Finding the Middle Way Through Metacognitive Attention


The ability to observe without evaluating

is the highest form of intelligence.

– Krishnamurti.

I’ll never forget the moment I came across a grainy black and white photograph showing a line of young Jewish women, heads shaven and naked, walking in single file towards the pit where they were about to be executed by their Nazi guards. I was about to turn the page to escape the hopelessness of this image when I noticed that one of the women was holding something tight to her chest; it was a baby, innocent and oblivious. 

What is it that drives ordinary men and women to commit such acts of violence? By what process do sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbours become extremists?

As a teacher of Mindfulness who has spent the past 20 years observing my own mind, emotions and behaviour, I can report that extremism begins when we confuse thoughts with facts. As soon as we believe a thought to be absolutely true then we experience the rush of power and righteousness which accompanies it.

We are all guilty of extremism. We may not be racists, sexists, homophobes, or religious fundamentalists, but we all know the experience of feeling right and defending our personal world-view as if it were beyond criticism. Yet when we do fixate on certain ideas and beliefs as “true” we lose our natural flexibility and become less skilful at responding to an ever-changing world. 

To assert that “I am right” empowers and imprisons us in equal measure.

But there is a way that we as individuals can actively avoid falling into extremist thinking and the destructive behaviour it encourages.

By regularly practicing Mindfulness we cultivate a metacognitive awarenessof our thoughts which allows us to view them objectively, without grasping at them as “true.” We become more and more skilled at stepping back from the mind and simply watching its endless activity, without becoming drawn into it. 

We shift the emphasis from what thoughts tell us, to what they actually do.And what do thoughts do? They appear and disappear like traffic moving past a window. By intentionally observing our own minds we see for ourselves that all thoughts come and go, including the ones we attach to as “true.”

Another realisation Mindfulness training offers us is that we cannot be the same as the thoughts we experience. This is a crucial insight as we usually assume that we are identical with the thoughts which pass through our minds. “I am my thoughts, my thoughts are me” we believe. Yet by silently observing the mind we come to see directly that all  thoughts come and go, and yet I remain here.

To illustrate this we can use the example of clouds passing through the vast open sky. The sky experiences all kinds of clouds and yet at no point does it actually become a cloud. Nor does the sky need to do anything to make the clouds pass away.

Contrary to what we have assumed all thoughts come and go and that I am not them. I have thoughts, but they are not me.

The skill of metacognitive attention allows a detached and non-judgemental relationship to our most intense and emotional thoughts. We become able to unplug from a thought in the moment and see it for what it really is, just another spark of lightning flashing through the brain. To see that all thoughts are in fact “just thoughts” leads to a sense of freedom, choice and expansiveness.

But how does this impact upon extremism? Can we somehow encourage fundamentalists to begin non-judgementally observing their own thinking? No, those who cling most tightly to their world-view are the least likely to loosen their grip on it. 

As always, real change begins with education. Extremism and the hatred it produces is being undermined, even as I write these words. Not because of our intelligence agencies or police forces, but because we are now teaching our children how to mindfully observe their thoughts and emotions rather than being used by them.

The fact that we are now actively teaching Mindfulness skills to children of all ages means that we are showing the generations who will inherit and develop our society, how to live a very different kind of life where they will be less inclined towards extremist views.

Once we’re able to see something objectively it begins to lose all of its power. Observational humour works because comedians like George Carlin or Jerry Seinfeld put a voice to the experiences we all knowingly share. Once labeled and described even our most mundane activities and behaviour can seem laughable, ridiculous and surreal.

Indeed, as practitioners of Mindfulness, we may laugh at how seriously we once took our thoughts to be and how quickly we acted upon them.

It is said than an appropriate response to sudden enlightenment is laughter, but it’s also an appropriate response to a taste of enlightenment; a moment of insight where we’re able to see our most destructive, powerful and enticing thoughts as “just thoughts” passing through, passing through, passing through.

Perhaps this is why they call it the smile of the Buddha.

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