There’s even a fancy word for it: metacognition. While this may seem like an impressive, big word to throw around and a minor, inconsequential concept in the grind of everyday life, I have come to believe that metacognition is an essential part of the foundation for a happy life.
It is taught by many philosophies, and I’ve come to understand that it’s not the actual circumstances in life that are the source of happiness or sadness or any emotion for that matter. It’s my thoughts about what happens that determines my experience of anything in life. What I say to myself about others, about myself, and about the events happening around me is the source of my emotions and make up my reality on a daily basis. Becoming aware of my thoughts, working with them, and consciously choosing my subsequent mindset, beliefs, and behavior has drastically changed my world for the better, — but I haven’t quite reached monk status yet.
Learning to Respond Rather Than React
My instinctual, knee-jerk responses still exist, but they are not near as compelling as they used to be. I’ve learned that my initial feelings in any situation are not good or bad. They just are, and I cannot control them. No one can. For years, I had the pattern of dramatically reacting to these feelings down all too well. Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, calls this “getting hooked.”
Learning to respond rather than react changed my life. Instead of unconsciously acting on my impulses, feelings, and thoughts, the trick is to become aware of them, observe them without judgment, sit with them, work with them, and think about them. Metacognition. I’ve learned to turn them all around and look at them from every angle. You might want to try on a different perspective, even an opposing one. You don’t have to buy into it permanently. Just try it out. Explore your thoughts and feelings about it. Dig into them. Where do they come from? What in your past might make you react this way? Are you reacting to the present situation or just playing out a pattern from your past?
I have learned many tools to work with thoughts and emotions. Here are some of them below.
Byron Katie’s The Work is phenomenal for doing this. The Work consists of four questions and a turnaround. The questions are:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
After you’ve analyzed a situation with the four questions, you turn it around. Each turn around is an opportunity to experience the opposite of your original statement. She says the turnarounds are the prescriptions for happiness.
Jeffrey Schwartz’ Four Rs
Jeffrey Schwartz’ four-step therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder works for changing any thought patterns, I have found. His four-step therapy is outlined in his book Brain Lock and has become an established treatment for OCD. The four steps are: relabel; reattribute; refocus and revalue. When I was originally learning to change my whole way of being, I had reminders of the four steps posted everywhere — on my refrigerator, in my meditation corner, on my bathroom mirror and even on the dashboard of my car. Now, I know the steps by heart and just run through them when a challenging issue arises.
The Emotional Guidance Scale
Abraham-Hicks has an emotional guidance scale which ranges from Joy/Appreciation/Empowered/Freedom/Love being at the top as the best with Fear/Grief/Depression/Despair/Powerlessness at the very bottom. The idea is to determine where you are on the emotional scale about something and, then, choose a thought that is higher on the scale promoting better feelings and more of a sense of peace. It does not work to try to go from the bottom all the way to the top instantly. It feels totally bogus, and it is. The idea is to choose something believable which makes you feel a little bit better which takes you a few notches up the scale. From there, you reach for better thoughts and feelings and keep moving up the scale. I just use the basic concept without referring to the chart.
I find that meditation is a good time for metacognition and using these tools. When something is troubling me, I take it “to the cushion.” While I do have some meditation sessions which are mostly free from thoughts, a meditation session, for me, is whatever I need it to be that day. If I need to work on some issue and thoughts do come up, I find that it is a good time for me to process them.
The point of these tools and is that, in working with the thoughts, I consciously choose how to feel, think, behave, and proceed in any situation. This process puts me in control of my life. I do not have control of what happens around me and never will, but I can control my inner world. Metacognition allows me to actively exercise this power every day. For me, it is the secret to peace and happiness.
These practices, over time and with repetition through experience-dependent neuroplasticity will actually, physically change the brain so that this kind of thinking and reacting becomes much easier and even the default, instinctual mode.
The details are complex, but the key point is simple: how you use your mind changes your brain – for better or worse.”
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