Metacognition: Awareness of Awareness
Metacognition is one of the most beneficial results of a mindfulness practice. Remember that mindfulness is simply noticing what is in your awareness, but without the judgment of good or bad. Consider the mild pain associated with a splinter in your finger. Mindfulness of the mild pain would say, “Ah. There’s a pain signal. It is telling me that there is something stuck in my finger, and if I want the pain to stop, I should remove it.” Notice there is no good or bad in there. Suffering, on the other hand, would say, “Ouch! This sucks! That damn splinter is probably going to get infected IF I am able to pull it out. I hope I don’t push it in further. How stupid of me not to wear gloves!”
So, mindfulness is an example of simply being aware of what you are aware of. In other words, mindfulness is an example of Metacognition. Yes, metacognition is also the result of mindfulness.
Cultivating metacognition in daily life
Regular meditation stimulates the part of the brain that is responsible for metacognition, the pre-frontal cortex. It is the specific diaphragmatic breathing technique that really helps stimulate that part of the brain; I describe this technique in my meditation article. Incorporating a specific focus, on the breath itself, for example, helps to focus the brain and reign in the well-known “monkey mind” that is often associated with beginning a meditation/mindfulness practice. Tibetan monk Thich Nhat Hanh describes “giving the monkey a task” of watching the breath. It grounds the mind and helps it stay focused on mindfulness. When it wanders off, you simply notice that your mind wandered off, then bring it back to your breath.
Ask yourself good questions
Throughout the day, start asking yourself questions like:
- How do I know I’m awake right now (vs being in a dream)?
- Who am I showing up as right now? My best self? My outgoing self? My shy self? Etc.
- Is what I am doing right now an example of my authentic self?
- What is each part of my body feeling right now?
- What emotions am I feeling right now?
- Any other questions that move you towards an inner focus on your experience of this present moment.
You’ll notice a common thread in all of those questions . . . the words “right now.” Mindfulness and Metacognition are happening in this moment, right now. Your answers to these questions (and any others you may come up with) may shift from moment to moment, and this is OK. Just notice the shift, and consider asking yourself how that shift feels.
It’s fine to write down your thoughts. This kind of introspective journaling can be a great tool in helping you understand and know yourself better.
Speaking of journaling, cathartic writing is a powerful example of expressing your metacognitions regarding your thoughts about your daily experiences, your inner life, and how you write your “life script.” For the practice of developing metacognition we want to focus our journal on the present moment and that means that after we’ve written something, we’ve already moved to a new present moment. Some people experience a pressure to get everything they experience in ALL moments written down. This is simply unrealistic as there are infinite moments streaming by; just stay with whatever catches your attention, then move to the next moment’s experience. If you find yourself writing about your experiences from earlier in the day, or about things that may happen in the future, make sure that you capture your thoughts and feelings in the present moment as you contemplate those non-here-and-now moments.
Regardless of how you practice mindfulness and metacognition, remember that it is a process of practice and patience. You’ll notice progress gradually.