“What the world needs most is people who are less bound by prejudice. It needs more love, more generosity, more mercy, more openness. The root of human problems is not a lack of resources but comes from the misunderstanding, fear, and separateness that can be found in the hearts of people.” -Jack Kornfield
In the previous post, I began a consideration of how meditation practice might contribute to the very qualities described above by Kornfield. I suggested that humans have two default reactions to calamity: they either freeze in shock or subsequently become lulled into a trance, neither of which supports optimal discernment or engagement. And one tactic for stepping off the shock and trance pendulum might be found in a specific aspect of mindfulness meditation.
In a sense, mindfulness practice both imparts and strengthens a kind of tolerance to the very sorts of things that might push one towards a shocked or entranced position. While practicing mindfulness, within the laboratory of meditative investigation, one comes to observe the direct impact of experience that is difficult to be with (dukkha) and also the conditioned reactions that animate one’s behavior in response to that difficulty (dukkha), namely tanha — literally ‘craving’ or ‘thirsting’ for something else. The result of greater tolerance towards these reactive habits is an emergent capacity for non-reactivity. And while non-reactivity often bestows a more pleasant mental disposition, I would argue that non-reactivity is not an endpoint, per se, but rather a requisite starting point from which wise responsiveness develops.
So let me try to connect some theoretical dots here.
When looking at the links between mindfulness, non-reactivity and wise responsiveness, a crucial part of this connection, I believe, is metacognition. That’s a rather clunky word that refers to the ability to think about one’s own thinking, to listen in on one’s own thought process. Another term for metacognition might be self-awareness.
Here’s why this is important.
In the 2013 Atlantic article, Why Can’t We All Just Get Along, Robert Wright examines the biological, perceptual and societal forces that fuel human conflict. After considering all these influences, Wright concludes that self-awareness and metacognition are both ‘crucial’ for overcoming perceptual biases in individuals and societies:
“So maybe the first step toward salvation is to become more self-aware. Greene certainly thinks more self-awareness would help. In addition to singing the praises of his global metamorality, he encourages the cultivation of “a kind of meta-cognitive skill.” This would depend on “understanding how our minds work” and could help us “decide more wisely”—presumably not just by showing us the transcendent virtue of utilitarianism, but by making us aware of the biases that routinely afflict judgment. But I think he fails to recognize just how crucial thoroughgoing metacognition is to the whole project—and how much good it alone would do, with or without a global moral philosophy.
Which leads to a question: Um, how exactly do you do metacognition? Well, you could start by pondering all the evidence that your brain is an embarrassingly misleading device. Self-doubt can be the first step to moral improvement. But our biases are so subtle, alluring, and persistent that converting a wave of doubt into enduring wisdom takes work. The most-impressive cases of bias neutralization I’m aware of involve people who have spent ungodly amounts of time—several hours a day for many years—in meditative practices that make them more aware of the workings of their minds. These people seem much less emotion-driven, much less wrapped up in themselves, and much less judgmental than, say, I am. (And brain scans of these highly adept meditators have found low levels of activity in brain networks associated with self-regarding thought.)”
In other words, empowered with metacognition the mind is less under the influence of cognitive biases which tend to lead to quick assessments, simplistic generalizations and knee-jerk decisions. When I first heard of metacognition, I had the hunch that metacognition was a key to overcoming cognitive biases. In recent years, research is beginning to confirm that hunch.
And perhaps there’s a touch of irony here. While many people might agree on the importance of overcoming cognitive biases, not so many, I imagine, would be interested in overriding their intuitions. Many a meditator might see their mindfulness practice as something that enhances their much vaunted intuition, not something that assists in overcoming or transcending it. Frequently, intuition is seen as a spiritual asset, not as a cognitive liability. But the research suggests otherwise.
Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has spent decades looking at biases that effect decision-making. In summation: Kahneman’s theory is that our brain has two thinking systems. Simply labeled “intuition” and “reasoning,” he categorizes them as “System 1” and “System 2.” He says:
“There are some thoughts that come to mind on their own. Most thinking is like that most of the time. We respond to the world in ways we’re not conscious of or don’t control. The operations of System 1 are fast, effortless, associative, and often emotionally charged. They’re also governed by habit, so they’re difficult to change or control. The other system, System 2, is the reasoning system. It’s conscious, slower, effortful, deliberately controlled, and can follow rules.”
Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, is a wonderful tour of how defective one’s thinking can be. And for the lovers out there of their cherished intuition, be prepared to suffer many a bruise within the pages of this book.
But for me, the big takeaway from Kahneman’s research is that fast thinking feels intuitive and is often driven by perceptual/cognitive biases. It’s the kind of thinking that glances superficially over things and comes to simple conclusions. System 1 thinking is also cognitively easy in that it doesn’t require us to expend much energy. And for this reason, I wonder whether System 1 thinking, within individuals and groups, isn’t responsible for the shock and trance cycle of reaction.
Slow System 2 thinking, on the other hand, is not easy. In order to think slowly, one must sit with the discomfort of uncertainty; one must consider a variety of perspectives, dynamics and factors. This takes more time and energy and requires a greater threshold for discomfort. And, like Wright, I think mindfulness meditation prepares one to think more slowly. Not slow in the sense of ‘slowing down the process of thought’, but slow in the sense of not rushing to forgone conclusions.
Often during periods of practicing meditation one sits with various discomforts, one grows to tolerate them more, and one better understands how the dynamics of discomfort operate. Looking in on this process, being with discomfort, according discomfort more room during meditation prepares the mind, I think, to better engage with this process off the cushion.
Turning back to the world stage for a moment, considering what mindfulness meditation might offer the woes of our planet… sure, reducing-stress is helpful, but, above and beyond the calming effects of meditation, the development of metacognition in individuals and leaders offers greater potential for mitigating conflict. How? By reducing cognitive bias, by dialing down the impulse to prejudice, by strengthening skills of mind that appreciate holistic dynamics.
So as you sit in meditation with that impulse to scratch an itch, or squirm away from that ache, or wrestle – yet again – with a niggling situation from work… be patient with it all, as you are planting the seeds for waking up from the cycle of shock and trance.
I highly recommend the following articles:
1. Three Ways Your Brain is Hazardous For Great Decision Making, by Ron Carucci
2. Why Can’t We All Just Get Along, by Robert Wright
Originally published on February 5th, 2016