See/Hear/Feel Noting Technique for Deep Peace and Insights into Not-Self, Emptiness and Impermanence

Meditation teacher Shinzen Young developed a really cool noting technique that he calls see/hear/feel. In my opinion, it is a considerable upgrade over the classic Mahasi style noting approach. The Mahasi style noting approach is the one usually taught in vipassana retreats and in McMindfulness meditation apps. Mahasi noting involves noting a sensory experience as it arises and labeling it appropriately. If, for example, the meditator feels an itch, then that experience may be labeled "itch" under the Mahasi noting system. If the meditator perceives a thought arising in experience, then the perception can be labeled "thinking". If the meditator perceives sadness arising, then the label can be "sadness".

In contrast, Shinzen Young's see/hear/feel noting technique divides all of sensory experience into the three categories of see(ing), hear(ing) and feel(ing). If the meditator has their eyes open, then changes in the external visual field are labeled "see out". If the meditator perceives an external sound, then the experience is labeled "hear out". When a bodily sensation arises, it is labeled "feel out". Thoughts and emotions are labeled similarly, but instead of being noted as "out" they are noted as "in". If a thought arises, the meditator should observe whether the thought takes the form of a visual image or the form of mental chatter. If it's the former, then the appropriate label is "see in". If it's the latter, then the appropriate label is "hear in". Finally, bodily sensations linked to emotions are labeled "feel in". An example of this would be a tightening of the chest produced by anger. This tightening ought to be labeled as "feel in" instead of "feel out" because it is produced by an emotion (anger). If, in contrast, the tightening of the chest is caused by a heart condition, the appropriate label would be "feel out".

There are several other notations in the Shinzen system, including "flow", "expansion" and "contraction", and "rest". "Expansion" is noted when a sensory experiences increases in intensity or breadth and scope. "Contraction" is noted when a sensory experience decreases in intensity or breadth and scope. "Expansion" and "Contraction" are both instances of "flow", since the sensory experience is constantly changing as opposed to solidifying. When the sensory experience vanishes, disappears or ends, it is noted as "Gone". When there is no sensory experience it is noted as "rest". For a detailed description of this noting system, check out Shinzen Young's "Five Ways to Know Yourself".

In what follows, I will explain several ways in which I've used the see/hear/feel noting technique as a tool for gaining (some) insight into notoriously difficult Buddhist doctrines, such as dependent origination, Not-Self, impermanence and emptiness. I end with a reflection on how to use the see/hear/feel noting system to identify and find your way to a deep sense of peace and stillness.

1. See/Hear/Feel for Dependent Origination and Not-Self

The thing to do here is notice how the "ins" are produced by the "outs" and vice versa. This can be seen even in the most trivial of experiences. 

Example: You hear "birdsong". This would be noted "hear out" because it's an external sound. But if you pay close attention, it's also likely that the "hear out" will be accompanied by a mental image of a bird. If so, you have a case of a "hear out" that generates a "see in". Perhaps you don't get a mental image of a bird and instead you simply say to yourself as part of internal mental talk "bird". If so, then the "hear out" produced by the birdsong triggers a "hear in" represented by the mental talk "bird". Same thing if you listen to what you interpret as an airplane sound or a car sound. A "hear out", followed by a "see in" or "hear in" of the airplane or car. 

But why do this? Because it sheds some experiential light on dependent origination. It allows you to very clearly see how a thought (represented by a "see in" [of a bird, for example]) is dependently originated as a result of an external stimuli (represented by the "hear out" of birdsong in this example). In a sense, it also illuminates not-self. Take the mental image of the bird that pops up in your mind (see in) as a result of the "hear out" of birdsong. That mental image is a thought. But did you choose to think the thought, thereby proving that you are a "self", an "agent"? Of course not, you didn't choose to think the thought. The thought thinks itself. In this case, it's a product of external stimuli. Not of yourself, but of stuff that is not-self. 

Once you see this clearly, you can play with this in more complex scenarios like one that happened to me recently. I was listening to a song playing on radio (hear out), generating visual image of myself as a little kid watching old NBA Video in my old living (see in), in turn generating a sense of sadness and nostalgia (feel in). Note that the emotion could be noted as "I'm sad". But who is this "I" who is sad? And why is he sad? Well, there is no real "I", chooser, or doer of the sadness. The sadness dependently originates as at least partially as a result of external stimuli ("hear out" represented by the tune played on the radio).

The upshot? The line between "in" and "out" blurs. All "ins" can be traced back to "outs". Furthermore, notice that the "self" has to live in the "ins", because external sounds, sensations and sights are obviously not-self. But if the self lives in the "ins", and the "ins" eventually turn into "outs", then isn't it the case that we are really "outs" and not "ins"? Something to play with.

2. See/Hear/Feel for Impermanence

Here you need to work with what Shinzen calls "the way of flow". In particular, noting things as "expansion" and "contraction" helps. Notice that expansion coincides with the "arising" of phenomena in experience. In turn, the "contraction" coincides with the "passing away" of phenomena in experience. When the contraction leads to the phenomenon disappearing, it is noted "Gone", signaling the final passing away of the experience. 

This can easily be done with sounds. Take the sound of an airplane flying over you. The sound is first noticed and it tends to increase in intensity. This is "flow" under the noting system. But more specifically, it's "expansion" as it's getting more intense. Note how this correlates nicely with the "arising" of phenomena. 

But you can get even more granular. You notice with the notation of "expansion" that the "arising" is actually comprised of micro-moments wherein the phenomena gains steam or intensity or breadth or scope. This gaining of steam eventually culminates in the peak of the sensory experience, which is the moment when the "expansion" (arising) ends and the "contraction" (passing away) begins. Then you note the contraction. Let's stay with the airplane sound example. The airplane is moving away, and the sound begins to wane. Now this is noted as "contraction", which correlates nicely with the passing away of the phenomena. But, once more, the passing away can be explored in even more granular ways. There are micro-moments that comprise the passing away, during which the experience loses steam or energy or breadth. This losing of steam eventually culminates in the final passing away, which is then appropriately noted as "Gone". 

The upshot? Impermanence is seen not only in the arising and passing away of phenomena, but also in the actual "arising" and "passing away" in more granular ways. The "arising" is really a combination of micro sensory experiences that point in the direction of gaining steam (noted as "expansion"). This culminates in a magical moment when the experience fully arises and peaks and is now bound to lose steam (there is no notation for this in the Shinzen system, I think). Then there are many micro-moments wherein the passing away manifests as losing steam or intensity (noted as "contraction") until it finally passes away (noted as "Gone"). So there are arising and passing aways even within the actual arising and passing aways, demonstrating how impermanence goes all the way down and how what appear to be solid phenomena (external sounds) are actually more process-based flows of experiences of expansion and contraction. 

This can be done with physical sensations to great effect. Trying it with an itch is awesome. It expands, peaks, then contracts and then is gone.

3. See/Hear/Feel for Emptiness

To continue with the airplane sound example, note that you can note the airplane sound as either "hear out" or as "flow" or as "expansion" followed by "contraction" (expansion and contraction simply being states of flow). What's really cool about this is that there is no objectively right way of noting the airplane sound. It is correctly noted as "hear out", but it can also be correctly noted as "flow". Thus, how it's noted, and, therefore, how it's experienced, depends on how you choose to note the experience. In other words, how it's noted depends on how you choose to experience the experience: you can choose to experience it as a solid external sound one-off event (noted as "hear out") or as a non-solid, process based event (noted as "flow" or "expansion" followed by "contraction"). Neither is better than the other, they are simply different "ways of seeing", as meditation teacher Rob Burbea would say. 

What's the point of doing this? That whether the airplane sound is solid and thus noted "hear out" or whether it is seen as a process of arising and passing away that is then noted as "flow" or "expansion" or "contraction" is dependent on our way of seeing and, thus, empty. There is no right answer. The thing is simultaneously solid (hear out) and not solid (flow) , emptiness and form interacting in a delicate dance. 

You will start seeing this everywhere. An itch can be noted "feel out" and thus solid, but can also be noted "flow" and thus process-based. But there is no center from which to judge which one of these notations is right. They are, ultimately, fabrications of the human mind, which is why you can move from solid to flow at will. They are, therefore, empty.

4. See/Hear/Feel for Deep Stillness and Peace and the Connection between Peace and Not-Self

There is the most peace when there is less "selfing". The way to confirm this is to notice when see in/hear in/feel in are all noted as "rest". When this happens, there is peace, calm, and tranquility. The most peace and calm that there is out of any other notation under this system.

Why is this interesting? Because it's the notation where there is less "self" (i.e. there is no "in" that is active at the time) out of all possible forms of noting in the see/hear/feel technique!

The trick, then, is to note "rest" for the "in" versions of see/hear/feel, described by Shinzen as "mental blank space" for when there are no mental images arising (noted as "see in rest"), "mental quiet" for when there is no mental talk/chatter arising (noted as "hear in rest"), and "emotional peace" when there are no emotional bodily sensations (noted as "feel in rest"). 

When you want to note deep tranquility, calm and peace, you forget about the "out" and only note the "ins". Then when all three "ins" are at rest, you note "all rest". If you pay close attention, when you finally note this kind of "all rest", you will be in a place of maximum tranquility or true peace. Then you can find yourself back to that place because you know how to note it, and, thus, how to find it. The coolest thing? That this place of deep tranquility arises precisely when the "self" momentarily passes away, as is illustrated by the fact that all of the "ins" are noted as "rest". Lesson: less self (or selfing), more peace. 

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