Labeling emotions

How do we relate to our emotions?

And do we need to differentiate a wide range of emotions to have a healthy relationship to them?

I sometimes ask myself that question when I see people who seem a bit obsessive in differentiating and mapping out a huge number of different emotions.


It can obviously be helpful to name emotions or emotional states.

It helps communication with ourselves and others.

Labeling the emotions for myself helps me see them as an object within my experience, and that helps me disidentify from them a bit.

And when I communicate it to others, it helps them understand a bit more what’s going on with me.


For myself, I find just a few general labels necessary.

For instance… I feel sadness. Anger. Joy. Elation. Hopelessness. Grief. Frustration.

In order to label an emotional state, I really just need the word “emotion” or “state”. That’s enough to recognize it more easily as an object happening within and as what I am. It’s a guest. Something passing through.

And if I want to differentiate a bit further, just a few categories are necessary.


What’s more important for me is to identify the stressful stories that create certain emotions and emotional states when something in me holds them as true. This is where I personally find differentiating and precision helpful.

Pinpointing these stories helps me recognize why I feel a certain way. And it helps me explore them further. It helps me inquiry into them and find what’s more true for me, and it helps me see how my mind creates its own experience by associating certain sensations and stories.


For me, the most helpful way of relating to emotions doesn’t require any labeling at all.

And that is to befriend them. Get to know them. Spend time with them. Be with them as I would a frightened animal or child. Listen to what they have to say. Ask them how they would like me to relate to them. Find the stories behind them. And perhaps even notice their nature (which is the same as my nature, and the nature of the world as it appears to me.)


For me, labeling emotions in a simple way is helpful, as outlined above.

What’s more important is to befriend and get to know them, whatever label they have. And identify and explore possible stressful stories creating them.

And I am completely open for discovering that labeling emotions themselves in a more precise and differentiated way can be helpful. It’s just that I haven’t seen it yet, in my 35 years of exploring these things.

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Do we know it’s related to kundalini?

It’s clear that a lot of things can happen in an awakening process – weird sensations, a sense of overwhelm, disorientation, lack of grounding, feeling you are losing your mind, surfacing of old emotional issues and traumas, outside-of-the-mainstream abilities and sensing, and so on.

Some people like to call some of this “kundalini”. But do we really know that’s what it is? And is it a helpful label?

The upside of the “kundalini” label is that it’s a shorthand for certain experiences people may have in an awakening process, and I assume that’s why some like to use it. The downside is that this label may make us think we understand what’s happening more than we do, and it can come with assumptions that make us overlook other and more mundane causes and remedies. Equally important, if we use the label as if we know for certain, we train ourselves to be intellectually dishonest.

I wouldn’t be able to call any of it “kundalini” or related to kundalini. I don’t have that type of access to the energy system and what’s happening. I wouldn’t know for certain that’s what it is, even if several people have agreed to call it just that.

What I do know is that a lot of different things can happen in an awakening process. I know a range of specific things that can happen and have experienced a bunch of it for myself. I know approaches that can help people in these situations, depending on the person and what’s happening. And that seems sufficient. I don’t need to put a possibly misleading label on it.

Personally, I find it helpful to be honest about these things. To be honest about what I can know and cannot know. To take a pragmatic approach without being too concerned about labels.

And, yes, I too do what I write about here. I sometimes put a label on something without knowing whether it’s true or accurate, and in a way that can be misleading. And if I look a little more closely, I see that no matter how accurate a label is in a conventional sense, it’s ultimately and inherently misleading. Reality is different from and more than our ideas about and our labels for it.

And it’s perhaps not such a big deal. A lot of the people using the “kundalini” label probably do it as a shorthand, knowing it’s a guess and that they don’t know for certain.

Noticing and labeling experience

Notice and labeling our experience is more used in mainstream psychology these days, and it’s also a traditional practice in Buddhism.

Here is the general practice:

Notice what’s here. And give it a label.

This label can be very basic: A thought, sensation, sound, sight, taste, smell.

Or it can go a little further in interpreting what it is: A man, woman, sadness, words, mental images, discomfort, and so on.

As an emergency measure to help us deal with discomfort and distress, we can approach it in a few different ways, and a combination can be most effective.

Notice the emotions. Label the emotion(s). Anger. Sadness. Joy. Elation. 

Notice the overall experience. Label it. Overwhelm. Compulsion. Reactivity. Distress. 

Notice the thoughts, the mental words and images. Words. Mental images.

We can do it for a set period of time, perhaps once or twice a day. This functions as a laboratory and testing ground so we become more familiar with how to do it and what it does for us. Noticing and labeling become more familiar to us, and that makes it easier to bring it into daily life.

In daily life, we can do it specifically when we notice an experience that’s stressful, uncomfortable, or distressing to us. Sadness. Anger. Compulsion. Words. Mental images.

This creates a distance to whatever we notice, and label. And that makes it easier to relate to it more intentionally and a little more dispassionately.

It goes from an I to an it. From subject to object. From what I am to something that’s here.

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Solidifying vs undoing

Pointers of any form may be very helpful. We wouldn’t function without them.

For instance, one of the fashionable labels is highly sensitive, and I see how it fits me too.

There are two ways to relate to these labels. We can take them as real and solid, identify with them, and use them to solidify an identity. This is who and how I am.

We can also use these labels as a starting point for inquiry. I am highly sensitive, is it true? What do I find when I look into this thought? (The Work.) Also, what do I find when I look at the words, images and sensations associated with this label for me? (Living Inquiries.) What if I find that the whole experience of being “highly sensitive”, and the discomfort associated with it, consists of nothing more than a collection of words, images and sensations, and that there is no threat in any of them when I look at each one separately? What if I find that what’s left is a sensation, and there is no threat in it?

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Labeling experience

A thought labels an experience. It may say it’s joy, pleasure, fear, dread, stuckness, physical pain.

Another thought may say it’s desirable or undesirable, something to keep or try to change.

And if these thoughts are taken as real and true, if they are not examined and questioned, it all seems very real.  Mind perceives, feels and acts as if it’s real.

And yet, it’s all created by unexamined thoughts, and mind identifying with the viewpoints of these thoughts.

The reality is that what’s here is not the label, it’s not inherently terrible or good, and it lives its own life – as do any responses to it.

It’s here to protect me. Any response in me, any emotion or physical sensation, is here to protect me. It’s devoted to me.

It’s love, and it can be recognized as love and met with love. And that’s what it has wished for. It can relax.

When a thought says “it’s dread” and “undesirable”, and mind identifies with that thought, it’s awakeness fighting itself.

And when that’s seen, it seems quite ridiculous and the dynamics fall apart, to the extent it’s seen (examined), felt (experienced, noticed as already allowed) and loved (recognized as love and met with love).

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Naming emotions

Most of us have discovered that naming our emotions helps take the edge off them. And, not surprisingly, a recent study found just that.

I feel nervous, name it, and it feels more manageable. I have fear about something, confess to it to myself and perhaps someone else, and it’s a little easier to do it. I feel anger, tell it, and I don’t have to live out that anger.

Here are some things I notice happening when I label an emotion.

From subject to object. Before I name an emotion, I am often identified with it. As I label it, it becomes an object to me instead. It goes from subject – something I take myself as, to an object – something I am aware of happening within awareness.

Fuzzy to clear. Before I name an emotion, the emotion itself and the images and stories associated with it may be fuzzy to me. I am not exactly sure what’s there, so it’s easy to go into additional stories about it and scare myself further. As I name it, the emotion becomes clear to me, and it feels more understandable and manageable.

Honest connection. When I name an emotion and share it with others, it’s often a relief. I am honest with what’s here, and there is a sense of a more real connection. I confess to what’s here.

All of this makes the emotion a little more manageable, and that goes for the images and stories associated with it as well.

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I have tried a couple of forms of labeling, and here are a few things I notice:

Labeling things at a quite conventional level – car, woman, man, tree, ground, sensation, thought – can be quite helpful. It helps release attention out of more elaborate, and often stressful, stories. It keeps things simple. I get a sense of how it is to be and live without being caught up in stressful stories. And after a while, if I do it regularly in daily life, it becomes a new habit. The old groove of getting caught up in elaborate stories starts eroding and fill in, and this new groove of simple stories and labels grows deeper.

Labeling at an even more basic level – for instance sight, sound, smell, taste, sensation, thought – has a similar effect, and also a different one. It releases attention out of more elaborate stories. It brings attention to the most basic labels, rather than the more elaborate ones (sensation instead of, for instance, “pain”). And when I include what I tend to take as me and I in this labeling exploration, what has been habitually taken as the subject is shown as an object (the me and I is revealed as sensation + image/thought).

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Ground and buildups

A simple way of looking at how our world is built up…

First, the Ground of empty awareness, the no-thing that allows all things. The inherent absence of form which allows any form, the absence of color which allows any color, the absence of sound which allows any sound, and so on.

The, the world of form, which is no other than Ground itself. It happens within, to and as Ground. It is awakeness temporarily happening as form.

These are the sense fields… sight, sound, smell, taste, sensation, thought.

Then, or as part of this, the overlay of thought. Thoughts that interpret and ask questions about the world. Creating boundaries. Mimicking the other sense fields. Forming gestalts with the other sense fields. Helping our human self to orient, navigate and function in the world.

Then, the overlay of beliefs in thoughts. Thoughts telling us that certain thoughts and gestalts are true, substantial, real.

And finally, from beliefs, the overlay of drama. The drama of maintaining and protecting beliefs. The drama of an I with an Other. The drama of story management.

The ones up through thought are there as long as this human self are around, whether Ground is awake to itself or not.

And the two last ones – beliefs and the drama of beliefs – are there when Ground is not quite awake to itself, when Ground forms itself into the appearance and belief in a separate I.

This map is only helpful – at best – as a preliminary roadmap while exploring this for ourselves, suggesting what to look for on the way.

And for me, labeling practice and exploring the sense fields is the most direct and effective way to explore it, along with all the other practices such as the Big Mind process, headless experiments, The Work, and being with experiences.

Mechanisms of samsara

Some of the ways to explore the mechanisms of samsara…

The main mechanism of samsara is a belief in thoughts. We take thoughts as somehow inherently true, or as reflecting something inherently true in the world. We put all or most truth into one story, and take out the truth of its reversals. In this way, a sense of I and Other is created, and this sense of a separate I is usually anchored in this human self (although it could also be this alive presence, the soul level, or witnessing itself, the causal level). And from here, the whole human drama we are so familiar with unfolds… with all its excitement and also sense of something being off.

Through The Work, we can explore these beliefs directly. We notice stress, find the belief behind it, investigate it, find the truth in its reversals, and through all this, the attachment to the story tends to release.

Through the Big Mind process, we explore each voice, and see that there is no separate I inherent in any of them. We release identification with those we have been identified with, and embrace those that have been disowned, excluded through the attachment to those same beliefs and identities. They are all there, each one with its own purpose and function for this human self and its life in the world, and yet, there is no “I” inherent in any of them.

We can shift into headlessness through the headless experiments, and see that all content of awareness is just that, content of awareness. Sounds, sights, thoughts, all just content of awareness. Trees, cars, people, sensations, thoughts, all content of awareness. They are all part of the same field. It is only thoughts that say that some are “I” and others are “Other”, and these thoughts are content of awareness as well. If “I” am anything, it is what this content arises within, to and as. All content comes and goes, but what they all arise within, to and as does not. It is what time & space and all content, including that which we previously identified with, arise within, to and as.

We can use labeling practice, temporarily differentiating the field of content into sensation, sound, smell/taste, sight, and thought, which helps us see thought as just thought, and how it combines with the other portions of the field to create gestalts that seem very real and substantial when taken only at the level of gestalts.

And lots more practices as well. These are just the ones I happen to be familiar with and use right now.

Transparency of thoughts

I continue to explore thoughts through the practice of labeling the different sense fields: sound, sight, taste, smell, sensations and thoughts.

It is a great help in differentiating perception and thought, exploring the different interactions between them, and also how thoughts are really just another perception, mimicking the other sense fields and arising as anything else in the sense fields.

Some things I notice…

  • When I close my eyes, I notice how thoughts create images of what is in the space around this body, and of the body itself. In fact, thoughts create the whole experience of space, when the eyes are closed and also when they are open. An overlay of thoughts organize and makes sense of perception, creating a sense of space.
  • Attention is guided by thoughts in terms of sense field, location and boundary. For instance, with eyes closed or open, thoughts guide attention to any sense field, any location, and an area of any size. It can guide attention to sensations of my whole body, or the toe, or sounds from the street, or anything else.
  • Thoughts label perception, often just as an image or also with associated sounds, tastes, smells, sensations. Something arises, it is placed somewhere within the image of space, and an image guessing what it comes from is placed on top of it. For instance, there is the sound of a car from the road, it is located in relation to the space image, and an image of a car is placed there. This happens all the time, with most or nearly all sense perceptions.
  • Thoughts mimic the other sense fields: sounds, sights, taste, smell, sensations. It creates an imagined world that mirrors the world of perception, whether it is overlaid on or separate from perceptions arising here and now. In the first case, it is often not noticed. In the second case, we call it imagination or daydreaming or thinking about the past or future.
  • Thoughts create a sense of continuity. Thoughts mirror perceptions that just left, anticipate what may be about to happen, and string them all together into an appearance of continuity. There seems to be a funny mix of thoughts of past (perceptions from a while ago), present (perceptions that just left), and future (anticipation), and of perceptions arising here now, all together creating an appearance of continuity and time.
  • Through the labeling of nearly all perceptions, thoughts trigger responses and reactions. For instance, there is a thought of hunger (image/sensation), a thought of food in the fridge, and then the response of getting up to make some food and eat it. Or an image of me as man, someone else as a particular type of woman, images of a potential combination, and attraction. Or rain, me miserable in rain, and aversion. Without these thoughts, and an identification with them, none of it would happen. The whole world of attractions and aversions is created in this way, through these overlays of thoughts.
  • Thoughts create the basic organization of perception, such as extent/space and continuity/time, and also a sense of I and Other, with a particular boundary and content of each. The field of perception is filtered into Other, which is typically whatever arises as not this human self, and I, which is typically whatever is associated with this human self such as sensations, sights of this body, sounds made by this body, thoughts, and so on. Combined with this imagined I-Other boundary, there are thoughts of inside and outside, center and periphery, and so on.
  • The sense of I is anchored in whatever arises in the field of perception that falls inside of the I-Other boundary, and some of these more than other. For instance, within the sense field I notice how – for me right now – the sense of I is especially anchored in sensations in the upper neck/lower head area.
  • Thoughts also filter perception to create a sense of a doer. Something arises, and is seen as happening on its own or through the actions of someone else, of the wider world, of Other. Or it may happen within the boundary of this human self, and still for some reason be filtered as Other. Something else arises, filtered to appear within the boundary of this human self, of I, and of I as a doer, and there is a sense of this I being a doer of whatever happened.

And the interesting thing about all this is that it can be seen as it happens. Simply. Clearly. And in that way, thoughts appear transparent, and there is also a transparency in a different way in terms of how this whole sense of an I with an Other is created.

Thoughts as sense field

When I first learned the labeling practice, differentiating the six sense fields of sensation, taste, smell, sound, sight and thought, thoughts came up saying thought, that is not really a sense field, but OK, I can see it can be called that to not make it too complicated.

But the more I explore thought, the more I come to see it as a sense field, similar to the others in several ways.

The thought field is similar to the other fields in that it…

  • Is content of awareness, just like sensations, sight, etc.
  • Comes and goes on its own, lives its own life on its own schedule, as the other ones
  • Really just mimic the other fields, with visual thoughts (visualizations), auditory thoughts, and so on.

So in immediate awareness, the thought field is not so different from the other sense fields.

Yet it is also different in an important way.

Thoughts create an overlay onto the other sense fields, sometimes making it difficult to sort out what is what unless we look. This is how conglomerates are made, or gestalts taken as solid and real and “out there” in the world if not noticed as gestalts, or as simply an appearance made up of for instance sensation and thought when they are.

This is how an emotion comes to appear as real and substantial in itself, when it is really just a sensation and a story.

(Most obviously, the label, the story of which emotion it is. Then, possibly stories saying it shouldn’t be there or go away, which creates resistance which in turn makes it appear even more substantial and real. And then also, initially and often fueled throughout the process, the stories of how what is or what may be should be different, which triggered the emotion in the first place.)

And also a sense of extent, of perception spread out in space and each one appearing in a different location in space. Of continuity, a stitching together of thoughts such as memories of what was, thoughts of what is (which is really just a memory of what just was), and scenarios of what may be. Of an inside and outside, formed by an imaginary boundary which lassoes certain areas of the sense fields saying it is inside (a selection of sensations, sounds, sights, tastes and smells, which thoughts say comes from this human self, and also most or all thoughts.) Of a center and periphery, with the center located in a specific place in space. Of subject and object, with the subject often located in space at or close to the center. And finally, of an I and Other, which is created through imaginary boundaries such as inside/outside, of an overlay of center/periphery, and subject/object.

Subject and object

When I explore content of awareness these days, and especially the content centered in the head area of space, I can more clearly see how a sense of subject and object is created.

In short, the sense of subject and object, or seer and seen, comes from thoughts (ideas of subject and object), placed on or oriented in relationship to sensations, all overlaid on ideas of space and continuity, in turn overlaid on pure perception.

It sounds hopelessly abstract when expressed that way, but is something that can be seen directly as it happens.

For instance, there are sensations in the forehead area, and these serve as an anchor or location for the idea of a subject or a seer. Anywhere else in the field then becomes a potential seen or object. And when something comes into a conscious focus as an object, there is a polarity between seer (located somewhere in the forehead area) and seen (located somewhere else). And it all unfolds on top of an image of space, distributing it all in space, and also of continuity, memories of what was.

I also see that the image of a seer is often located a little out and above from the sensations in the forehead, so these sensations serve as a reference point for this image, more than an identical location for it. Since what is seen, in these explorations, happens mostly within and around the head area, placing the sense of a seer just outside of this area makes sense. It creates more space and distance between the idea of seer and seen, so they can more easily be kept apart and distinct from each other.

And that is, of course, exactly how the whole impression of a seer and seen, and the separation between the two, is created and maintained. And when the gestalt of it all is taken as real and substantial, and not inquired into this way, the sense of a seer separate from the seen appear very real and substantial as well.

Language and thoughts


Some pretty basic things about language and thoughts, easily noticed through a labeling practice…

Language (as defined very generously) helps us communicate with ourselves and others.

When I use language to communicate with myself, it helps with mapping, navigating, orienting and functioning in the world. And this self-talk comes in two forms: non-discursive and discursive, or non-verbal and verbal.

Since thoughts mimic the (other) sense fields, the non-discursive language takes the form of thoughts of sound, sight, smell/taste and sensation. It is non-discursive, so most animals probably have this form of language, at least to some extent. When our cat recognizes the sound of our car, it uses sound thoughts, memories of the sound. When it walks up to the food bag, it probably uses image and smell/taste thoughts. And so on. She talks to herself, using nonverbal thoughts mimicking her sense fields.

The discursive thoughts also mimic sense fields, combining sound with and image, and often whatever other sense fields are appropriate. For instance, I can tell myself that I want to get up early tomorrow, have a bacon and egg breakfast, and then go our and dig out the soil for the retaining wall, and all of that is a combination of sound (words spoken to myself), images, and at least one smell/taste thought or memory.

This type of self-talkalso helps with mapping, navigating and functioning in the world, and is a slight extention of the non-verbal self-talk. When I look at it, the similarities between the two are more striking than their difference.

And of course, language can also be used for communication with others, and again, in the same two forms: verbal or nonverbal. I can speak with words, or I can draw, paint, make music, dance, move or anything else that expresses whatever non-verbal sense field thoughts I want to communicate.

There is, most likely, no end to how much we can discover when we explore this, even if we do it only by noticing what is alive here now in immediate awareness.

For instance, in terms of how the nonverbal and verbal thoughts interact, I see how the nonverbal thoughts serve as a storehouse for verbal thoughts to emerge from and draw upon. There is a sound, then a thought-image of a car placed where the sound seems to emerge from, and this can fuel verbal thoughts such as a car is passing on the street, it is pretty noisy, maybe there is something wrong with the muffler. Similarly, the verbal thoughts can easily evoke non-verbal thoughts. I tell myself that I’ll have icecream with strawberries tomorrow, and right away there is an image of just that, a smell/taste thought, and also a sensation-thought.

And by exploring this, I see how all of these thoughts are really just memories. Even if they are scenarios about the future, they all draw from the past.

I also notice how thoughts, whether they are non-verbal or verbal thoughts, live their own life, on their own schedule. Verbal ones are more easily noticed so there is a tendency to attach an idea of a doer to them, and the nonverbal ones are often less noticed so appear outside of the realm of the doer. But when I explore this more, I find only the idea of a doer – organizing perception in a certain way – and no doer outside of that idea.

Thoughts happen, and that’s it. They happen, they are sometimes precedet by something that seems to trigger them, and they seem to have certain effects. But no doer is needed anywhere there.

Seeing a thought as a thought, and using the information in that thought

As long as there is still a sense of a separate self, we can explore thoughts in different ways.

One is to recognize a thought as just a thought, through for instance labeling practice. This practice helps us differentiate perception into the different sense fields of sensation, sound, sight, smell/taste and thought, and recognize how thought filters perception. Thoughts create an overlay on what is, which creates a sense of boundaries, splits and so on which are not inherent in what is.

And whether we recognize a thought as thought or not, we use the information in that thought to help this human self navigate and function in the world. Or, more accurately, we use what appears through the overlay of thoughts to help this human self orient in the world.

Imagining a world

As I continue to explore the thoughts through choiceless awareness practice (labeling the six sense fields, including thoughts) it becomes easier to directly see thoughts, and their effects, as they arise here and now. The jumble of perception and thoughts mixed in with each other is differentiated, which makes it easier to see what they are in their selves, and also how they combine to create gestalts.

It is especially interesting to explore the image thoughts, thoughts mimicking the visual field. These are overlaid on most perceptions in different ways, and serve as cues for emotions and reactions, and as a source of material for discursive thoughts.

The basic image thoughts include…

  • Space, a visual image of space overlaid on perceptions, creating a sense of space and of perceptions spread out and located in particular areas of space.
  • Continuity. Or rather, an image of time (past, future, present) with memories of perceptions overlaid onto it. Without this, no sense of continuity.
  • Body image, which serve to map bodily sensations, smell and taste, and other perceptions. Body images also serve as a guide for identifying sensations that can serve as an anchor for a sense of a separate self, and then amplify these sensations when needed through tension, so they are more prominent and even give a sense of solidity to lend to the sense of separate self. And body images also serve in locating thoughts in and around this body, even thought they arise nowhere and everywhere in immediate perception, prior to this particular filter.
  • Separate self image, and an image of a center here and periphery our there. This one is usually anchored to the body image. The body image serves as a guide for where to place the separate self image, and where the center is located in space. Space image > body image > separate self image > center/periphery image > identity images > etc.
  • Identity images, defining how this particular separate self is different from other ones. As soon as there is a sense of separation between this separate self and another, I can find an image to go with it, and see how this image is taken as real and identified with. For instance, there is physical attraction, and I see that images of me as man and the other one as woman is there, triggering the sense of attraction (along with other images saying what is attractive). And in seeing that, the solidity of it falls away (although it is still available to play with).
  • Boundary images, as permeable or more solid, creating an I and Other, and an inside and outside.
  • Metaphors we organize our world by, such as up=good, down=not so good, etc.
  • And even the archetypes in a Jungian sense…. the wise old man, the hero, and so on.

They are all image thoughts, organizing and mapping perception, serving as cues for emotions and reactions, providing material for discursive thought, and much more. And they are all directly seen as they arise, overlaid on naked perception.

Labeling practice is very helpful, which helps me see how image thoughts are placed on top of just about any perception. A sound, then an image of a crow. A sound, an image of a car on the road. A sensation, an image of the ankle. A taste, an image of the mouth and tongue, and an apple.

Simple experiments are also helpful, such as first visualizing my left hand with eyes closed, then move the hand and notice how the image of the hand moves with it, then opening my eyes and notice the perception of the hand with the thought image of the hand overlaid.

Lately, as I go about my daily life, I can especially see how identities only come from image thoughts, overlaid on pure perception.

Visual on visual

During the most recent CSS retreat, the teacher mentioned how thoughts are most embedded in the visual field, as opposed to the other ones (sensations, taste/smell, sound).

When I explored it for myself, I found that thought seems equally “embedded”, or rather laid on top of, each of the sensory fields. In my case, and I assume this is somewhat common, there is a layer of visual thought images put on top of each sensory field: There is a sound, and a faint image of a car is put on top of it. A taste, and an image of the nose/mouth/throat area and an apple. A sensation, and an image of an ankle with a mosquito bite.

This is the same for each sensory field.

What is different, is that with the visual field, visual thought images are put on top of visual perceptions. There is visual on top of visual, which can make it more difficult to differentiate the two.

One way to differentiate, which we did during the retreat, is to close the eyes and become aware of, for instance, the visual thought image of the body, particular body parts, and how they move in anticipation of a movement of the body, or to keep track of current movements of the body. Then, we can open the eyes and get a sense of how the visual thought images are placed on top of the visual perceptions. With some practice, they become quite distinct.

Working with Choiceless Awareness

At the two CSS retreats I have been to, Choiceless Awareness has been the main practice, and I can see why. It can be a finely tuned tool for exploring the workings of the mind, the mechanisms of samsara, and what is (already) more true for us.

The main progression, over the course of the retreat and also within each session, is from stability practice (focusing on an object such as the breath or a mantra), going through the sense fields and noticing what arises in each (sensations, sight, sound, taste/smell, thought), and then inquiring into a particular process or area in more detail.

When we go through the sense fields, we can do it one by one (seems useful to get into it), then label whatever attention goes to (sound, sight, taste, thought, etc.), and we can also move into just noticing which field something arises within without the self-talk, and finally shift into Shikantaza, just sitting, or true meditation as Adyashanti calls it.

Some of the inquiries we can engage in using this tool…

  • We can notice impermanence in each sense field, how everything arises and passes away within this timeless now of awareness. We can also notice how this impermanence is alive in immediate timeless awareness, while any other forms of impermanence comes from a story and happens within time. In other words, this is the only one outside of thoughts, and the other ones are only found in the inside of thoughts.
  • We can explore thoughts specifically.
    • We can explore image thoughts put on top of perceptions.
    • For instance, without the visual field (eyes closed), we can explore how the body and the space within and around the body is represented in thought, and how movements of the body is mirrored in changes in these visual thoughts. The visual thoughts are laid on top of perceptions, identifying what arises, and also giving rise to a sense of a body (overlaid on sensations) and space in general (body+wider world). For instance, a sensation arises in space, in the area where the body-image says a foot is, and it is taken as an itch on the side of the foot. A sound arises, and it is taken as the sound of a bird just outside the window.
    • Bringing in the visual field again, we can actually see the image thoughts superimposed on the pure visual perceptions, and the difference between them. We can also notice how anticipation of a change in the visual field is actually a change in the visual thoughts superimposed on the visual field. For instance, I see the teacher sit there with the stick for hitting the gong, and the visual thought shows me him moving to hit the gong while the visual field shows him sitting with it in his lap.
    • In exploring impermanence within each sense field, we can see how image thoughts create a sense of continuity. Perceptions arise and fall away within timeless awareness. Any thought about them is a thought of what was, a memory. And in this way, a sense of continuity is created. Without thought, no continuity.
  • We can explore emotions, and see how they are made up of sensations and a story about these sensations. When this is seen, and the story is not believed in or engaged with, there are no emotions anymore. There is not the label of emotions. And also, we see that what arises as an easily recognizable emotion from the gestalt of sensation+story (when its components are not clearly seen), now is something quite different, often something that we couldn’t label very easily (beyond simply “sensation”) even if we tried.

This is obviously a very limited list, mainly because I have a quite limited experience with it so far. It strikes me that this form of inquiry is quite similar to in the Big Mind process, with choiceless awareness with a more narrow focus, and the Big Mind process spanning a much wider range of areas of inquiry.

CSS retreat and thought images

I just returned from another excellent CSS retreat, this time led by Todd who brought a wonderful fullness of heart and emotion into it along with the usual (unusual) clarity about Ground awakening that any of the teachers at CSS express.

Some of the things that came up for me using the choiceless awareness practice (labeling the six sense fields, then in this case exploring thought specifically)…

First, the new stuff…

  • There is the very familiar layer of discursive thought (self-talk), and also the layer of labeling images, labeling whatever arises in the sense-fields. For instance, something arises (bird song) and an image of a bird is placed on top of the sound. Or I close my eyes, and can still see a pale vaguely defined image of my body there, and any body part. There are sensations (swallowing) and an image of the swallowing mechanism placed on top of the sensations. A sound (lawn mover) and a vague image of a person pushing a lawn mover placed on top of the sound. These images provide a preliminary suggestion or interpretation of the perception, and serve as a fertile ground for discursive thought to arise and draw from if discursive thought arises related to that perception. These are interpretive labeling images.
  • A particular type of labeling images seem to provide cues for emotions. A perception arises, an image label suggesting what it may be is placed on top of it, and sometimes, another image label is added which provide emotion and mood cues. For me, these have color and texture as cues for what emotions and moods to trigger. (I need to explore this more to see how it plays itself out, and am also not sure if this is the same for everyone. I tend to associate words and concepts with color and texture anyway, a mild case of synesthesia, so I suspect this may be different for many others.)
  • Another type of labeling images seem to do the same for the truth content of a thought, either as really believed in or as conventional (relative) truth. For me, thoughts seen as true appear as yellow, while those less true as pale and neutral. The ones really true (believed in and taken as true) appears as bright slightly orange yellow. And those with only conventional truth as a more gentle yet still bright yellow. Weird, I know, but possibly due to synthesia.

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Changing content or not?

This is a topic that has come up in conversation a few times recently… usually when I describe a pattern I notice in own experience, and the other saying something along the lines of “don’t try to change the content of experience”. It is good advice, but also a little too general and simplistic.

When I notice what is already more true for me about what is experienced, the content of experience does change… almost as an unintended side-effect.

An emotion of sadness comes up. I bring attention to it in an heartfelt way, and the character of the experience changes to a tender sweetness. (I see that the initial experience of sadness came from resistance to the experience, when when there was a more wholehearted allowing of it, the content of the experience reveals itself as different flavors of bliss.)

An emotion of irritability comes up. I bring attention to what is really there, and see that all there is is a sensation and a story about the sensation, which together make up the gestalt of irritability. By seeing this, in real time, the gestalt falls into its components, and there is simply a sensation recognized as sensation, and a story recognized as just a story. Again, the content of experience inevitably changes due to a more clear and differentiated seeing of what was already there.

An emotion of anger comes up. I identify the story behind it (she should be more careful), inquire into it (is it true, what happens when I believe it?, what happens without the story?, what are the truths in its turnarounds?), and again see in a more clear and differentiated way what is already more true for me. This invites the attachment to the story to fall away, and along with it the pattern of reactivity giving rise to the emotion. Again, the content inevitably changes simply from seeing what is already more true.

Of course, it does matter what the motivation behind it is… Do I explore experiences to see what is more true for me, or to change it? If I do it out of curiosity, to see what is revealed when I explore it, then a change of content is just a side-effect, and not really that important apart from something else to notice. If I do it to change content, I have an image of the outcome, and possibly also of how the process itself should look, which makes it a less sincere, genuine and open-ended investigation.

In that sense, the advice is a good one. But it is also important to allow the content itself to change on its own, as a consequence of whatever investigation we engage in.

Exploring labeling-images

Just before falling asleep, and after waking up, I have take some time to explore labeling-images. It is an interesting phenomenon, although maybe not exactly earth shattering.

The job of the mind is to produce thoughts, and one category of thoughts are these labels that take the form of images.

Labels of sounds are usually quite clear cut. There is a sound, and then an image of an appropriate airplane surfaces. Another sound, and an image of a section of road and a car. Another sound, and the image of a person (as a shadowy outline) walking on gravel. The image labels surface with a suggestion of what the sound most likely represent, and there is an appropriate response (which usually is no response) to the image (not the sound itself). Most of the time the image surfaces outside of conscious attention. It is there, has effects, but is not necessarily noticed itself.

Where the labels of sounds typically represent the most likely physical source of the sound, labels of sensations are a little more complex.

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Only beliefs are distracting, and only stories attached to

During the retreat, it was also very clear how only beliefs are distracting.

A thought (story) arises, and if there is no belief in it, it just arises and vanishes into emptiness. It is just a guest, just like clouds, the wind, water in a stream, and anything else. Attention does not necessarily go there, and if it does, it is seen as just a thought. Attention also does not necessarily go into the content of the thought, but even if it does, it is still seen as just a thought.

It is only beliefs that attention cannot resist. When a story arises, and it is attached to, taken as having some absolute truth, then attention gets swept away, lured in, caught up in it…

It really has little choice, unless it happens within a situation where it is easier to see a thought as just a thought, such as when attention is brought to it and aids such as labeling (“thought”) is used. The other option is to inquire into the content of the thought, allowing the attachment to it fall away that way.

The first approach, seeing a thought as just a thought, can be done in real-time, but does not necessarily dissolve the belief itself… next time the thought arises, which it will, the attachment is likely to be there again. Still, the tendency to attach to that particular story, and any story, may wear off over time, changing the habitual patterns of attaching to it. Each time the thought is seen as just a thought, the tendency to attach to it weakens a little, the grooves get a little less deep. But this may be a slow and painstaking process.

The second approach, of inquiring into the content of the thought, requires some time specifically set aside for that purpose, but can allow attachments fall away relatively quickly. When the thought is thoroughly explored… its truth content, its effects, how it would be without it, and the truths in all its reversals… attachment naturally tends to fall away. The story becomes just a story again, without the tendency to attach to it or see it as anything more than just one of innumerable relative truths.

So only thoughts believed in, attached to as more than a relative truth, are distracting, allowing attention to be caught up in its content. Creating a world out of the story that appear as more than just a story, that appear as real.

Looking a little further, I also see that it may appear as if situations and things in themselves are distracting, but it is really the believed-in story triggered by them that is. Similarly, it may appear as if there is attachment to situations and things, but again, the attachment is really to the believed-in story triggered by them.

Luckily, we can get familiar with this terrain so the attachment to stories fade and fall away. And we can do this through (a) seeing thoughts as just thoughts (through for instance labeling practice) weakening the habitual tendency to attach to them, and (b) inquiring into the content of the thoughts, allowing the attachment to them to fall away that way.

From I to me, mine and it: a gentle disidentification

As Ken Wilber explains so clearly (and others do as well), a natural part of our development process is a shift in identity… that used to be an I, first person, perceived as the subject, becomes me, it and an object, and then something else is an I and a subject… generally moving through the bodies as described in different traditions… physical, emotional, mental, soul, causal (witness) and then finally nondual when the perceived I -Other falls away.

One way of working more consciously with this is to explore what happens when what we habitually take as an I is labeled me or it. So at the different levels, we can talk about what is happening as me, mine or it:

  • The physical, our body: This is sometimes a little bit of a stretch, depending on what is going on, but not too much. My body is in pain. My body is hungry. My arm itches. It is breathing. My brain doesn’t remember so well right now.
  • The emotional: There is often more identification here, so a little more of a stretch. There is anger. Sadness is coming up. There is joy and excitement.
  • The mental, our thoughts and stories: Even more identification here, so sometimes also a stretch. There is thinking. A story is coming up saying that people shouldn’t lie. My story is telling me that I need to protect people from feeling hurt.
  • The soul level: This is an area many are not so familiar with, so it is often more easy to see as it: There is alive presence, luminous blackness, empty luminosity, a smooth full velvety blackness.
  • The causal level, the witness: Again, often even more identification here. There is awareness. There is awareness of music, a sense of chill on the toes.
  • Nondual: There is a field of awake void and form, and form as the awake void itself.

We can also lump some of these together: My personality doesn’t like noisy people. My belief system is telling me that people in power should be transparent. That situation triggered a contraction in me.

A formal labeling practice can be very helpful with this, seeing whatever rising as an it, allowing for a gentle disidentification with whatever arises, so also allowing more space around it. The final disidentification is with awareness itself, seeing that too as an it.

We can also do it in our daily life, in how we talk with ourself, our self-talk. And we can even find ways to bring it out in how we talk with others, in ways that creates some distance to it and space around it, while also not sounding too weird (although that would be fine too).

Here are some examples of ways to talk about what arises that, for the most part, does not sound too unusual: My brain doesn’t remember so well right now. My arm hurts. There is a lot of anger coming up right now. My personality doesn’t like him very much. What she said triggered a contraction in me. There is awareness of this room and body. I have a big story about how she should be more respectful. My belief system tells me that corporations should be held more accountable.

Talking about what arises in third person creates a gentle disidentification with it, some space around it, and also creates a familiarity with the terrain of seeing whatever arises in third person. It also helps bring more awareness to our habitual patterns of talking about situations, seeing how we tend to place an I on some things that arises and not other things, and that the boundary is somewhat arbitrary. Why is it that my arm hurts, but I am angry? Why is it a story telling me that this body should be healthy, while I am aware of sensations arising?

Exploring and deepening into who and what we are is of course not all about disidentification, that is just one aspect of it. It is equally important and helpful to explore whatever comes up in other ways. For instance, by fully allowing whatever experiences come up, seeing and feeling into it, allowing any sense of I and Other to become more transparent or fall away. And also to explore what comes up through first and second person relationships using for instance Voice Dialogue or the Big Mind process.

Existence allows for it all… first, second and third person relationships, and even zero person “relationship”… it is what we are, so it is helpful to explore all of these and become more familiar with how the terrain appears through each of them.

Exploring how sensatins and thoughts combine through labeling practice

How can we explore how sensations and thoughts combine? Or put another way, how sensations serve as anchors for beliefs?

Maybe the simplest and most effective, and the way I got into it, is through a labeling practice.

When sounds arise, notice and label them “sound”. Stay with this for a while. And then do the same with sights, smell/taste, sensations, and thoughts.

This helps us differentiate each of them, and also see how sensations are combined with thoughts to create the appearance of emotions, moods, and even a sense of a separate self.

When each component is recognized, and they are differentiated from each other in this way, the appearance of an emotion, mood, or even a sense of a separate self, tends to fall away… it falls into its components.

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Seen/seeing inquiry and labeling

In exploring each of the recommended practices from the Center for Sacred Sciences distance course, I notice how well the labeling practice fit in with the seen/seeing self-inquiry.


Through the labeling practice, I get to notice sounds as just sounds, sights as sights, smells as smells, tastes as tastes, sensations as sensations, and thoughts as thoughts.

This allows each of them to stay what they are without automatically being balled up into unexamined and undifferentiated wholes, such as that of sensations and stories, which gives the appearance of something that is not really there and thus stress.

If unexamined, there may be a sensation and then a story “pain”, or “anger”, or “hunger”, or “sadness”, each of which create drama and stress. Without this automatic connection of sensation and story, there is just clarity and sometimes action from this clarity.

Seen/seeing inquiry

In the seen/seeing inquiry (I am sure somebody has come up with a better name for it), this labeling practice becomes very useful in the first phase. It helps me notice the perceptions as they are, before any story is attached to them. And it helps me notice how each of these perceptions come and go on their own, within this timeless space and awareness.

  1. Noticing the impermanence of the seen
    Notice the content of awareness, all that is seen: sounds, sights, smells, tastes, sensations, thoughts. Are they impermanent or permanent? Is there anything permanent there? Are you the changing content, the seen, or are you the seeing of it?

  2. Notice the seeing
    Then notice that which does not change. What is it that does not change? What is always here? What does the content, the seen, unfold within and to? Is this awakeness within time and space, or is time and space within this awakeness? Noticing what the seen arises within and do, does the seen appear to have any I in it?

  3. Absent of I
    Is there an I in the seen? Can there be an I in the seen if all of it comes and goes on its own, even over just a few seconds?

    Is there really an I in the seeing of it, in this awakeness that the seen arises within and to? Can you find where the seeing ends, and the seen begins? Are they different? Made up of the same?

Meditation in Action *

There is no doubt that it can be very helpful to take time out of the day for regular meditation/practice sessions, and also to take several days out of one’s schedule for a retreat.

And then there is meditation in action, practice distributed throughout our daily life. To me, this form of practice is more interesting right now, especially as it does not necessarily require any time beyond what I am already doing (in a way, it is practice for lazy and impatient people, for those of us who may be reluctant to set aside a lot of time every day, and especially don’t want to wait for these periods).

Some practices that I find very helpful in daily life, first those that do not take any extra time at all…


Douglas Harding’s headless experiments can be included and explored throughout daily life, during any activity. I work on the computer, I am on my bike, I eat, I am in a meeting, I watch a movie, I do Breema, and I can easily explore headlessness – notice that I am already headless in my own immediate experience. I am capacity for the world, that within and as which the world of phenomena – including this human self, happens. This shifts the center of gravity from the human self to seeing and beyond, into a taste of selflessness.


Another practice that can be seamlessly integrated in daily life is labeling. I note sensations, tastes/smells, sights, sounds and thoughts. And sometimes just sensations and thoughts, allowing each to live their own life. And sometimes just personality. That is the personality reacting, with its likes and dislikes, its habitual tendencies.

Seeing sensations as sensations, and thoughts as thoughts, allow each to live their own life. They don’t conglomerate into something else. And when they do, for instance into personality, then that can be labeled as well, at its own level.

All of this shifts the center of gravity from the human self to the seeing of it. It gives a sense of more space, of liberation from being blindly caught up in it.

Can I be with it?

Yet another practice which can be included seamlessly in daily life is asking myself can I be with what I am experiencing right now? I experience something that could be labeled pain, or sleep deprivation, or hunger, or stress, or confusion, or spaciness, or joy, or excitement – can I be with what I am experiencing right now?

Again, this shifts the center of gravity into the seeing, allowing the content to life its own life, to unfold in its own way. The experience is one of getting out of the way of the content.

Coming to the body

This shift also occurs through simply bringing attention to the body. To noticing the weight, movement or breath of the body, as it happens right now.

Of course, for each of these practices – headlessness, labeling, being with whatever is experienced and coming to the body, it does help to set aside some time in the beginning to become familiar with the process, and even to do so at any point where there is a break in the day.

Then there are practices that very much use the content of our daily life as fuel, and do require some time set aside, although often not much.

The Work

The inquiry practice from Byron Katie is one of these. Whatever happens during my daily life is fuel for finding clarity. The whole world is my mirror, in a very real and practical way.

Big Mind Process

The Big Mind process similarly uses our daily life and everyday mind as material for insights, for seeing what is already alive right here now, and how it is all manifestations of the Buddha Mind, Buddha Mind at work.

Labeling & The Components of Emotions

Using the noting or labeling practice in daily life, I find that the most useful is to label sensations and thoughts (the more full practice, which can be done when there is more time, is to label sensations, smell/taste, sounds, sight and thoughts).

What I find is that there is a sensation, and then a thought about the sensation. If I believe the thought, there is usually drama and a sense of struggle. And if I note sensations as sensation, and thoughts as thoughts, it stops before the drama – or it at least does not go very far. Sensations are now seen as just sensations, without needing to add a layer of interpretation on it. And thoughts are seen as just thoughts, without attaching to and fueling their content.

In this way, I see that what appears as emotions is really just a sensation and a story about it. And seeing this, the apparent emotion falls into these components. It is not an emotion anymore. It is just a sensation and a thought about this sensation.

So there is no need to go into the drama of it all. At the same time, if there is something that can be labeled pain, I can do something about it. There is still responsiveness to situations, without the drama.

Effects of Labeling

Some of the effects I notice from labeling…

  • Shift from content to seeing
    The “center of gravity” shifts from content to the seeing of the content. Or rather, it shifts from being blindly caught up in content and identified with it, to the Witness, pure awareness.

  • Link revealed as not real
    The apparent link between the perception (situation, event) and the story about it is seen as not real, as arising due to another story of its reality. It falls away.

  • Allowed their own life
    Perceptions are allowed their own life, freed from the stories about them. And the stories are allowed their own life, freed from belief in and attachment to them.

  • Fall into themselves before conglomerating
    The perceptions fall into themselves, and the stories fall into themselves, as perceptions are seen as simply perceptions and thoughts as simply thoughts. They fall into themselves before they can conglomerate into a larger apparent unit.

  • Celibacy
    There is a form of celibacy in this. When perceptions and stories conglomerate, they spawn innumerable other stories and consequences. A whole world is created, the whole drama of (conventional) human life comes into existence. When they are seen as simply perceptions and thoughts, they fall into themselves and the spawning does not take place (or if it does, is small scale and short lived).

  • Absence of drama
    Since the connection between perceptions and stories is seen through, and the attachment to stories fall away, there is an absence of drama.

  • Still joy
    There is a still joy in this, just seeing perceptions and thoughts as perceptions and thought. There is a deep stillness, within and as which everything happens. Everything arising is met intimately with awareness, and recognized as awareness itself.

  • Clarity
    With the stillness, there is also clarity – the inherent clarity of mind. The clarity which seems to always be here, although sometimes hidden by the dust kicked up by beliefs in thoughts and the drama this creates.

  • Alive intelligence
    And there is also an alive intelligence here, the inherent alive intelligence of the mind – distinct from thoughts and stories. This too is revealed beneath the dust clouds.

Some Ways of Labeling *

The fourth phase of the distance course from the Center of Sacred Sciences includes the insight meditation practice of labeling.

Their recommended approach is to label sensations, smell/taste, sound, sight and thought. A sensation comes up, and instead of attaching to a story about it, I just label is sensation. A thought comes up, and instead of going into its content, I label it thought. And so on.

In exploring this, I see how sensations, smell/taste, sound and sight are liberated from the stories about them, or rather from any attachment and belief to stories about them. They are just seen as what they are: sensations, smell/taste, sound and sight. I also see how thoughts are liberated from attachments to and beliefs in them, allowing them to be what they are – just thoughts, independent on their content. In labeling it thought, it stops there, before attachment to and fueling of its content.

A sensation come up, and a story anger. In labeling sensation, that is it. It is just a sensation, and I really don’t know what it is or what story to attach to it. Any story is just that, a story. Ephemeral. Added to it. Not inherent in the sensation. So the sensation is allowed to be what it is, without a story attached to it. And the stories come and go on their own as well, seen as just thought, without any need to attach to or fuel them.

A sound comes up, and a story noisy neighbors. In labeling sound, again it stops there. In labeling thought, the story of noisy neighbors is seen as just an story.

Three types of stories

When I do this, I see at least three types of stories.

  1. The story of the meaning of the perception

    There is a perception, and then a story about its meaning.

    A sensation may mean anger, joy, sadness, hunger, thirst, pain. Or it may go even further to mean I am sick, I may die, I will go to the hospital, how can I afford it, what a lousy medical insurance system, what if the doctors screw up, and so on.

    A taste may mean wonderful food, bad breath.

    A smell may mean he smells, he probably doesn’t take care of himself, he needs to get his act together.

    A sound may mean disrespectful neighbors, beautiful bird song, gunshot!

    A sight may mean old woman, attractive person, don’t like that vase – we should get rid of it.

  2. The story of the link between the perception and the initial story

    There is a sensation, a story, and then a story about the link between the sensation and the story.

  3. The story of the reality of the stories of meaning and link

    Both the story of the meaning of the sensation (pain) and the link (the story reflect the sensation) have secondary stories attached to them, stories saying they are real.

    The story of a link has a second story attached to it saying the link is real: The story does indeed accurately reflect the meaning of the sensation. There is not even any point in questioning it. I know it is pain!

    And the story of the meaning has the same story attached to it, a story of its validity and reality.

    This is where attachment to the stories come in. This is where they are believed in.

So here is one way of describing the sequence…

  1. There is a sensation and a story pain.
  2. There is a story about the link between the two. The story pain reflects the sensation.

  3. There are stories of validity attached to the two initial stories.

    The story is connected with the sensation, indeed – it seems to come out of or being inherent in the sensation. From seeing sensation as just sensation and thought as just thought, they are now linked in our experience of it.

    And the story pain is real, it is what is happening, it is pain! From seeing it as just a story, it is now taken as reality, as the gospel truth.

  4. These two initial stories, and the secondary stories saying they are real and valid, spawn a large number of other stories – and their consequences.

    I don’t’ want pain, I’ll do anything to make it go away – I’ll take a pill, distract myself, eat, watch TV. I better take it seriously or it can harm or kill me. It means I have some terrible disease.


Going back to the initial labeling practice, I see that there is a range of variations of the basic practice.

One variation is to simply label sensations, smell/taste, sound and sight perception. There is perception and thought. Only those two. That simplifies it for me and is a shortcut when I use it in daily life.

Another variation is to label personality. This seems most useful when the initial phase, that of labeling perceptions and thoughts, slips by and form the experience of a conglomerate of perceptions and thoughts. Conglomerates which take the appearance of a personality – of likes and dislikes, of preferences, of beliefs, of identity.

So I may notice a reaction to a situation, and just label it personality. This is the dislikes of the personality coming up, nothing more. No need to attach to or identify with it too much.

As with all labeling practice, this noting helps in shifting the center of gravity from the content (the perception, thought, or reaction of the personality) to the witness, the seeing, pure awareness. There is a disidentification with the content, a release from being blindly caught up in it, a sense of more space and freedom.

And finally, another way I have explored labeling is to combine it with the Big Mind process. Something comes up, and there is the recognition of it as the voice of anger, disappointment, attraction, seeking mind, nonseeking mind, and so on.

Labels & Resistance in Daily Life

There is a form of insight meditation which in the past didn’t do much for me, but now makes more sense.

Notice whatever comes up in your awareness, and label it sensation, smell/taste, sound, sight or thought.

Effects of noticing simple categories

Noticing these simple categories seems to have several effects.

The main one is to allow each of these experiences to separate and live their own life. Specifically, they are liberated from stories about them, and the stories are liberated from being believed in.

In my case, the main relief comes from allowing sensations to separate from stories about them. And I also see that what I often label emotion is really a combination of sensation and thought.

I can see that each of these – sensations, thoughts and so on – are already separate. The only difference is in noticing that they already are, and allowing the stories to fall away. I also see that none of these are really separate, and that this separating out is just a tool – for finding a sense of ease with it all.

Practice and daily life

I take some time out to notice this more clearly, in between daily tasks and also before falling asleep. I may scan each category and see what I find there, or just allow things to come up in awareness and then label them.

And in daily life, I may notice the categories and the dynamics between them as things happen.

For instance, I was at the dentist yesterday and noticed stories arising about pain, I noticed a resistance to the pain and so on. Seeing this, I went back a few steps in the series of cascading effects, and saw that what was really happening was just a sensation and then thoughts about this sensation. Just seeing this allowed attention to stay with the simple sensation, allowing the stories about it to fall away or at least not go very far.

Without noticing the dynamics of this habitual sensation/thought connection, the stories arise, seem very real and important, and build upon themselves. It is pain, I shouldn’t be in pain, pain is uncomfortable, I don’t want to be uncomfortable, how can I avoid this pain, and so on.

When there is a noticing of sensation as a simple sensation and thoughts as just thoughts, the attachment to these stories seem to fall away. Maybe a first or second generation thought comes up, with not much substance to them, and the third and fourth and so on generation thoughts may not arise at all.

The drama and struggle is taken out of the situation. There is just utter simplicity and ease. Just being with whatever arising, with less or no need to attach to or push them away. As if attaching to or pushing away was possible in the first place.

There is a quieting down. There is clarity. Simplicity. And engagement as well, when that comes up.

More precisely

I also see the tendency to use an informal and less thought through language when talking about these things.

Some examples of what seems more aligned with my current experience…

Sensations are already liberated from thoughts about them, and thoughts are already liberated from beliefs in them. There is only a pretending that they are not. And it seems that it has never been any different.

Also, what I often call resistance is really just a conglomerate of shifting attention, sensations and thoughts. When I don’t see it as a tenuous (really nonexisting) conglomerate, it seems very real, powerful and substantial. It can seem as a real problem, something to deal with.

Yet, when it is seen as just a tenuous conglomerate – or really as not existing at all – then the components fall (in our experience of them) into their own space. The connections among them are revealed as not real, as having not existed in the first place. When the connections are seen as not real, then the question just becomes – what was the problem? The sense of drama and struggle resolves and dissolves, and reveals the clarity that was always there.

Nothing needs to change, apart from the noticing. Nothing can really change, apart from the noticing. Before the noticing, there is drama, struggle and a sense of a very substantial and real problem. After the noticing, this is all seen as only an appearance. There is just ease, clarity and simplicity.

Catching Contractions at Two Points

I have experimented briefly with the form of insight meditation where we put labels on the various sense categories, such as sensation, smell, taste, sound, sight and thought. Something arises, I put a label on it. Something else arises – another label. And so on. And I may occasionally put the label “thought” on the previous labels just to remind myself about that as well.

Catching the connection between sensation and thought

I see that for me, when a contraction is about to come into existence, there is usually (a) a sound or sight, (b) a following sensation, and (c) a thought – a story about what that sensation means, including in relation to the initial sound or sight.

For instance, I heard a house mate walked downstairs with shoes on, a sensation arose, and the though “irritation” came up. Seeing the sensation as sensation and the thought as thought, the connection between the two dissolved. They were each liberated from each other, and the thought was liberated from being attached to.

If I had attached to the thought “irritation”, the sensation may have intensified and been experienced as uncomfortable. This would most likely have spawned additional thoughts, and soon a whole story would be in place about house mates walking into the house with shoes on and what that means. (“People don’t listen.” “Americans are unsophisticated.” And so on.)

In daily life, it seems that noticing the sensation and the thought placed on top of the sensation allows the connection between the two to dissolve. There is just a sensation, and then a thought, and that is all. They each live their own lives. The story is not attached to and does not unfold into a drama.

Another way to say it is that I catch the story of the connection between the sensation and the interpretation of the sensation, and the apparent connection dissolves there. I see that the story of connection is just a story.

Catching the initial story

Of course, there was also a story there between the initial sounds and the sensation. There was an interpretation of the sound (“house mate walking into the house with shoes on”), and most likely a should along the lines of “people shouldn’t walk into the house with shoes on”.

This is where The Work comes in. Instead of – or in addition to – what is described above, I can catch and inquire into the initial story, the one that (apparently) gave rise to the body sensations and the thoughts that followed.

In this case, the story is “people shouldn’t walk into the house with shoes on”. Exploring this, seeing what is really true for me around that, the attachment to this story may fall away. And when people do walk into the house with shoes, it is OK. I find peace with it. I may even find appreciation for it. And can still ask her to take them off.

Labeling & Inquiry

The Work has parallels to a wide range of (other) practices.

Insight practice

For instance, in a certain form of insight meditation, we label whatever arises according to its sense field: sensations, smell, taste, sound, sight, thoughts.

Whatever arises falls into one of these, and we gradually become more familiar with what is without the stories added to it. We notice the separation between what is and the stories put on top of them. And if a story gets going, as is their job, then we just see that as “thought”.

There is a great deal of liberation in just this simple practice. Especially as we get more familiar with it and it transfers to daily life. Instead of going into the stories, I simply recognize whatever happens as sensation, sight, thought and so on.


And the same seems to happen with The Work. I recognize stories as they happen, and what is without the stories.

There is a sensation, and a thought that this is a craving. As soon as I see that, the experience of and attachment to “craving” falls away.

There is another sensation, and a thought that this is “pain”. As soon as I see that, the experience of “pain” falls away. The sensation is still there, and the thought “pain” is there, but they are not attached to each other. Or rather – there is less or no attachment to the thought itself. It is just another thought, living its own life independent of the sensation.

Live its own life

Both of these practices allows whatever arises to live its own life. They do anyway, but now they can do it without interference from attachment to stories.

Thoughts live their own life, independent of whatever else arises. They may be taken as useful and temporary guidelines for explorations and actions in the world, but that is about it. They are no longer attached to, there is no longer any belief in them, they are not taken as any more than what they are – thoughts.

And everything else arising is also allowed to live its own life, independent of attachment to stories about them.


Everything is liberated.

Thoughts are liberated from a belief in them. Everything else is liberated from attachment to stories about them.

That is really all that is liberated.

There is no “I” to be liberated. Only sensations, taste, smell, sounds, sight liberated from attachment to stories about them. And thoughts themselves liberated from a belief in them.

The I is now revealed as just another attachment to a thought – placed upon a transient set of sensations, tastes, smells, sounds and sights.