Metacognitive awareness - Sam Harris Daily Meditation 2022.09.02

Today´s meditation is again mainly dedicated to the search for the thinker of thoughts, and its unfindability. It is an emptiness meditation.

Sam Harris

The moment you notice that you are captured by thought, identified with it, thinking without knowing that you're thinking, become clearly aware of that present thought .

But today´s selected phrase ("thinking witthout knowing that you are thinking" ) is a pointer to another concept: "meta-cognitive awareness". Culadasa calls it "meta-cognitive introspective awareness".

Meta-cognitive awareness is the ability to be aware of what one´s mind is doing in real-time. Thus, as Daniel P Brown points out, it is not "thinking about thinking". That is a retroactive thinking activity, and is therefore exactly like thinking.

This ability has different names in the Buddhist traditional literature, for example:

  • intelligence

  • total awareness

  • full awareness

  • vigilance

  • alertness

It is one of the capabilities trained by meditation. In fact, without meta-cognitive awareness, it is not even possible to meditate effectively. Without it, one cannot direct the mind.

It is one of the four basic skills identified by Mahamudra (Brown & Thurman, 2006, p. 194):

  • directing,

  • intensifying,

  • pliancy

  • intelligence.

"Thinking without knowing that you´re thinking" in the worst case is therefore simply dullness and forgetting in meditation.

Therefore, Dan Brown likes to quote the admonishment

"Dont´t just sit like a log. Sit intelligently".

Mahamudra meditation is "meditating with the thoughts", and knowing that one does so.

Now some quotes from the literature.

Pointing out the Great Way

The fourth skill required of the driving student is to keep watch that the other three skills are being performed well. Likewise, the skillful meditator uses full awareness (shes bzhin) to watch the meditation and insure that its best qualities are brought out for the duration of the session. A common beginner’s mistake is to meditate for an entire session without ever reflecting on the quality of the meditation. Such beginners develop subtle and not so subtle bad habits of meditation, the accumulation of which will arrest progress at some point. A wise practitioner uses full awareness to assess the quality of the meditation. There are several ways of applying full awareness during a given meditation session—the episodic method and the continuous method. Less experienced meditators episodically disengage from the meditation object, quickly assess the quality of the body posture and the quality of the meditation (degree of staying, ease of recognizing distraction, amount of effort needed to make the necessary correction and direct the mind back to the intended object, presence or absence of faults such as dullness, etc.), and then redirect the mind back to the intended meditation object. More experienced meditators reserve a small part of the mind to practice full awareness continually while the larger part of the mind remains bound to the intended meditation object.3t is important to apply full awareness in a balanced way. Trying too hard will only increase thought elaboration. (Brown & Thurman, 2006, p. 179)

The Royal Seal of Mahamudra

Tib. shes bzhin. Usually translated as “vigilance,” “alertness,” or “introspection.” It is the quality of mind that accompanies mindfulness (dran pa), overseeing the whole picture and detecting obstacles of drowsiness and agitation, and so forth. “Knowing” is a more literal translation that has mostly been used in the text when connected closely to dran pa, as in dran shes, “mindful knowing.” (Khamtrul & Abboud, 2020, p. Footnote 32)

Mahamuda Meditation Stages (Brown)

Recollection is the process of knowing the samadhi-mind continually without interruption. Total awareness is the process of recognising the faults to this" (Brown, 1981, p. 345)

Moonbeams of Mahamudra

"mindfulness properly maintains the stream of awareness in which our mind is not distracted from its object of meditation. Alertness recognizes whether our mind has strayed from that or not." (Namgyal & Callahan, 2019, p. 54)

The tradition : the Apananasatti Sutta

The Apananasatti Sutta concentrates the essence of meta-cognitive awareness into some metaphorical phrases.

Breathing in a long breath, he knows he breathes in a long breath; breathing out a long breath, he knows he breathes out a long breath. Breathing in a short breath, he knows he breathes in a short breath; breathing out a short breath, he knows he breathes out a short breath. Ānāpānasati Sutta (quoted in Yates (Culadasa) & Immergut, 2017, p. 146)

Of course, "breathing" stands for all activities of the mind. One could also say "Being angry, he knows he is angry".

This knowing is the the precondition for the "self-liberation" of thoughts and emotions: as soon as they arise, they are known and - as Sam Harris might say - "unravel" or "unwind".


No matter how you use attention, hold the intention for peripheral awareness to become more and more metacognitive, working toward a complete and continuous observation of the activities and state of the mind itself. You don’t exclude extrospective content from peripheral awareness or attention. Rather, to whatever extent extrospective sensations are present, they’re experienced as part of the activity occurring in the mind, rather than as objects in and of themselves. For example, in the hearing of a sound, the primary object of your observation isn’t the “sound” that’s being heard, but the mental act of “hearing.” This is also true for mental objects. Remain metacognitively aware of them as content of field of conscious awareness, but with the objects themselves being secondary. It’s as much about how you know as it is what you know. [This] can be used for many other purposes in the future as well. (Culadasa, "The Mind Illuminated", p305)


Brown, Daniel P. (1981). Mahamudra Meditation-Stages and Contemporary Cognitive Psychology (Dissertation).

This dissertation is a free download. It is a massive, highly technical volume that nevertheless gives an unparallelled insight into the education of a yogi.It draws on the knowledge of cognitive science as of the late 1970s, so it is not the newest in this regard.As compensation, Daniel P Brown gives some insight into the experiments with tachiscopy. to which he still referred in his retreats in 2021.The Universits of Chicago library entry:

Brown, D.P., & Thurman, R. (2006). Pointing Out the Great Way: The Stages of Meditation in the Mahamudra Tradition (Annotated). Wisdom Publications.

Khamtrul, Rinpoche, & Abboud, G. (2020). The Royal Seal of Mahamudra, Volume Two: A Guidebook for the Realization of Coemergence. Snow Lion.

Yates (Culadasa), J., & Immergut, M. (2017). The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science for Greater Mindfulness. Hay House Uk.

Namgyal, T. D., & Callahan, E. (2019). Moonbeams of Mahamudra (Tsadra). In No Title. Snow Lion.

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