Observing and Noticing

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Question from an MBSR participant: What’s the difference between observing and noticing?

Observing is sustained looking. It’s taking the time to look closely at something, with the intention to see it as it really is.

Noticing is the awareness of anything and everything that occurs during the period of observation.

To illustrate the relationship between observing and noticing, imagine a wildlife photographer with tripod and camera, concealed under a camouflage blind in a remote location.

Sitting very still, the photographer watches a target species with rapt attention. While carefully watching, she notices all kinds of specific animal behaviour: courtship, feeding, flight, and so on. The observation may go on for hours, but noticing any single part of a behaviour happens in an instant.

Our photographer may also notice things other than the target animal: the sound of a distant jet plane, thoughts about an upcoming deadline, muscle tension from holding her body still.

Something similar happens when we practice meditation. Let’s say we decide to sit for twenty minutes and observe our breathing. We take a sitting posture that is alert yet relaxed, close or lower the eyelids, and tune into our respiration.

We may notice all kinds of breathing-related details:

  • Sensation of inbreath: the chest or belly rising
  • Sensation of outbreath: the chest or belly falling
  • Sensation of expansion in the chest, belly, or back
  • Sensation of contraction in the chest, belly, or back
  • Breath coming into the nostrils
  • Breath flowing out of the nostrils
  • Sensation of air touching the upper lip
  • Breathing sensation in any other body part
  • Beginning, middle, and end of the inbreath
  • Beginning, middle, and end of the outbreath
  • Pauses between inbreath and outbreath
  • Pauses between outbreath and inbreath
  • Length and depth of each breath
  • Sound of inbreath or outbreath

With sustained attention to our breathing in a state of rest, we taste the unique quality of each breathing moment.

Meanwhile, our body-mind keeps on producing “non-breath” content: thoughts, emotions, perceptions, unrelated physical sensations.

With practice, we get better at noticing when our mind has moved away from the respiration. Then we can choose to gently let go of the distraction and come back to this breath.

Even with a very limited object to focus on during sitting meditation, we can’t help but notice that everything in our body-mind is constantly shifting, flowing, changing, coming, and going.


Insight meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein describes the sensitivity that comes with deepening attention:

…the real beginning of Vipassana, the real beginning of insight meditation, is when we start seeing how things are arising and passing, moment after moment.

And we can see this on many levels. There’s something which I call “NPMs” which are “Noticings Per Minute”.

Now at first our NPMs are pretty low. Maybe we have, I don’t know, 5 NPMs or 10 NPMs; we may notice 5 or 10 different things in a minute. But as our practice deepens, and as our own mindfulness gets stronger and we are really attending to things very carefully, the NPMs go way up and we can begin to distinguish things arising and passing, so quickly, and we really are seeing the momentariness of phenomena.

So, even just something as simple as hearing a sound (gong). Go to just a person on the street: “What did you hear?” – “Oh, it’s the sound of a bell”. But, for a meditator, how many different vibrations and nuances? Just hundreds, thousands of things are going on. Which if we are attentive, if we are really paying attention, we can hear that, we can know that.

The same thing with the breath, we might think that the breath, “Oh, take an in breath, take an out breath”, two things, two “notings”. Within each breath, how many different sensations are there? You know what I mean? In an out breath. Or in a step, a step is not just one thing, there are many, many things happening.

So the more carefully we pay attention, our mind begins to open to the rapidity of change, of phenomena, and, our sense of ourselves becomes much less solid, much less fixed. Right? [1]

Observing and noticing during a morning routine

Waking up with the alarm, groggy. I drink some water and reset the alarm, put on the headphones and drift off for another 30 minutes.

Waking again, now more alert. A chord of joy and longing in my heart.

Okay, come on! Pulling aside the sheets, shifting to the left and placing feet down. Pleasurable ache in the leg muscles from hiking two days ago.

Floor is smooth and comfortable under my feet as I shuffle over and open the curtains. Bright sun. Turn and move into the living room.

Open the sliding glass door and step out onto the balcony. Gorgeous day. Survey the plants and flowers. They will need water soon. Feel appreciation for the wood flooring and shade-making plants.

Back inside, get dressed and put on glasses and headphones. Grab 150 yen, a plastic coffee cup lid, and keys. Slip on sandals. Open the grey metal door, step out, insert key and turn the lock. Walk down 4 flights.

Exit the building, pause in the mighty sunshine. A few cars and fast-moving bicycles pass by.

Cross the road and approach the Lawson convenience store. Auto doors opening, entry alert chiming, bright floors reflecting. Synthetic flute music in the background. Open refrigerated display cases softly humming.

Walk to the counter and smile as I hand the attendant the recycled lid and six coins. I see her several times a week; she’s from Nepal. With a mumbled greeting she scans the price card, drops the money in the till, and passes me the receipt.  Then goes to fill an “M size” cup with hot black.

Many of the staff here are Nepalese. Some cheerful and responsive when I say hi or konnichiwa. I sometimes ask about their hometown, or life in Japan. This woman is courteous but reserved. She hands me the lidded cup and I thank her. Holding the very hot cup with middle and ring fingers under, thumb over top of the lid. Exit the store.

Sticking to the shady, quieter side streets, I walk several blocks to a local park. Thoughts in a podcast.

Enter the park and sit on a bench under a wisteria canopy. An old Japanese man reads a book in silence beside me. People walking dogs and jogging around the perimeter.

Slipping off sandals, stretching legs. Enjoying the shade and breeze. Admiring the magnificent trees, wind rustling the green leaves, birdsong. Feels good. And still a note of longing inside.

Coffee. Removing the lid, shaking off condensation, placing lid in my pocket. Inhaling the aroma, sensing temperature, sipping the hot liquid. Strong, full-bodied, bitter and mocha flavor. Feeling of pleasure. Next several minutes in flow of drinking, tasting, enjoyment, environment, thinking.

Alright… Getting up and turning to walk home. Past houses, some dilapidated and one that is completely covered in vines and overgrown shrubs. Seems abandoned. I wonder if I could rent the place.

Back to my street. Finishing the coffee, I crush the white paper cup and put it in the konbini trash can, then return to my building. Walk up forty-nine steps, enter my apartment, kick off sandals.

Go out to the balcony, take the green plastic watering can and fill it in the kitchen. Water the potted plants, flowers, herbs, ivy, and bamboo. Also the planters filled with dirt and seeds sewn a few days ago. No visible sprouts yet, but the sweet peas are in a warm, moist womb, so…

Back to kitchen and fill a bowl of granola, almonds, plain Bulgaria yogurt, a banana, a 3-gram packet of aojiru kona (kale powder), and a splash of water. Carry the bowl outside. Do some journaling while eating.

Finish breakfast, back inside to wash the bowl and spoon. Then go to the toilet. While washing my hands I look at myself in the mirror. Ok, let’s do this…

In the living room, positioning my meditation cushion on the floor in front of the couch. Setting the iPhone timer for one hour, sitting down cross-legged. Take off my glasses and place them on the low table to my right. Hands palm-down on the knees. Looking in front of me, through the glass doors to the balcony, seeing leaf and shade patterns. Closing my eyes.

Scanning over the feet and legs, bottom and groin. Feeling points of contact with the cushion and floor. Some areas without immediate sensation. Notice blood pulsing in the belly, and the heart beating. These seem to throb together. Sense t-shirt in contact with the skin across my chest, as well as a slight tightness in the throat. Feel pulsing deep in the neck.

Scanning over the back, noticing small movements in large muscle groups. Feel into the hands, arms, shoulders… Notice the ringing in my ears, the faint hum of an appliance outside, and machine drones from a nearby residential construction site. Voices and clanging sounds, birdsong. Wondering how to encourage birds and pollinators to come enjoy my rooftop garden. Maybe if I get more flowers, trees… yeah. A bird feeder? Nah… don’t want droppings on the floor…

Ah — noticing myself in this train of thought.

Very easy letting go of thinking right now.

Turning attention to my breathing.

Observing natural breathing, without any manipulation or control of the breath. Feel it in the expansion and contraction of the abdomen. Only a small quantity of air moving with each breath. Feels relaxed, easy, calm.

Aware of several breath cycles, each consisting of inhaling, exhaling, watching for next cycle to start.

Breath comes in, fills… exhalation starts, empties… moments pass before next inhalation. Very little air moving with each breath, residual air in the lungs unstirred.

An easy flow between body awareness, breathing sensation, thoughts about the work day to come, and a feeling of calm and space.

More sounds coming and going: a muted woody ‘click’ as the building settles; a distant siren; the refrigerator motor turning on.

More thoughts coming and going. Back to the breathing. And spaces between breathing events.

Hips, knees, and hands beginning to warm up. Feel increasingly whole. Moments of rock-like stillness, the breath seems to have stopped. Full awareness, no movement. Then noticing I am thinking or planning something again…

Integration of body, energies, and present moment.

And another thought: metta…

Bring a slight smile to the corners of my mouth. Warmth in the face, neck… chest. Tune into the heart center. Feel pulsing, warmth, presence.

Begin metta (loving kindness) meditation by silently reciting typical metta phrases toward myself:

May I be happy…

May I be peaceful…

May I be well…

Pausing after each phrase.


Bringing to mind my sister’s husband, seeing his face.

May you be happy…

May you peaceful…

May you be well…


And today’s Nepali part timer.

May you be happy…

May you peaceful…

May you be well…

Adding in some compassion phrases:

May you be free from suffering…

Free from greed, hatred, and delusion…


Imagining Kim Jong-Un sitting in front of me… Black hair, black suit, round face.

May you be happy…

May you peaceful…

May you be well…

May you be free from suffering…

May you

Ah — the one-hour countdown timer beeping.


With eyes closed, I slowly move the index finger of my left hand, then the rest of the fingers. Lift the left hand and shift my arm slowly, exploratively. Seeking the iPhone on the floor beside me. Locate the start button. Press to deactivate alarm. Slowly move my hand back to rest on my knee. Continue sitting in silence.

Now gathering the city, country, continents, oceans, whole planet:

May all beings be happy… peaceful… well… free from suffering…

Imagining the solar system, Milky Way galaxy, local galaxies, entire universe:

May all beings be happy… peaceful… well… free from suffering…


A few more moments pass. Feel this session is complete.

Moving the fingers, then the wrists. Lift both arms toward the ceiling. Stretching… breathing in deeply. Opening the eyes for the first time in over an hour. Taking in the shapes and objects. Moving and uncrossing the legs, lying down on my back on the floor. Ahhh yeah…

Very satisfying.


[1] Vimalakirti Centre of Buddhist Meditation. “Buddhism: The Essential Points” Talk by Joseph Goldstein. Tuesday 9 April 2013. Retrieved from http://www.vimalakirti.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Joseph-essential-points.pdf

© 2018 Patrick D. Mitchell, Tokyo Stress Reduction