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Metacognitive awareness - Sam Harris Daily Meditation 2022.09.02

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 .

Today´s selected phrase ("thinking without knowing that you are thinking" ) is a pointer to a key concept in meditation:

"Meta-cognitive awareness".

Culadasa calls it more precisely meta-cognitive introspective awareness. I would always recommend Culadasa´s lucid and neurologically sound explanation of this concept in "The Mind Illuminated".

Meta-cognitive awareness is the ability to be aware of what one´s mind is doing in real-time. For example, with meta-cognitive awareness one knows, at the moment it occurs, that one becomes drowsy, or becomes lost in thought, or that one is over- or under-focusing.

Thus, as Daniel P Brown pointed out, meta-cognitive awareness is not thinking about thinking. That is a retroactive thinking activity about the content of thought, and is therefore exactly like thinking. Instead, with meta-cognitive awareness one knows, for example, that one is thinking, irrespective of the object of thought.

This ability, or activity of the mind, has different names in Buddhist traditional literature and its translations. For example:

  • intelligence

  • vigilance

  • alertness

  • total awareness

  • vigilant awareness (Barth)

  • full awareness

  • introspection

  • mindful knowing

  • watchfulness

  • watcher of mindfulness ( Wangchug Dorje 2017, p153)

Metacognitive introspective awareness is one of the key capabilities trained by meditation. In fact, without meta-cognitive awareness, it is not even possible to meditate effectively. Without it, one is lost in thought and "thinks without knowing that one is thinking".

Metacognitive awareness, here called "intelligence" 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 given by a Zen master:

Dont´t just sit like a log. A log can sit for 1000 years without knowing anything. Sit intelligently

Sitting intelligently here means sitting with meta-cognitive awareness.

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 often quoted Apananasatti Sutta concentrates the essence of meta-cognitive awareness into 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)

Tashi Namgyal: The ocean of definitive meaning

(mindfulness and alertness.) There is a specific form of these which is called “watchfulness.” The term watchfulness has been used by the siddhas of our lineage to mean a way of being aware of what the mind is doing that is something like the activity of a spy who is following someone and observes everything that they do and everywhere they go. (L. T. Namgyal & Rinpoche, 2011, p52)

Rinpoche, Khenchen Thrangu. The Ninth Karmapa's Ocean of Definitive Meaning (S.52). Shambhala. Kindle-Version.


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.

Churchill, J., & Murray, T. (2020). Integrating adult developmental and metacognitive theory. Integral Review, Vol 16, Nr 1.

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

Namgyal, L. T., & Rinpoche, K. T. (2011). The Ninth Karmapa’s Ocean of Definitive Meaning (New ed). Snow Lion.

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

Wangchug Dorje. (2017). Mahamudra - The Ocean of True Meaning (1st ed.). BoD – Books on Demand.

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.


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