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Listening and meditation

A Feb 2023 attempt by to paint "ear"

Being distracted when listening

My sister talks to me. What happens in my mind?

I notice a sense of wanting to respond while she is talking. I notice an impulse to look at the mobile phone. I notice an impulse to leave the room. I notice a reaction of criticism of myself that I am wanting this. I notice a thought that drifts into some recent related event. I notice a contraction in my belly when she says particular things. I also notice when (perhaps through too much attention on inner noticing...) I have no full understanding of what she just said.

The above constant noticing is a result of increased meta-cognitive awareness. I notice what happens in my mind in real-time, while it is happening.

As a conscious result of that noticing, I do nothing, I keep my attention and eye contact on her, relax my belly and "see" my thought or feeling etc disappear. Then I turn my attention back to listening.


The diagram below is a partial word cloud generated from a few weeks of Sam Harris "Daily Meditations" in his "Waking Up" app.

The most frequently used words in these meditations are:

  • Just

  • Notice (and see)

  • Moment

These 3 words capture a lot: in a relaxed way, recognise the moment the mental events happening right now.

This is essentially the core of Dzogchen (ok, I radically simplify..).

By now, after listening to his repetitive Daily Meditations for several months, something has changed from the way I used to listen: I got into the habit to notice mental events while I listen.

Through the repetition and the drill of Sam Harris´ variants of the ever same, I automatically do this noticing routine.

This is what Sam Harris says:

Seeing that thousands upon thousands of times, that's the training.

Mixing noticing into the day

The following pointing out instructions are a regular part of Sam Harris´ 10 or 20 minute meditations. An example, repeated in different wordings over and over:

Notice how you're feeling in this moment. Is there any sense of effort or impatience? Is there any sense hat you're trying to improve your experience?

Initially the instructions to notice mental events (such as impatience) seem to apply only to the sitting meditation, possibly with eyes closed. In the formal sitting position, you observe that inner space, through / which / from mental events arise, stay and disappear.

But after some months of doing this on the cushion (or couch or chair), they invariable are drilled into one´s mind as an attitude of constant self-checking, and of being meta-cognitively aware of those events.

As Sam Harris sometimes said in his meditations:

Check your attitude!

Two qualities of noticing: speed and scope

Noticing improves over time in two dimensions: speed and scope (or immediatecy and range).

Speed (Immediacy)

One begins to "catch" arising mental events earlier and earlier in their lifecycle. In Buddhist terms, one approaches noticing in the subtle realm. Or, in the Tibetan terminology of "nailing" , there is more immediacy of nailing (alternate term: sealing)

The following diagram depicts the sequence of an unfolding thought. The diagrams are based on teaching material by Daniel P Brown.

"Unelaborated mind moments" are pre-verbal instantiations of what may emerge as thought or feeling or sensation

Regarding fleeting, barely recognisable thought, with some practice one can notice a kind of stirring of waves (at least that´s my impression, or conceptial visualisation) before they form into words or sentences.

In the original diagram, the direction is reversed. That´s because we usually start noticing at the coarser levels (e.g. relatively late in the lifecycle) with with more skill work ourselves forward to the subtle level.


This quality of noticing refers to the type of mental events that are noticed: physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, etc.

For example, it is usually more difficult to recognise the thoughts about meditation itself, e.g. how the meditation is going, or feelings of dissatisfaction or satisfaction with the meditation.

More about sealing and nailing here.

Mindfulness as optimal balance between awareness and attention

I had mentioned, that when listening one may well be "distracted" from all the noticing of inner mental events.

This is where Culadasa´s theory in "The Mind Illuminated" comes in.

Culadasa postulates, based on modern cognitive science, that there are actually two different capabilities: focused attention and peripheral awareness.

In his neurologically informed theory of the mind, the "listening" to my sister is done by the subsystem for focused attention. In contrast, the "noticing" is a function of the subsystem of peripheral awareness.

In classical teaching, it is for example suggested that a part of focused attention should watch background events, while focussed attention deals with the intended objects (e.g. my talking sister).

But whatever the model of "noticing" in approaches that do not include cognitive science insights, there is usually no good explanation how we do two things at once, or how they integrate.

Therefore, Culadasas core definition of "mindfulness" is: an optimised relation between attention and awareness.

Applied to my talking situation, my focused attention goes to my sister, while my awareness monitors all the things I described further up in real time.


Yates (Culadasa), J., & Immergut, M. (2017). The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. Hay House Uk.

Gebel, T. (2022r, October 1). Metacognitive awareness - Sam Harris Daily Meditation 2022.09.02. Till Gebel. Retrieved October 10, 2022, from

Gebel, T. (2022i, August 11). Sealing and nailing in Mahamudra - and emotional triggers in Western psychology. Till Gebel.


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