized or placed in buckets as they are noticed. Meditators are encouraged to make up buckets on the fly; the fact that a thought has been placed into a bucket is evidence that the thought has been clearly seen (objectified), which is the point of the exercise. Examples are: imaging thought (I just heard a car go by outside, and a generic image of a car arose unbidden in the mind); planning thought; worrying thought; catastrophizing thought; scenario spinning thought; fantasizing thought; processing thought; reflection thought; evaluation thought; judging thought; self-aggrandizing thought; self-congratulatory thought; self-recrimination thought.
Just about anything that can happen to you can be placed in one of these four categories, so drilling them or monitoring them systematically while noting freestyle can ensure that nothing in your experience flying beneath the radar. Vipassana meditation is most effective when everything that arises in experience can be seen and objectified.
The four categories of experience can be drilled in isolation, in pairs, triplets, or quads, e.g., body+feeling-tone; body+feeling-tone+mind states; body+feeling-tone+mind states+thoughts. Drilling systematically in this way builds familiarity with the system in much the same way that drills build fundamentals in sports or music. The bulk of practice time, though, will be spent actually playing the game; encourage students to dedicate most of each practice session to freestyle noting, choicelessly calling out experience as it is noticed.
The Ladder of Abstraction.
In order to note effectively, meditators must be taught to distinguish their experience from thoughts about their experience. To this end, it is useful to introduce the ladder of abstraction.
Lowest on the ladder of abstraction is raw experience. At this level, sensations can be clearly felt, but it would not be possible to assign a name to them. While it is possible to meditate (train in attention) at this level, it is difficult to remain on task as higher order processes have not yet come online.
Moving slightly higher on the ladder, it becomes possible to assign names to experiences. The sensation of itching can be labeled “itching,” and the activity of seeing can be noted as “seeing.” It is at this level that noting meditation becomes possible. Whatever disadvantages may accrue from rising up to this level of abstraction are outweighed by the feedback loop made possible by the labeling. Social meditation becomes possible here; with the advent of labeling comes the ability to communicate one’s experience to another. Language opens a window into the intimate experience of another human being.
Higher still on the ladder of abstraction it becomes possible to combine simple phenomena into compounds. Mind states, for example, are compound phenomena; discomfort, agitation, anxiety, and anger are similar phenomena distinguishable by the constellations of sensations that comprise each state. Fundamentally, mind states are patterns of physical sensations; the name we give to each discreet state is itself an abstraction.
Continuing up the ladder, thoughts can be objectified and labeled. When this is done continuously, simple thoughts don’t spin out into full-blown narratives.
At even higher levels of abstraction, complete narratives become available. Work at this level, while valuable, e.g., psychotherapy, is not meditation, and therefore beyond the scope of this essay. Much of the work of meditation involves learning to work at lower levels of abstraction, countering the natural tendency of modern humans to become lost in narrative while losing touch with the simpler phenomena of body sensations and mind states.