Metacognition and the mind
Metacognition is a term used by psychologists that refers to thinking about thinking: thinking about our own thoughts and thinking about the perspective of another. These human abilities are connected to imagination and intellect. The more a child’s imaginative thinking develops, the more they’re able to reflect on their own thoughts and grasp that another person has a perspective separate from their own.
The meta-cognitively developed mind tends to be more creative, flexible, and adaptable, as opposed to a mind that might be more scientific, fixed and concrete. Those with a more “black-and-white” way of thinking tend to see things from their own viewpoint without appreciating the perspective of another—except to believe that if the other thinks differently, one of them (usually the other) is wrong.
Mindfulness is increasingly becoming a psychological term that refers to training the mind to pay attention to the five senses, breathing, physical movement and guided visualizations, applied as distracting and calming techniques.
This is a shame, as something much bigger than that’s being missed. It’s like opening a box to discover a most beautiful and precious stone, but then following an instruction to ignore it and instead focus on repeatedly opening and closing the box in precise and detailed ways without ever paying any attention to the stone.
Mindfulness isn’t solely the product of a well-developed mind or a meta-cognitive mind (with the ability to think about thoughts or perspectives), nor is it only for those with the ability to apply their imaginative skills to mindful practices that use guided visualization.
Mindfulness, as many of us may know, is a term that originated in Buddhism and refers to spiritual awakening. In spiritual mindfulness, the techniques mentioned above can be applied, but as pointers or gateways designed to help bring a person’s attention to an awareness that’s always present and available.
The goal of Western psychology is different. Nowadays, the psychological objective is to change how someone thinks and feels by providing them with distraction or relief from their psychological distress and emotional suffering. Techniques found in spiritual practices are adopted or adapted and then applied. People are taught to bring their attention to their present-moment experience by paying close attention to one or more of the five senses, their breathing, or their movement, or by following a guided visualization. The goal is not to rest in awareness, but to feel better.
Spiritual mindfulness is really about discovering and deeply connecting with what we’re experiencing in the moment, and being with whatever that is. It’s not about changing what we’re thinking, nor is it about redirecting or distracting ourselves. It’s all about allowing and accepting things as they are: allowing emotions to “be” and monitoring our thoughts by observation, by paying attention to “what is.”
There’s more to mindfulness than exercises
Using mindfulness exercises and techniques can be a helpful way of learning new thinking skills. These techniques may offer some limited relief, and can help develop the mind. Indeed, these practices are good intellectual exercises that are likely to help most people stretch and develop their meta-cognitive abilities.
However, there is far, far more to mindfulness than learning mind exercises which, although they have a place in psychological education, are not the be-all and end-all of mindfulness. There’s more to it than that, as mindfulness provides an opportunity to discover something that can be profoundly life-changing.
True mindfulness is not about having a more intellectually developed mind, but a more open, spacious mind that has a more detached, yet more intimate relationship with what is. It’s about the development of the “observer mind,” which watches and notices without interfering and directing. Mindfulness invites us to explore and experience a consciousness or awareness that’s not mind-based, but is something other than thought.
Mindful exercises and techniques may help the mind become intermittently refocused and calm, and can provide respite and relief for the mind, thus making a difference by helping a person think differently. But the underlying principle of mindfulness is that it’s not about thinking, not at all.
Being effortless, not effortful
Spiritual mindfulness is not about diverting your attention. It’s about being present in the moment and not doing anything to interfere with that experience. Paying attention to our present experience needs to be done in an effortless way that’s completely different from training the mind to think “mindfully” and work harder on changing, refocusing and paying attention. How effortful and exhausting that must be!
Mindfulness is about learning to be calmly effortless, not effortful. Mindfulness isn’t about telling someone how to think, or worse, what to think. It’s about allowing and noticing thought. True mindfulness is virtually impossible for the mind to understand or “do,” because it doesn’t require the mind to understand or do anything. Really, mindfulness isn’t any of the mind’s business and the mind should “mind its own business” when you’re practicing mindfulness.
The mind needs to get out of the way and stop interfering, as mindfulness is about helping the mind give up control and let go. It’s OK if the mind does direct and interfere, but only if we can notice and observe the mind doing that, and not get caught up in thinking too much about “who” is noticing that.
It’s always possible to notice thoughts and to notice thoughts about thoughts, and to notice the observer noticing, and to notice the observer noticing the observer noticing. On and on this can go, until we’re tangled up in thought again, so do attempt to notice that.
The mind wants to “know” and “do”
Mindfulness doesn’t require any effort from the mind, but oh, how the mind wants to be involved as the teacher or the student, and all of that’s about doing, whereas mindfulness is about not-knowing and not-doing. The mind so wants to know and to do. It’s desperate for that.
Can you notice yourself wanting to know and do? Can you just “be” with that sense of wanting to know and do, without knowing or doing anything?
Understandably, it’s alien, frustrating and even frightening for the mind to go along with not-knowing and not-doing. Minds are designed to know and to do. That’s what they do. Mindfulness is about learning to be OK with not-knowing and not-doing, but it puts the mind out of a job: “Sorry, mind, but we’re going to have to let you go.”
The problem with mindfulness as an educational tool
Some westernized teaching and thinking about mindfulness is misguided and misses something, sometimes missing the whole point of what mindfulness is actually about. Mindfulness is about simply being with ourselves and not about training our minds, because our minds don’t need to be trained, they need to be loved and accepted just as they are. All you need to do is be with yourself, with your mind, just as it is.
Nowadays, mindfulness is taught by many professionals, experts and teachers who only understand mindfulness as a teaching or psycho-educational tool. They often have little or no idea of or experience with being mindfully aware within the self and allowing things to be just as they are. At its worst, westernized psychological mindfulness training can invite the development of a disconnected or disjointed mind that intellectually compartmentalizes itself.
Depending on the teacher’s intention and how mindfulness techniques are applied, participants can move further away from a true mindful experience. When this happens, mindfulness is changed in a way in which it fails to represent its true intention. It’s like a blind person trying to teach a person with their eyes closed to see. The blind teacher can only teach the person with closed eyes how not to see. It doesn’t occur to the blind person to say, “open your eyes.”
Turning our attention to what’s really important
More important than paying attention to the five senses is paying attention to what’s going on underneath, what we’re feeling and what we’re thinking. Paying attention to breathing and the five senses can help us adjust and realign as a way of getting there, like opening a box to discover a diamond, but these techniques have no place being used as tools to distract us from what’s really going on, which is what they tend to be used for. Our pain, our distress, and our suffering need our loving attention, authentic compassion and genuine acceptance.
What’s really going on for you, as well as needing your attention and love, needs to be allowed to “be”: to stay or move, to change or not change, and to dissipate or not, as and when it does or doesn’t.
Mindfulness is about learning to just be with and alongside what you’re experiencing. It’s about finding and connecting with that place within you that’s already here, now. Awareness is already available and ready for you right now, ready and waiting for you to experience the unconditional acceptance of everything, including all that you think and all that you feel.
You don’t have to learn or “do” unconditional love and acceptance or distract yourself from your pain. You don’t have to try to feel better; let go of that. Mindfulness is about your reconnection with what you already are and always were. Mindfulness teachings can point you in that direction and “paying-attention techniques” have their place, but only as doorways to invite you in, not keep you at the door. Then, it’s all about dropping back into yourself and reconnecting with who you are. It’s about discovering and reconnecting with the universal unconditional love and acceptance within us all, where nothing needs to change and nothing needs to stay, and experiences can naturally come or go.
Mindfulness is about allowing all experiences, thoughts, sensations and feelings to come and go. Our present experience, however painful or distressing it might be, is our present experience. Mindfulness is about being with that—nothing more and nothing less than that. Mindful awareness leaves our minds with nothing to do and nowhere to go, apart from resting in a stillness that’s always here and will never leave you.
Read more on this topic in THE GIFT OF MINDFULNESS: The ability to be present in both joy and pain with gratitude»