The Cultivation of Wisdom and Well-Being, Installment 1: Mindfulness and Meta-Cognition

Welcome to the first post dedicated to wisdom, one of the intended pillars of this blog. This posting is the first of a series of posts addressing posited pillars of wisdom and well-being, including mindfulness and meta-cognition, process orientation, egolessness and openess. Mindfulness and meta-cognition will be the subject of this first installment, with major sub-units being meditation and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Notice to Skeptics: Neither this nor any other of my writings on wisdom or anything else will involve the endorsement of faith.

Wisdom has been considered to involve many facets. Within the web of different dimensions stemming from different intellectual approaches to wisdom lie certain core features. I suspect that most thinkers would consider the core basis of wisdom to be the ability to live a life of joy, love, compassion, serenity and growth, in which such states as envy, hate, and anxiety are minimized in the long run. I argue that mindfulness and meta-cognition, process orientation and openness are key to living this type of life.

Mindfulness is present moment orientation. Rather than being occupied by memories, planning or fantasy, one’s attention is right here right now. One is attentive to what is happening around them and in their own mind. Being mindful allows one to be discerning and adaptive in a given situation. Most important for wisdom, as far as I can tell in my still relatively early stages of consideration, is awareness of one’s thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, goals and emotions. While many of us would assume that we are pretty in touch with ourselves, many of us are often far less in touch than we think we are. Many of us are compulsively mindless. We are constantly engaged in thought decoupled from the present moment—and the thought is often so pointless and trivial as to merit airtime on a sitcom like Seinfeld which plays on, among other things, the common tendency of people to ruminate over the most mundane and senseless minutia of everyday life. While we engage in extensive thought and consistently experience an emotional tone (or mood), we often fail to engage in meta-cognition, which is directed awareness and examination of our thoughts, beliefs, assumptions, goals and emotions. Our tendency to engage in extensive talkative thought, to hold beliefs, and make countless unconscious assumptions, while at the same time engaging in comparatively little thought about thought is a major source of psychological discord.

Clinical psychologists have found that people suffering from anxiety and depression are constantly having negative thoughts, holding self-defeating beliefs, and making similarly destructive assumptions. What’s more, these negative cognitions are very frequently irrational. What’s even more is that these negative cognitions are occurring automatically and often unbeknownst to the “thinker” (given the automaticity and frequent obliviousness of the individual, it seems in a sense incorrect to attribute agency in this case). Given the automaticity of these self-defeating thoughts, they have been dubbed “automatic thoughts”. Based on the realization that destructive thinking in persons with mood disorders tends to be irrational, automatic, and often of limited salience, the highly successful school of psychotherapy known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) was established.

In CBT, the individual begins to pay more attention to their own thinking. When they notice an automatic negative thought, their task is to write it down and to rationally analyze it. They consider the thought, asking what the evidence for and against it is, and play the role of judge in determining the thought’s validity. Very frequently they will find that their thought was either an exaggeration or just plain wrong. By engaging in this practice over the course of weeks and months, individuals have been shown to experience substantial improvements to their sense of well-being.

Another component of CBT is a Socratic method in which one attempts to address a regular pattern of their thinking. For instance, a person might feel compulsively nervous about their academic performance. In this case the person would engage in a sort of back-and-forth written conversation with them self, such as:

“I’m so scared that I won’t do well in school this year.”

“Why would it be bad if I didn’t do good in school this year?”

“Because it would lower my GPA and thereby lower my chances of admission to medical school.”

“And if you didn’t get into medical school why would that be so bad?”

“Because if I don’t get into medical school I’ll never be happy and all of my hard work and sacrifice will have been a waste.”

 “And why will you never be happy and why will your hard work have been a waste?”

“Because I need to be high in status to feel good about myself and that’s the reason I’ve been working so hard for so long.”

Now look at that. This is what is lying at the bottom of this person’s anxiety. How could they not be anxious? As far as their concerned, their entire future and the value of their past is hinging on them performing at a level that 99% of people do not achieve. And what’s more, they are holding the belief that their purpose in life and the primary source of their happiness and drive is to be put on a pedestal by others. Are either of these cognitive dispositions healthy? If you knew nothing else about this person but these core beliefs, would you assume that this is a happy person?

Now that these core belief have been identified they can be assessed. Is impressing others a healthy primary life drive? Is it likely to give me a sense of enduring secure fulfillment? Do I have to live this way? What are the pros and cons of doing so? What areas of my life have I been ignoring? Friends, family, hobbies? Is there more to life than being exalted, and if so, what? Might I be better off to branch into a few more fields of fulfillment?

It is not uncommon for people to hold self-destructive goals and concepts of what really matters. What really matters, presumably, is to live a good enjoyable life. How many of us frequently fail to be mindful of this all important biggest-picture ultimate goal? It is also not uncommon for people to make snap self-defeating judgments and self-assessments on a daily basis, such as assuming that a person who didn’t say “hi” to them didn’t like them, and further assuming that this is something of substantial importance, and that there is value in ruminating over it.

Part of being mindful is about being aware of our thoughts, our goals, our core beliefs, our assumptions and our emotions. The wise individual strives to be aware of these cognitive structures and to assess them in the context of the big picture: is this really worth worrying about? The wise individual strives to leave no premise unquestioned, and does not assume that their current beliefs and values are necessarily the most adaptive one’s to hold.

How do we promote mindfulness? We’ve already discussed CBT, which is a valuable tool for anyone, not just people seeking formal mental health treatment. Mindfulness meditation is another very effective approach to mindfulness, as one would hope given the name. Meditation is a structured approach to cultivating present-moment orientation. I won’t go into any of the specifics, but essentially what meditation entails is striving to maintain one’s attention on the present moment by anchoring it to something that is happening right now. A common method is to localize one’s attention to the lower abdomen, following the breath in and out. In practicing meditation one will quickly notice a few things. Firstly, it is impossible to silence internal monologue for more than a few seconds at first. These thoughts constantly pop up out of nowhere, despite one’s efforts at vigilance (Side note: when meditating, do not take the punitive role of the drill sargent, getting upset at yourself for having a wondering mind. Rather, approach meditation as a calm activity of listening. When you notice yourself in distraction just notice is it and go back to the breath. That you noticed it is in itself an act of mindfulness and is a good thing. Relax, stay in the moment and be happy that you’re becoming more aware of your thoughts as thoughts). The second lesson stems from the first: we don’t will each of our thoughts. Much of our thinking bubbles up out of the unconscious, rather than being deliberately constructed.

By engaging in meditation on a regular basis you will become better and better at staying in the moment and being aware of your thinking, both in meditation and in daily activity. Meditation has been shown to improve psychological well-being, to lower stress, and to also promote improved healing in various somatic (bodily) conditions. It will also be a boon to performance in tasks requiring sustained focus (e.g., sports).

Lastly, as you might have guessed, meditation and CBT make a great combination for promoting wisdom, well-being and alleviating duress. Because meditation promotes enhanced meta-cognition, it facilitates the first step in CBT: identifying automatic thoughts. And CBT, by focusing on automatic negative thoughts, makes these thoughts more easily detected in meditation and in daily living. The synergistic approach is often referred to as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT).

The science behind MBCT is very supportive. For a quick review, see the Wikipedia entry. CBT is the most studied and trusted approach to psychotherapy used in the West and mindfulness meditation is now employed at hundreds of major Western World medical facilities.

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Comments
19 Responses to “The Cultivation of Wisdom and Well-Being, Installment 1: Mindfulness and Meta-Cognition”
  1. quotesqueen says:

    Thanks for this! I am not quite patient enough yet for a sitting meditation practice, although I have done it enough to know that it has amazing results. But I do find that mindfulness in activity during the day also becomes a habit that strengthens with practice. Just pausing before eating a meal, before responding to someone, or between activities can be profoundly transformative! Noticing the breath at any time of day is calming, centering, and restorative.

  2. ronbrown says:

    Quotesqueen:

    Thank you for commenting on the article. The area of wisdom is the most strenuous to write about and seems to get less attention than articles in other areas on the site, and that is something that I really would like to change as there is no topic on this blog that is more important than this, I believe. I’d love it if you commented on the wisdom-related articles often to help generate interest in it!

    As for the issue of patience in meditation, I read something recently that may be of help to you. The book is called “The places that scare you”, by American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. I’ve only read the first 25% of it, but I recommend it. Regarding patience in meditation–or another other type of distraction or hinderance, such as tiredness, soreness, etc.–it gave a very helpful message: just be mindful of the mental state. When you’re impatient or bored for instance, perhaps feeling in need of some sort of mental stimulation, let the thoughts that are occurring with this mental state go (as is customary in meditation, acknowledge the thoughts as thoughts and go back to the breath), but pay attention to the phenomenological state of boredom. Be mindful of boredom. Or tiredness. Or impatience. Or stress. Or sadness. Or whatever.

    This is said to serve a few functions. For one, it helps you to become more in touch with your self and the aspects of your experience that you are uncomfortable with (or, places that scare you). Rather than repressing them you are acknowledging them and facing them, which is believed to help one triumph over them rather than fear and avoid them. Another thing is that it helps you appreciate that moods are moods, mental states are mental states, they just happen but they can be worked with and used as an opportunity to develop self-mastery. Each one of them is an opportunity for growth and empowerment. Just accept that they are there and be with them rather than running away. If you run away, they are controlling you. By accepting them as normal cognitive events but also staying with them, you can gain mastery over them and over your life more generally.

    More pertinent to your concerns over impatience, I have found that simply paying attention to the very feelings of boredom, tiredness and the like has helped me to stay in meditation for notably longer than I did before. Rather than trying to fight off or ignore boredom and just force myself through, I pay attention to it and just go with it and I can comfortably stay in meditation for notably longer.

    Give it a try!

  3. quotesqueen says:

    Thanks, Ron. I do KNOW a lot of that stuff, but you know, knowing and doing/feeling/incorporating into one’s life are different things! I’ve read some things by Chodron, and I do like her. I also subscribe to Shambhala Sun, to which she contributes periodically. It’s a great magazine, btw. Also, my counselor told me about the HALT acronym that’s often used for people with addictions: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. So I find myself “checking in” for one of those states when I am about to do something that’s not in my best interest! I will keep “starting over” with meditation, because I know it is important for me.

  4. Rachel says:

    Thank you for this, Ron! I think as skeptics, we need to be careful not to dismiss everything about religions. For example, tools, such as mindfulness meditation, can be very useful even outside of the context of religion, in the case Buddhism. I think MBCT is an attempt to secularize mindfulness meditation, which I think is a step in the right direction. I have found, however, that it is very difficult to practice meditation outside of the Buddhist context – at least if you want to practice with others, the options seem to be limited to Buddhist groups. And then – at least in my experience – you get the whole Buddhist religion with it. After all, mindfulness meditation was originated as a way to overcome the cycle of rebirth and reach nirvana.

    So, as skeptics and meditators, I think we need to put a claim on this tool without the package (as I like to put it “no hungry ghosts required”). Just because we find mindfulness meditation useful does not mean that we have to believe the Buddha really existed or that the Four Noble Truths are really true (I have a post on my blog about the Second Noble Truth, where I attempt to show that it missed a few causes of suffering).

    The other task in the wisdom area for us skeptics is, I believe, for us to offer new answers to the meaning question. I argue in one of my posts that religion (and spirituality) are attempts to answer the question of the meaning of life. However, these answers are – as we know – steeped in myths and require faith in fairy tales. I would love it if we could dialog about that a bit… I think that you’ve started something really important here: we have to get out of the religion bashing and start offering attractive alternatives (me included 😉 – as you allude, it’s easier to bash…)

  5. Delany Dean says:

    Good job, L. Ron, with your post on wisdom and mindfulness! I just ran across your blog today. I am a psychologist who teaches and uses mindfulness-based interventions in a variety of contexts. I hope you will write more about mindfulness and Buddhist thought on this blog!

    And I enthusiastically second your recommendation of Pema Chodron’s book, “Places That Scare You”; another wonderful one is “When Things Fall Apart.”

  6. L. Ron Brown says:

    Delany:

    Many thanks. I hope to work in mental health and education eventually, with a particular emphasis on application of mindfulness and CBT-based approaches to wellness and the promotion of growth.

  7. mitch says:

    Enjoy the post and will read the 2 books recommended. You may also enjoy “Awareness” by A. Demello if you haven’t already read it. I did my dissertation on mindfulness do it is a topic near and dear to me.

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  1. […] recently found a couple of good discussions of mindfulness including a general mindfulness discussion and a skeptic’s approach  in The Frame Problem blog.  Posted by nunya Filed in […]

  2. […] Brown presents The Cultivation of Wisdom and Well-Being, Installment 1: Mindfulness and Meta-Cognition « The Frame… posted at The Frame […]



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