What is the relationship between mindfulness and meta-awareness?

Mindfulness and meta-awareness are often discussed in such a way that they sound quite similar — perhaps even synonymous. Do these terms refer to the same thing? If not, what’s the relationship between them?

In this post I share takes from three leading thinkers:

  • Richard Davidson, directer of the UW’s Center for Healthy Minds and co-author of the excellent book Altered Traits.
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn, developer of the popular therapeutic protocol Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and one of the grand-daddies of mindfulness in the West.
  • John Yates, aka Culadasa, neuroscientist and one of Silicon Valley’s two favorite meditation teachers (the other being Shinzen Young), author of the excellent The Mind Illuminated.

Richard Davidson

Mindfulness

A term that is defined differently in Buddhist and contemporary contexts, but which often refers to a self-regulated attentional stance oriented toward present-moment experience that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance. In some traditional Buddhist contexts, mindfulness is equivalent to the psychological process that we refer to here as meta-awareness.

Meta-awareness

Heightened awareness of the processes of consciousness, including the processes of thinking, feeling, and perceiving. Along with the regulation of the scope and stability of attention, the cultivation of meta-awareness is an important objective in attentional styles of meditation practice.

From a 2015 review of meditation practices.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness

If you want one word it’s awareness.

My operational definition of mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.

Meta-awareness

We called ourselves as a species Homo sapiens sapiens. Namely, the species from the Latin sapere which means to taste, or to sense, or to know. And the Buddhists talk about awareness as a sixth sense, another sense. So we’re the species that knows, and knows that it knows. In the sense of not cognition and meta-cognition but awareness and meta-awareness.

From an interview with Dan Harris on the 10% Happier podcast (starting at around 28 minutes).

John Yates (Culadasa)

Mindfulness

Conscious experience takes two different forms, attention and peripheral awareness. Whenever we focus our attention on something, it dominates our conscious experience. At the same time, however, we can be more generally aware of things in the background. For example, right now your attention is focused on what you’re reading. At the same time you’re also aware of other sights, sounds, smells, and sensations in the periphery.

Mindfulness is the optimal interaction between attention and peripheral awareness.

“Mindfulness” is a somewhat unfortunate translation of the Pali word sati because it suggests being attentive, or remembering to pay attention. This doesn’t really capture the full meaning and importance of sati. Even without sati, we’re always paying attention to something. But with sati, we pay attention to the right things, and in a more skillful way.

Everything we think, feel, say, or do from one moment to the next—who we are, and how we behave—all ultimately depends on the interactions between attention and awareness. Mindfulness is the optimum interaction between the two, so cultivating mindfulness can change everything we think, feel, say, and do for the better. It can completely transform who we are.

Meta-awareness

Even though attention and awareness can be either extrospective or introspective, only peripheral awareness can observe the overall state of mind (e.g., whether it is happy, peaceful, or agitated), as well as the activities of the mind (e.g., whether attention is moving or not, and whether attention is occupied with thinking, remembering, or listening). The condition in which the mind “stands back” to observe its own state and activities is called metacognitive introspective awareness.

From The Mind Illuminated.

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