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.