Tag Archives: meta-cognition

New Years Thoughts About the Perils of Thinking.

“Dear Creator, Help me let go of everything I think I am, to make room for everything I really am.” This is a Facebook post this morning from a local poet (Taos, NM), Lyla June Johnson, who is a very gifted soul and is a passionate spokeswoman for Native American issues, spirituality, and social activism.  This woman “gets it” and does so much more quickly than I started the process of “getting it.”  Here she puts on the table a core issue that I’m wrestling with in my life, “we are not what we think.”  This is part of what leads me to use the bumper sticker wisdom so often, “Don’t believe everything you think,” realizing that beliefs are merely thoughts and are readily seductive with self-serving whims of the ego.  Sure, welcome the thoughts that flow into and through our mind but occasionally take pause, mull them over, and we might learn that these “beliefs” could be a bit less certain than our ego wanted them to be.

Without realizing the limitations of believing in our rational formulations, Truth which is an elusive process and not an accumulation of factual knowledge can lead us into folly.  Novelist Hermann Hesse noted this when he wrote, “My story isn’t pleasant, it’s not sweet and harmonious like the invented stories; it tastes of folly and bewilderment, of madness and dream, like the life of all people who no longer want to lie to themselves.” We will inevitably be guilty of this “dishonesty” if we can’t practice the self-reflection, i.e “meta-cognition” noted here for the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, “Reflection requires that the plain opposition of positive and negative be left behind. Thinking is not content with the abstraction of mutual exclusivities, but struggles to conceive of a structured wholeness nuanced enough to contain what appeared to be contradictories.”  We must learn to occasionally find the capacity to, “think about our thinking.”


Thinking “Deeply” Out of the Box

One of my followers on this blog, and a personal friend, shed interesting light on this notion of “thinking outside of the box.”

“It seems likely to me that thinking outside the box is impossible without then thinking from inside a larger box which contains that previous box. So what we encounter is a collection of telescoping boxes. The most we can hope for is that with each escape from a box that holds us captive, we are then held captive in a more liberating box.”

This gentleman’s observation and the subject matter I’ve put on the table here brought to my mind the Christian notion of “the fall” and the resulting fate of being able to only “see through a glass darkly.”  For, this “fall”, if one deigns to approach it from a metaphorical/mythical dimension, was our expulsion from the blissful of unity with all things, i.e. the Garden of Eden, into the realm of symbolic form.  That Divine spark with which we are born, that “Christ child,” needs to enter into the world of form so that we can experience the joy, and the frustration, of the human enterprise.  Aesychlus, thousands of years ago, referred to this event as “having been banished thought-ward” as he began his heroic journey.

But becoming a “thinking human being” is both a joy and a curse.  We can have the joy of human consciousness as we revel in the incredible mystery of our brief sojourn through this time-space continuum.  But the “curse” is always a temptation, that mistake of taking our thoughts too seriously and falling into the delusion that with them we have captured reality.  This makes me think of a bumper sticker I saw recently, “Don’t believe everything you are thinking.”

My reader is very astute.  We never can escape “the box” but with awareness of our confinement to human form for this brief moment we can allow our reality to be more fluid and can be less obnoxious about our view point.  And, alas and alack, this even applies to me as I discourse here and even, occasionally in real time!

This makes me think of a verse from W. H. Auden:

In the desert of my heart,

Let the healing fountain start.

In this prison of my days,

Teach this poor man how to praise.


Embedded in our Own Thoughts, Part 2

Embedded thinking, part 2

We are naturally embedded in our own thinking because thinking…at least in the West…is inherently linear.  But it is possible for those steeped in this “linear-thinking” to find the courage to “step back” a bit from that comfortable cognitive grasp of his world and in so doing find that his world view is finite but nevertheless valid.  This “stepping back” is the exercise of a meta-cognitive muscle that we have the capacity for but is frightening to use for one who has made an inordinate emotional/spiritual investment in the world view that circumstances has given him.  This is precisely what Jesus had in mind when he chided those who have “Ears to hear but hear not, eyes to see but see not.”  Jesus recognized that being conscious, that is being spiritually alive, involves more than simple regurgitation of a mind-set and view of the world that one acquired by accident of birth.  And, if I might speak for Him now, he is telling people like me who were “Christianized” by accident of birth that mindless regurgitation of Christian dogma and teachings…and doing so with like-minded souls…can easily find us amusing ourselves in an echo chamber, which, borrowing a line from Goethe, is  “like kittens given their own tails to tease.”

Thinking is linear because of our “fall” into the time-space continuum, or that which is known as “reality.”  In fact, in the Genesis Creation story, eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is an illustration of falling into “thought” which always bifurcates our world even as it “bifurcates” our selves.   At that point we have been “categorized” and begin to exercise a “categorical imperative” to carve-up into dualities what had been a unified field, creating “good and evil,” male and female, right and wrong, and…yes…even Democrats and Republicans!  Linear thinking has created this world we live in and perpetuates it….and may it ever be!  For without linear thinking, our world would crash and burn immediately.  But when linear thinking runs amok without the God-given gift of “the pauser Reason” the world will still face calamity; for, any phenomena carried to an extreme becomes problematic and even dangerous.  Ideological extremism illustrates for us daily what can happen when someone or some groups gets too carried away with their “noble” and “enlightened” ideas.

Meditation has helped me immensely on this issue.  And though my “monkey mind,” incessantly running to and fro and chattering without cease, it has been given pause and this “pause” has been pregnant, allowing me to open my heart to hidden dimensions of life.  With even my lame success at meditation I have learned more intimately that “embeddedness” in my own thought has been a cognitive prison and this insight…cognitive and emotional…has been redemptive.  And that “redemption” has allowed me to experience being “out of control” which has come to me as simple anxiety.  Of course, this “simple” anxiety is not “simple” at all as it brings me face to face with my own human-ness which is always experienced as vulnerability; Norman Brown noted, “To be, is to be vulnerable.”  And it has been fear of this vulnerability that has kept me locked in this cerebral prison, the escape from which is still in progress and will be in process for the rest of my life until at last I cast off this “mortal coil” and return to my Source.

I’m planning on this “transition” not taking place for decades!  For, “fallen” though this world may be, it is a beautiful world and I am increasingly delighted with the simple but profound beauty which surrounds me every day.  The only issue is, and always has been, “Will I pay attention?”  And, paying attention is relative to the meditative lesson of looking beyond the end of my nose, peering outside of that “small bright circle of my consciousness beyond which lies the dark.”  It is in that “darkness” that I see glimmers of light and these “glimmers” are the best that we can hope for. For these “glimmers” are the brilliant flash of light that we are blessed with when we find the humility to simply “see through a glass darkly.”

Bruce Jenner, Trans-Gender Identity, & Culture-Wars

Bruce Jenner, the former Olympic gold medalist and former husband of Kris Kardashian formally announced last week that he is a woman, explaining, “It is who I am.”  Our culture provides great liberty with declaring and acting on the choice to “be who I am,” a choice that is not available in most places and never has been.  And this is certainly the case when it comes to gender identity. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/26/arts/television/bruce-jenner-transgender-diane-sawyer.html?emc=edit_th_20150426&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=71726985&_r=0)

Culture has one primary intent—to perpetuate itself and the “certainties” that constitute its bedrock.  These certainties provide a culture’s children a template through which to view the world and this template tends to always legitimate the values of the particular culture into which one is born.  And one of the simple little “certainties” that one quickly learns is gender identity and this originates when the child learns that his/her “plumbing” distinguishes himself/herself from roughly half of the population.  Once that distinction is ascertained, the child then begins to learn what it means to be a “boy” or a “girl” in that culture and then has the task of following the mandate to “get with the program.”  Yes, early on there are some children who have “contrary” impulses with respect to gender identification but the cultural mandate historically is overwhelming so that they dutifully obey the “law of the father” and subscribe to “proper” gender identity, repressing any impulses that might be “contrary.”

But Mr./Ms Jenner illustrates a huge cultural shift in my country and in the West.  Certainties of the past are now often less certain, even those of gender identity.  We are learning that the distinction between “male” and “female” is more nebulous than we were taught as children.  And this is a frightening experience to those who cannot handle ambiguity and nuance and are accustomed to seeing things in black-and-white terms.  And for many of those in my culture they have an immediate contrivance to rely upon—“It’s of the Devil!”  It reminds me of the label ancient cartographers applied to regions of the map which had not been explored—“There be the dragons.”

 The unknown is frightening.  When faced with the unknown it is human tendency to retreat to what is already “known” and to “hunker down” with that little view of the world which one of my readers recently described as a “querencia.”  With this “hunkering down” mentality, one clings even more desperately to what one has always believed and often will merely affirm it with more vehemence.  This vehement affirmation often even leads to action, even violent action.  Change cannot be tolerated to a hyper conservative mind.

 Ultimately we must deal with human finitude and this gender aspect of our current “culture wars” provides us another opportunity.  We are finite, fragile little critters running around on this little ball of granite, our frantic activities amounting to nothing more than the Shakespearean “tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.”  But if we have the courage, and a healthy dollop of meta-cognition as Shakespeare was blessed with, we will be able to counter the nihilistic despair with the affirmation that, “There is a Divinity that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”  In other words, there is always Hope.  But hope is not mindless clinging to the dogma we were brainwashed with as children but to truth that has withstood our heart-felt, Spirit-led, mindfulness-inspired self-scrutiny.

Neurology Challenges & Deepens Faith

The New Yorker magazine has an excellent article on a new device which electrically stimulate parts of the brain and alleviate depression and even addiction.(http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/04/06/electrified) It reminds me of neurological research of a couple of years ago that said that his religious fervor of mine can be traced to a neurological “god spot” which did not shake my faith in the least due to the intransigence of my very unique and special “god spot”!!! (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2012/04/god-spot-in-the-brain-more-like-god-spots/)

And, seriously, my faith and the rest of my reality is not shaken by scientific exploration as I feel very strongly that my grasp of reality is a mystery beyond my comprehension and that “reality” itself is far beyond my comprehension. And since I’ve come to realize this, I’m much more accepting of myself and of others though I am often very, very angry that the rest of the world refuses to see things just as I do!!! (Just kidding!)

Consciousness is a scary thing. Hamlet said that it “doeth make cowards of us all” as Shakespeare realized that it was easier to live in the comfort of unexamined dogma, knowing that the “earth was flat” or whatever the prevailing myth of the moment is.

My “Querencia” Exposed.

I posted last week about being confined in my version of Shakespeare’s “pauser reason” which I explained is a detached observer stance in life. One of my readers responded with a stunningly insightful response, “Is it a pause or is it a querencia?”

Well, I had to Wikipedia the term “querencia” but what I found out really gave me “pause.” It is a Spanish term for the “haunt of an animal, a favorite spot, the area of a bull-ring where the bull makes its stand.” The cartoon image immediately came to my mind of the beleaguered bull hunkered down, digging in at the heels, angry as hell, ready to wreak havoc on the taunting matador.”

“What an image!” I thought.   I knew that my “observer stance” served an ego function but I had not seen this dimension of it. I had not seen it as that extreme of a defensive stance one which included very definite aggressive intentions. I could see the “bull” in me ready to wreak havoc on the matador “out there” who has been taunting me all of these years!  So once again I receivedanother lesson in the Auden wisdom, “We wage the war we are.”

(See “Inthegazeoftheother” blog here in wordpress for the source of the feedback re “querencia.”)



Epistemic Closure–Willfully Biased

A story in today’s New York Times illustrates an issue which has always been endemic to human culture—an inability to recognize our bias, not only those who we have conveniently dumped into the category of “them.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/06/us/debate-on-a-jewish-student-at-ucla.html?ref=todayspaper&_r=0)

A young Jewish student, being interviewed for placement on the judicial board of the student council at UCLA, suddenly found her self facing this question from a fellow student council member,   “Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”  This is a stunning and vivid illustration of what lies at the roots our human drama—a complete failure to recognize that not only we seei the world through biases given them to us by background, just as it is with those who we see as biased.  Yes, this young woman would be at least subtly influence by dimensions of her faith and the rest of her life experiences.  But the interrogator revealed his naivety, failing to realize that the very question he posed revealed his bias toward Jews.

Each of us sees the world through a template formulated by our life experiences, all of which are also influenced by a neurophysiological substrate.  Poet Conrad Aiken offered my favorite p grasp of this truth when he wrote, “We only see the small bright circle of our consciousness beyond which lies the dark.”  But some of us are in positions of power in that our background teaches us that our way of seeing the world is the “proper” way while other’s will fail to see things “right.”  And the power I refer to here is the power that comes from being in the majority, being entrenched in the “consensually validated” view of the world.  Nietzsche understood this, noting, “All things are subject to interpretation.  Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”

Real power in any group lies in the agreed upon “truths,” the assumptions that are not questioned by anyone entrenched spiritually in this consensually validated prism (or “prison”!!!)  W. H. Auden noted the courage required to face one’s basic assumptions and be subject to the existential solitude that will follow, writing in  “New Year Letter”:

…only “despair

Can shape the hero who will dare

The desperate databases

Into the snarl of the abyss

That always lies just underneath

Our jolly picnic on the heath

Of the agreeable, where we bask,

Agreed on what we will not ask,

Bland, sunny, and adjusted by

The light of the accepted lie?

 Someone once noted that it is impossible to have a perspective on one’s perspective without somehow escaping it.”  But asking anyone to “escape” and enter the realm of meta-cognition is like asking a fish to see water. Auden recognized that this experience is disconcerting at least, and probably terrifying.  The following selection from his poem, “For the Time Being,” has the Star of the Nativity speaking to its followers:

Beware.  All those who follow me are led Onto that Glassy Mountain where are

No footholds for logic, to that Bridge of Dread

Where knowledge but increases vertigo:

Those who pursue me take a twisting lane

To find themselves immediately alone

With savage water and unfeeling stone,

In labyrinths where they must entertain

Confusion, cripples, tigers, thunder, pain.

Auden understood the need of getting out of one’s self to the point that the legitimacy of other view points could be appreciated or at least tolerated.  But his wisdom also reflects what Alan Watts described as “The Wisdom of Insecurity.”  Vulnerability always ensues when we get to the point where we own our existential plight, that we are but a finite creature with a finite grasp of our world, a world also being composed of other vulnerable creatures with the same tendency to absolutize his/her world view.


(NOTE:  Can any of you who are familiar with WP tell me why I could not get the poetry to copy to single-space????  Thanks.)