When Things Disappear

Nearly all meditation practices involve a point of focus: the breath, sounds, body sensations, mantras. For me this often means finding that focal point and watching and watching until … I notice that I’m no longer watching. One, perhaps unfortunate, by-product of this approach is it reinforces my sense of “I”. I’m watching. I’m watching. Whoops. I’m not watching any more. I should be watching!

An article (“The Power of Gone”, Tricycle Fall 2012) by meditation teacher, Shinzen Young, suggests a different approach. He writes,

“If I were only allowed to teach one focus technique and no other … it would be a technique called “Just Note Gone”.

To practice the “Just Note Gone” technique, follow these basic instructions: Whenever a sensory experience—a sound, a sight, a body sensation—suddenly disappears, make a note of it. Clearly acknowledge when you detect the transition point between all of it being present and at least some of it no longer being present. You can use the mental label “gone” to help you note the end of the experience.”

I tried this myself and it was immediately interesting, and also, I confess, a little confusing. It turns out old habits die hard. I kept trying to establish a focus on something (breath, sound, flavor, …), following that sensation, and then noting “gone” at the moment it disappeared. It felt like I was working too hard, and a brief consultation with my long-time meditation friend and author, Dr. Janet Sims of Basic Mindfulness Portland, set me straight. Drop your old habit of focusing and tracking on sensations, she told me. Just let things be, and then when you notice that something has gone missing, has disappeared, experience your awareness of absence.

My mistake was that, like any good lab scientist, I was trying to catch the exact moment when the sensation disappeared. “Professor, the solution stopped boiling at precisely 2:14 PM.” That kind of awareness is unnecessary, even besides the point. Instead, I should catch the moment, and it could come at any time, when I become aware that a sensation has disappeared.