Meditation: Labelling motivation

I have been practicing mindfulness meditation for about 11 years. For most of that time, I would say that my principal experience of meditation has been long stretches of mind-wandering, book-ended by a breath or three of awareness of having wandered and of thinking of another engaging subject. In the training that was my introduction to mindfulness, one of the teachers said, "When you see the thought train coming, you have a choice about whether to get on board." Since I have learned to stop punishing myself for being unmindful, I have generally decided to climb aboard.

I recognised that this was not an ideal way to meditate. I wondered whether it really was meditating. Was I training my mind to wander? Or was this experience just a reflection of the way my brain already worked? Was I helping or harming myself? I experimented with going a week without meditating. I noticed that I experienced a loss of equanimity. I became more sensitive to other people's agendas and less sensitive to my own needs. This was easily enough motivation to keep meditating.

In my introductory training, one suggestion was thought-labelling. Sometimes classifying a thought or a feeling can promote insight or help make the experience more manageable. Humans are natural classifiers. The downside of this habit is that rich perceptions may be replaced with simple symbols thereby denying us access to our complete experience.

I avoided labelling at first, purely out of fear of over-thinking my classifications. I easily imagined getting sucked into the kind of intellectual exercise that geeks may recognise of optimising the hierarchy of folders on their computer. Despite this, I used some online meditations that explicitly included this technique and I ended up trying it with varying results.

Yesterday two things happened that interacted and then informed the way I meditated today. First, I was working on an assignment for a life coaching qualification. The particular question mentioned energy levels changing through the day, which reminded me that we cannot spend all our time in productivity-focussed activities. As Paul Gilbert mentions in The Compassionate Mind, we need time when our threat-avoiding and reward-seeking systems power down and give our parasympathetic nervous system some space to do its thing, for instance, by relaxing with friends, or meditating.

The second thing that happened was that I watched episode 11 of The Good Place. * Possible Spoiler Alert * In this episode, the main character realises that she will never qualify for residence in the good place, because all her good deeds are motivated by the desire to be there and are therefore selfish. All her actions are motivated by reward-seeking.

During my meditation this morning, thoughts about these two things were swirling around my head and it occurred to me that I had never tried labelling my thoughts as reward-seeking or threat-avoiding. I tried it. I also tried labelling feelings in similar ways.

In the past I had tried labelling the "what" of my experience (planning, irritation, replaying) but not the "why". Labelling base motivations was very useful for me. Lots of pieces of my experience were ambiguous and I chose to go with the first label that presented itself. Looking back, I notice that these labels did not obscure my experience, but they did give me reasons I cared about to be present. I listened to the bell signalling the end of my meditation and I continued to sit, noticing my experience for many minutes, rather than opening my eyes, reaching for my spectacles and mentally ticking off another chore.

It may be that this is a one-off, that I will not notice any benefit from this learning when I sit and close my eyes tomorrow. That's okay, although I would feel sad about it. Just in case, I decided to record my learning immediately while I am full of enthusiasm and in the knowledge that it may help someone else more than it helps me.


My initial training was the Mindfulness for Stress course delivered by Breathworks. I feel immensely grateful for having had such a comprehensive introduction to mindfulness practice.

The online guided meditations that I tried and had some success with were by Headspace is a pay-for service with a great variety of types of mindfulness meditation. I found that variety useful for a couple of years. You can also find guided meditations by many other people online and in app stores that are free.

The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert is about how our thinking minds add stress to our lives and how self-compassion can be a counter-balance to that. I found his description of our emotional regulation fascinating. For actually practicing self-compassion, I preferred The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher Germer. Both are available to order through your local bookshop and many other places.

Justin Hellings

I'm a geek in a world that insists on being irrational and a greenie in a society that insists on speeding towards its own destruction. There's some work to be done here. Nah, let's go snowboard. Woo!

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