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Meta-awareness: the third building block of mindfulness
In the last article of this three-part series, Professors Megan Reitz and Michael Chaskalson from Ashridge Executive Education discuss the third building block of mindfulness – meta-awareness. They explore how developing an ability to observe your thoughts, feeling, sensations and impulses as they are happening, through just 10 minutes of mindfulness practice every day, can help you and your teams build a better working life
Did you know that a tiny piece of your brain, the size of a grain of sand, contains 100,000 neurons and 1 billion synapses all communicating with each other?
The problem is that although we have all that enormous potential at our disposal, our minds don’t come with an instruction manual. As miraculous as they are, we don’t know how to use them to anything like to their full capacity.
In the previous two articles we discussed that there are simple things you can do every day to help you shape your mind so that whatever life and work brings you’re better able to respond creatively. And the even better news is that it only takes 10 minutes per day. We call this mind time, and we all need it.
If you can set aside 10 minutes each day to engage in mind time practices – which you can access for free online here – then in a few months things should get better for you, your colleagues and your teams.
Learning to AIM
Mind time practices will help you develop three key capacities, collectively referred to as ‘AIM.’ These fundamental building blocks of mindfulness, as we see it, are:
Allowing – an attitude of kindness and acceptance
Inquiry – a curiosity about your present-moment experience
Meta-awareness – the ability to observe your thoughts, feelings, sensations and impulses as they are happening
Throughout this series of articles we are exploring how by developing each building block through 10 minutes of mind time every day, you and your team members can build a better working life.
3. Meta-awareness – the ability to observe your thoughts, feelings, sensations and impulses as they are happening
Meta-awareness involves waking up to what’s going on with us – with our thoughts, our feelings, our body sensations and impulses – in each moment. When we have that awareness, then we can choose what we do next. When we don’t have it, we’re stuck in the rut of our familiar, habitual reactions.
If you have meta-awareness, the third element of AIM, you are simultaneously ‘in’ your experience (feeling and sensing what’s going on) and at the same time you’re able to notice some of the ways it’s unfolding for you.
If you have ever travelled on the London Underground at rush hour you will be familiar with this experience. You’re standing on a station platform at 5.30 p.m. It’s hot and crowded. It’s been a tough day and you’re feeling frazzled. A train pulls in. People struggle to get off – there’s hardly any space on the crowded platform.
Our capacity to be aware of the signals we are sending is vital in developing successful and productive relationships.
You’re standing there, hot, breathless, squeezed from all sides as the train pulls out. You grow increasingly irritated. ‘Oh no. This is intolerable!’ you think. ‘Why am I doing this to myself? People are so inconsiderate!’ And on and on.
That’s one way of being with what’s happening. Here’s another. You start to grow irritable, but meta-awareness kicks in. You notice that your jaw is tight and that you’re holding your shoulders up so they’re almost alongside your ears. You see that your thoughts and feelings have fallen into ‘unhelpful inner-rant’ mode.
So you ease your jaw, relax your shoulders and come away from the rant. In this instance, the difference is between being irritable and noticing that you’re having irritable thoughts and feelings.
That moment of stepping back, ever so slightly, of seeing what you’re up to and what’s going on, is a tiny shift – but it changes everything. One moment you’re unconsciously ‘doing irritation’ – the next moment you wake up to what you’re doing and begin to exercise some choice.
The workplace application of meta-awareness
Example 1: Meta-awareness helps us build positive relationships at work
Ever been in a foul mood and come to work and noticed that within a couple of minutes everyone’s mood has dropped like a stone?
AIM – and particularly the meta-awareness element – is invaluable in helping us to check in with how we are feeling and thinking and the signals that we are giving to others in the present moment. Only once we notice these can we then choose to change them.
When we meet a stranger it only takes a tenth of a second to form a first impression based on our reading of their facial features. We alter our behaviour accordingly, potentially setting a relationship off on the right or wrong footing.
This is where meta-awareness can really help. Our capacity to be aware of the signals we are sending is vital in developing successful and productive relationships. Nancy Klein, an author who examines our ability to listen and think well together, has a great phrase: ‘Know your face.’ She advises us to develop an awareness of the expression on our faces and what messages it might convey.
Example 2: Meta-awareness helps us manage boundaries between work and family life
Jon – an old friend of ours – struggles with managing the boundaries between work and family life and feels that he does neither of his key roles (of being a self-employed accountant and being a father of three) well.
Through mind time practices he gradually managed to make choices about paying attention fully to one role or the other, rather than blurring them and pretending multitasking works. To do this, he needed to develop his ability for noticing his thoughts, feelings and sensations in the present moment – to come out of autopilot and into a place of awareness and therefore choice.
When we develop meta-awareness we spot in the moment what our thoughts are and we pay attention to how we are feeling.
This is what he said to us:
One bedtime, Rosie, who was having trouble with her friendships at school, asked me to put her to bed. I had work to do – in fact I was facing quite a backlog of stuff, so I was working on my laptop at home. I said, “Oh, I’ve got a report to finish, love. Mum’s going to put you to bed tonight.”
Luckily, out of the corner of my eye, I just briefly caught that tiny glimpse of disappointment on her face. I realised that in that moment I had a choice. A few seconds later, I closed the laptop. I went up and put her to bed. We talked through her worries and what she could do. She looked much more settled.
When I went back downstairs I still had to do the report for work – but now I could wholeheartedly and efficiently focus on it rather than struggling with the knowledge that I didn’t do the right thing. Funnily enough, I probably completed it all quicker.
Like Jon, many of us spend far too long half-heartedly working on one thing, getting distracted with another thing, then trying to go back to the first thing. We end up multitasking and doing nothing well. Our thoughts are then occupied with worrying about what we have done (or not done) and we feel guilty – especially if our close relationships have suffered.
When we develop meta-awareness we spot in the moment what our thoughts are and we pay attention to how we are feeling. This enables us to choose a response rather than stay in autopilot. In Jon’s case, meta-awareness enabled him, through paying attention to experience, to stick to his work–life boundaries in the moment – something that is important to him – and to his family.