Metacognition Part 1; Staying on Track

Regardless of the number of paths, practices, and activities which we choose to pursue in our lives, we all need to periodically and routinely check in with ourselves to assess how things are going. Are we progressing or regressing? Staying on track or wandering off the grid?  Building our confidence or feeding our nagging doubts? Increasing our understanding and clarity or enabling our confusion? Deepening our curiosity, interest, and fascination, or feeding our boredom with more distractions?

I’m sure everyone experiences at least some, if not all of these mental polarities at various stages in our lives, wondering how to develop and increase the positive aspects while decreasing the negative ones. In the words of a famous song, how can we “accentuate the positive, and eliminate the negative”? Can each of us do something to insure the majority of our days are lived through the lens of Positive Mental States? Fortunately, the answer is Yes, and that answer is to consciously develop and nurture our innate metacognition.

What is metacognition? It is our ability to be aware of our own awareness — to witness our experience and reflect on its overall quality, as well as specific characteristics.

The good news is that we already possess this capability. In fact, learning itself would be impossible without metacognition. We have to be able to self-reflect and confirm newly acquired knowledge and skills in order to learn anything. However, the not so good news is that we tend to lose it if we don’t routinely use it. Without consistent practice, our ability to reflect on and assess the quality of our experience becomes clouded and dull; and the result is that we struggle to quickly course correct when we stray into “the land of negative mental states”.

If this pattern continues, the negative states build momentum and soon overwhelm our positive intentions. Inevitably, we lose interest and start searching for the next new distraction to try — another cycle of the proverbial “lather, rinse, and repeat”. However, developing and maintaining strong, clear, metacognition is the antidote to this endless cycle. So how do we get started? The first step is to understand the critical difference between Intention and Attention.

A  Clear and Strong Intention Tells the Subconscious Mind Where to Place Our Attention; and where we place our attention determines what we attend to in our field of experience.

This is absolutely primary to understand. Without clear Intention(s), our Mind will decide on its own where to place our Attention; and this usually means the nearest distraction. The Monkey Mind which races around from one distraction to the next is literally suffering from a lack of clear Intention.

So let’s take an example to see how this gets put into action, e.g., a relatively simple 10-15 minute meditation of following our breathing. This is often called “calm/staying practice”, because if we can get the Mind to continuously “stay” on the breathing, it will naturally settle and “calm down”.  For this practice, our main “Intention” is to place our “Attention” on our breathing, and have the Mind continuously stay without distraction. We’ll see however, that our primary Intention also has secondary intentions nested within it.

Both during the meditation, and immediately after it has ended, we assess the quality of the meditation by using our metacognitive abilities. We make “in-flight adjustments” during the meditation, and we review and reflect on the meditation as a whole when we are finished. Some areas to evaluate might be:

  1. How good was our “staying”, or said another way, what is the approximate percentage of the time that our Mind was staying with the sensations of breathing — was it 10% of the time?, 50%?, 75%, or more?  Make a mental note of the percentage of time, with the Intention to be 100%.
  2. When our Mind was staying with the breathing, was the staying complete or was the Mind “multi-tasking” and also engaged in thoughts and other distractions? That is known as “partial staying” — the mind is keeping track of the breathing, but also attending to other objects within the field of awareness. Our goal is for “complete staying”, not partial.
  3. When the Mind drifted away from the sensations of breathing, how long did it take us to recognize that and return to the breathing?  Was it less than a second, a few seconds, or did the distraction(s) turn into full blown daydreams before we noticed? Ideally, we want to recognize very quickly when the Mind moves away from our breathing, and gently return the Mind to its task.
  4. How clear and vibrant was our awareness of breathing? Were we completely absorbed in the breathing with vivid clarity and associated details, or were the sensations dull and “cloudy”? Clarity is closely associated with interest and fascination; whereas dullness and disinterest go together. If we cultivate interest and a sense of wonder in our breathing, it will lead to fascination and absorption and the breathing sensations will be clear and vivid.

With repeated practice and repetition of Clear Intention, our metacognitive awareness will “learn” that these are the specific areas to monitor and pay attention to while meditating on our breathing. Over time it will start doing this for us automatically — metacognitive skills are developed, cultivated, and honed with practice. Moreover, this process can be applied to any endeavor that we are engaged in, resulting in a sustained and tangible increase in Positive Mental States of Being. More will be said on this point in Part 2 of this blog. In the meantime, practice your Intention setting, and then use metacognitive skills of self-reflection to monitor how well you’re staying on track.

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