The social and emotional learning (SEL) movement has an important corollary in the mindfulness-in-education movement. While SEL programs have boosted students’ academic performance and benefited them socially and emotionally, many believed something was missing when it came to focusing student attention and nurturing their self-awareness. Mindfulness programs in schools seek to do just that by helping students be more present to learning and more aware of their thoughts and emotions.
Two presenters used the term “meta-awareness” to describe a mental faculty each has observed as essential to self-transformation—in the classroom and beyond. Each understood it as a kind of inner 180-degree pivot by which you turn your awareness around to focus on the mind itself and what is happening: Where are my thoughts now? Am I paying attention to what I should be paying attention to? How am I behaving? Because each of the presenters is concerned about different target populations and different problems, each of their approaches is somewhat different.
Amishi Jha: Meta-Awareness to Counter Distraction
Presenter Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Miami, studies how attention training can help people like surgeons, firefighters, police officers, or soldiers optimize their performance in fast-paced and high-consequence activities. Jha wants to understand what’s at stake when attention strays and how to keep it—as she puts it—“on-task.”
To demonstrate what she means by attention and meta-awareness, Jha offered a simple example. Think of a child in a classroom who wants to read a book, she suggested. He intends to read the book and is sitting with the book in front of him. He can easily understand the words on the page, and he is reading along. But suppose he gets to the end of the page and realizes that he hasn’t understood what he has been reading. At that moment, the child might inquire about where his mind is. And then suppose he realizes, “Oh, I wasn’t actually reading! I was thinking about something else.”
In sitting down to read, the child was directing his attention—(“voluntarily and with a commitment to doing so, engaging his mental resources in a particular object.”) When his attention left the book, he was mind wandering—(“having an off-task thought during an ongoing task or activity.”) The moment he realized this has happened was a moment of meta-awareness—(“explicit awareness of the contents of our current mental experience.”) Once meta-awareness kicks in, the child can make an effort to re-engage his attention with the book.
"In sitting down to read, the child was directing his attention—(“voluntarily and with a commitment to doing so, engaging his mental resources in a particular object.”) When his attention left the book, he was mind wandering—(“having an off task thought during an ongoing task or activity.”) The moment he realized this has happened was a moment of meta-awareness—(“explicit awareness of the contents of our current mental experience”)." Amishi Jha
The capacity for meta-awareness determines, in part, whether the child returns to reading (and thus has a possibility to learn something) or is swept away by emotions and thoughts. Because learning depends on meta-awareness, Jha told the Dalai Lama, she and her colleagues want to understand what it is, how it works, and how to cultivate it through mind training.
Sona Dimidjian: Meta-Awareness to Counter Depression
University of Colorado Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Sona Dimidjian focuses on the connection between mindfulness (e.g., attentional focus and meta-awareness) and well-being. She teaches mindfulness to pregnant women and mothers with small babies as part of an eight-week program called Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. This program combines mindfulness meditation practices with cognitive behavioral therapy. “We teach this to women who have been depressed in the past,” she explained, “who want to learn skills to stay well when they are pregnant and become new mothers.”
To show the Dalai Lama the significance of mindfulness, and especially the subcomponent of meta-awareness for post-partum depression in mothers, Dimidjian proposed a thought experiment, laying out the following scenario. Think of a mother with a newborn baby. Imagine that her baby is crying. She is having trouble soothing him. The mother might wonder, “Am I doing this right?” In that instant, if she can notice the thought instead of identifying with it (e.g., use meta-awareness), Dimidjian suggested, she can avoid being carried to the next thought: “I don’t know what I’m doing… I’ll never get this right!” The key to not getting swept down a river of disturbing thoughts, she said, is the ability to be aware of thoughts without identifying with them. This capacity, a key aspect of mindfulness, is what Dimidjian calls meta-awareness, which she defines as being able “to observe one’s thoughts and feelings without identification, without distortion, and with kindness.”
"The key to not getting swept down a river of disturbing thoughts is the ability to be aware of thoughts without identifying with them. This is called meta-awareness. Meta-awareness is the capacity to observe one’s thoughts and feelings without identification, without distortion, and with kindness." Sona Dimidjian
Dimidjian’s research shows that eighty percent of the women who participated in this program avoided depression during their pregnancy, and up to six months after their baby’s birth. Fifty percent of the control group—women who received ‘the usual care’—relapsed into depression, she reported. The findings are important, Dimidjian told the Dalai Lama, because “they tell us that these practices can help support mothers in ways that are good for their mental health and that help them also be warm and responsive to their babies.”
Both Dimidjian and Jha assume that we have to practice meta-awareness with a particular kind of acceptance and curiosity with respect to what is happening in the moment. Jha, however, is studying the impact of meta-awareness on cognition and performance, while Dimidjian is examining its effect on emotion and caregiving.
A Buddhist Perspective: Meta-Awareness as a Guard to the Mind
To explain how Buddhists conceive of meta-awareness, Thupten Jinpa drew from a text by the eighth-century Buddhist master Shantideva. Just as the education experts in the room have the goal, Jinpa said—“to promote prosocial behavior through social emotional learning and secular ethics”—so too did Shantideva. “He is interested in providing a framework, a discipline, and a set of practices for his monastic colleagues who are dedicated to living a life according to the ideal of altruism and compassion, and based on that, have accepted certain precepts.” To observe their precepts successfully, these monks needed to be ever-vigilant of the state of their bodies and minds—that is, they need to practice meta-awareness. “The mind and senses are the door through which we interact with the world,” Jinpa explained. “If we can somehow stand as a guard at the entrance of that door, we can then regulate and chose to live according to our own values and aspirations.”
The Buddhist conception of meta-awareness shares many elements with Jha and Dimdjian’s views. Meta-awareness is a monitoring awareness, which is proactive and consciously applied, Jinpa explained. At the beginning it requires effort, but, he reported, someone who engages in relevant practices can eventually develop meta-awareness to the point that it becomes effortless. “If you pay attention to a chosen object, you retain that attention by applying mindfulness, and you protect your mindfulness by applying meta-awareness. Then through this habituation you develop a habit whereby when you are confronted with a challenging situation, awareness will kick in [automatically].”
Jinpa further elaborates on how mindfulness and attention training can contribute to behavior change in the video clip below.
To learn about SEL programs that integrate mindfulness training, see Chapter 5 “Educating for a Shared Humanity: Two SEL Approaches”. In Chapter 8 “Integrating Wisdom and Science in Educating the Heart” and Chapter 9 “Why Compassion Matters,” conference presenters turn their attention to scientific research on the psychology of ethical development, theories related to moral reasoning, and how compassionate behavior can be nurtured through educational experiences.