Meta-Awareness: The Exit Door in the Movie Theatre of Your Mind

Reading Time: 4 minutes

When you think about it, being brought to tears by a tragedy in a fictional movie should be absolutely ridiculous. Whatever is taking place is fake. The people on the screen are ostensibly lying. Even if the story were true, you don’t know them. Even if you did know them, you aren’t the one experiencing the events of the film. Eventually, the credits roll, the lights come up, and you feel like an idiot when the person seated one row in front of you stands up to see you wipe away a tear that was rolling down your cheek. You walk out of the theatre, get in your car, and go home. 

Part of you was there in the story. For a few moments, there was no separation between what may have been a tragic story and your own emotions. Driving home in your cozy car, the street lights running up the hood to the windshield and over the top remind you that you’re out of there — you’re safe. The only reason why the tragic events of the movie haven’t left you scarred and in need of therapy is because you know that it was just a movie. Once you step out of the theatre and into your car, you’re free from it. 

In many ways, our thoughts are the movies we replay in our minds all day. Like movies, we can hone in on specific parts, analyze individual clips, and even edit the events. Just because your zipper was down during that meeting doesn’t mean everyone noticed it, but in your own edit, the client definitely saw your underwear. Just because your boss forgot to invite you out for happy hour doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate you, but in your edit, he’s planning on firing you next week. 

The reason why we can feel fine and calm after a tragic film while depressed and anxious after our own internal movies is because, unlike the blockbuster, we can’t separate ourselves from our own movies. Well, most of us can’t, anyway. There are some people who can…

Most of us don’t realize that we aren’t our thoughts. For the majority of people, thoughts are synonymous with real life. A good chunk of folks not only never leave the theatre of their mind, but they also don’t even know that there is an exit. Here’s the cool part — there is. 

Here is a quick exercise to show you the noise of your mind: 

First, find a quiet, comfortable spot that allows for good posture. Rest your hands in your lap and close your eyes. Relax your body and try to bring your complete attention to the present moment, using the sensation air entering and exiting your nostrils. Cool air in. Warm air out. 

If you’re like most, your mind will immediately begin to revolt. 

  • What on earth am I doing? 
  • I wonder if anyone is watching me right now. 
  • Did I leave my phone in my car? 
  • How do astronauts keep the windows from fogging up?
  • I wonder what I should have for lunch…

Our minds, especially in the 21st century, have been programmed to be in constant analysis mode. Most of this analysis is unproductive chatter. Neuroscientists have deemed this tone of continuous chatter as the “default mode” — or the “monkey mind” according to many meditation practitioners. This mental state is largely unfocused, unproductive, and alarmingly unchallenged. Most of us don’t challenge it because we don’t know that there is any other mental state…for the most part. 

Take a moment to recall your favorite memories. These experiences can take different forms. A mesmerizing live musical performance. An intimate conversation with close friends. Witnessing a gorgeous sunset with a spouse while on the beach. Taking in the open ocean for the first time. The nail-biting final moments of a close-scored sports game. An unprompted hug from your child. A moment of epiphany. These moments usually have something in common — during those moments, we are fully present. As athletes or musician may say, we are “in the zone” without thought to the past or the future. We are focused — completely hanging on every second as it unfolds. No matter how mundane the activity, the mental state of being fully present is inherently pleasurable. 

Contrast this with our moments of misery. Take a moment to think about times when you’ve experienced anxiety or depression. These were likely times of immense mental fog. While in the throes of sadness or stress, you probably felt wholly unfocused, directionless, and unable to concentrate on tasks in front of you. You likely couldn’t enjoy movies, books, music, or your favorite sports events. Even conversation with friends sounds like overhearing murmurings through a wall due to being lost in thought, stress, pain, or depression. 

Try imagining a time when you were sad, depressed, or anxious without taking on the emotions felt during that time. Simply remember that time or those feelings without applying them to your present state. When you do this, something exciting is happening — you’re now an onlooker — an audience member of your own thoughts. This not only allows you to manage your thoughts better but shows you that you are not your thoughts. This awareness of the separation between you and your thoughts is something psychologists call “metacognition” or “meta-awareness” — thinking about your thoughts. Meditation practitioners call this “mindfulness.” 

An immensely simplified example of meta-awareness or mindfulness is in adjusting how we experience emotions. All too often, we’re quick to identify with our negative emotions. 

  • “I am depressed.” 
  • “I am anxious.” 
  • “I’m stressed out.”
  • “I am confused.” 
  • “I’m in pain.”
  • “I’m worthless.”

Meta-awareness allows us to see these are emotions to be observed and managed. 

  • “I feel depressed.” 
  • “I’m experiencing anxiety.” 
  • “I am experiencing stress.”
  • “I am feeling confused.”
  • “I’m experiencing pain.” 
  • “I’m feeling worthless.” 

While these very slight adjustments can seem insignificant, they allow us to mentally sit up from the patient’s couch and sit in the psychologist’s chair to examine why we may be experiencing negative emotions. Mindfulness allows us to take a third-party look at our thoughts without judgment. When we don’t identify as our depression, our stress, our anger, our pain, or our anxiety, this helps us to let go of negative emotions and to choose consciously positive emotions.

The more you train your mind to be attuned to the present, the more you will begin to see the separation between the film on the screen (your thoughts) and the theatre (your mind). When you can see the “exit” sign in the movie theatre of your negative emotions, you can feel better knowing that you can choose not to identify with those thoughts and feelings and instead choose happiness.

For help finding the door, I put together a simple “One Minute Meditation Tutorial” to help you train your mind to more easily live in the present moment. 

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Taming a Time-Traveling Monkey: Newbie Observations On Meditation

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I’ve been meditating for about three-and-a-half months, meaning I’m by no means an expert. Still, I feel that being closer to a complete novice versus a meditation master places me closer to the highs and lows of a meditation newbie that may prove useful to newcomers. Here is what I’ve learned and experienced about meditation during my first three months.

What Am I Even Doing?

Dan Harris (author of 10 Percent Happier, Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics, and creator of the 10 Percent Happier meditation app) says that, 

“Meditation has been the victim of the worst marketing campaign for anything ever.” 

The failure to adequately express the simple nature of meditation is due to its hijacking by pseudo-spiritual chi-mongers who are looking to leverage spiritual insecurities to sell classes, books, and app subscriptions (not you, Dan — you’re cool). It’s not uncommon to see watered-down Eastern spiritual symbols associated with the marketing of meditation — from yin yangs to chakra diagrams to people sitting crossed-legged with their thumb and index fingers pinched (something I’ve never seen outside of stock photography). However, from my own perspective as a religiously spiritual person coming to meditation, when the practice is broken down to its most essential parts, the practice feels about as spiritual as pushups or jumping jacks. 

So, what is meditation? Simply put, I’d say it’s “presentness practice.” When executed, I’d say it’s the process of taming a time-traveling monkey that lives in your head.

What do I mean by that?

The Default Mode Network

We spend most of our waking lives in a part of our brains called the default mode network. This system of brain regions is fired when we’re not actively concentrating on an immediate task or solely on the present moment. This zone is where your mind goes when you’re daydreaming or simultaneously comparing thoughts with moments to determine your next course of action. 

While your default mode network can help brainstorm a new idea for a marketing campaign based on past successes, when combined with insecurities or painful moments, it can also lead you down a spiral of dread and anxiety. Past experiences can result in healthy stress that can keep you safe. However, the default mode network can cause you to dwell incessantly on the pains of the past or worry incessantly about potential hardships of the future. How do can we avoid this mental pain spiral while also increasing our attention span? By making it easier to escape to where things are likely better — the present. How do we do that? Through meditation. 

All We Have is Now. Might As Well Enjoy It! 

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that things are good for you right now. I’m not talking about what happened earlier today or what will happen later this week — but right at this moment. If you’re reading an article online, that means you likely have a little time to yourself, you’re in a comfortable position, you have access to a technological device and electricity. Even if you’re reading a printed version of this, you’ve likely ok right now. Take a second to push the past and the future aside, take a deep breath, and just enjoy this moment. I’ll wait. 

Pretty nice, right? Well, meditation can help you access that place more often and with less work. 

Taming the Time-Traveling Monkey

The following practice can potentially hurt the read-through rate of this article, but I’m willing to risk it: 

  1. Take ten seconds to shake all focus on the present moment. Just allow any thought into your mind and feel free to follow it wherever it goes. 
  2. Ok, come back! 

If you’re not an experienced meditator, what you just experienced probably felt the way a tuning orchestra sounds — just a chaos of noises and thoughts, some ok and some negative. You just allowed your default mode network to have complete control of your mind. It was probably wholly directionless, like riding an innertube through stormy seas. This is what is popularly known as the “monkey mind.” Like a monkey on your back, it will cause you to waste time, believe your insecurities, covet the successes of others, and just be unable to focus on the task at hand. If you’re reading a book, the monkey mind is the reason why you can sometimes read an entire paragraph only to realize that, while your eyes took in the sentences, your mind couldn’t tell you want they said. It was busy time traveling to the past or future. Yes, this is why I compare active meditation to taming a time-traveling monkey. 

Is It Working? 

If you start a diet or exercise routine, you can typically see metrics of your progress. These metrics may appear on the bathroom scale or the number of reps you can perform without toppling over. However, unless you’re part of a clinical trial studying the mental effects of regular meditation, these metrics won’t seem so evident. 

One of the catch 22’s of meditation is that you won’t experience tangible evidence of the benefits because meditation itself takes you out of your ruminating mind that would detect such improvements. Still, you will recognize these benefits more abstractly. The following is a personal example: 

Just as background for those who don’t know what mindfulness meditation consists of, it’s essentially focusing all of your mental bandwidth on the raw data of the inhale and exhale of your breath — two indications of the present moment. When your mind begins to wander to events not happening at that moment, the key is to make a note that your mind is wandering and return your focus to the raw data of breathing — in, out, cool, warm; however you feel it. 

“I feel it working!”

One day, I was included in a meeting on a project which would one-day require my involvement. Because the information being discussed at the moment didn’t immediately correspond to my role, my mind began to wander. What should I have for lunch? Did I leave my phone on my desk? Did I remember to lock my car? Suddenly, upon taking a breath, the sensation of the coolness of the air entering my nostrils reminded me of my meditation sessions…and told me that my mind was wandering from the meeting. While I could have carefully studied the notes of the meeting later, it would be much easier to fully experience the material now for my role in the project later. Upon seeing my distraction, I immediately brought my focus back to the person speaking — a realization and redirection that probably took two seconds total. This feat would have been substantially more difficult without my meditation practice.

Neuroscience, Y’all

Though that instance required a stimulus (my breath) to remind me to focus, I have been receiving the “You’re wandering — focus” notification in my mind much more often in daily life when I become distracted as a result of daily meditation practice. Eerily enough, this is actually due to meditation changing the setup of my brain. A 2011 Harvard study looked at before-and-after scans of participants who took part in an eight-week meditation course. The scans showed a cortical thickness of the hippocampus (associated with learning and memory) as well as other regions of the brains associated with the regulation of emotions, perspective-taking, and self-referential processing. Scans also showed the shrinking of the amygdala — the zone related to stress, anxiety, and fear.  

Despite all of the benefits that daily meditation has had in my daily life, I’m anxious…to see what the future holds.

Ok, that was corny, but I couldn’t help it.

Additional resources:
If you’re completely new to meditation and would like to try it out, no tools necessary, enjoy the one-minute meditation tutorial I wrote here.

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