Experiments with Awareness and Metacognition
Try these experiment with yourself and, if you’re a high school teacher, with your students. (I’m borrowing this from Zen teacher Albert Low with a touch of David Hume.) It might reveal and challenge accepted ideas and beliefs about metacognition and perception. Put your hand on the surface of a table. What does it feel like? Hard. Cool. A little sticky. Gross. How much of what you feel is the table? All of it? Half? Half the table, half you? Is the sensation of being “gross” from the table? Let me ask this another way. Does the feeling of grossness or stickiness belong to the table or the hand? Does the table “feel”? Maybe that seems like a crazy question. When you’re feeling the table surface as gross, what makes it gross? Is it the table? Are you mentally commenting on a memory of the table? Are you possibly feeling your own judgment or interpretation of a sensation?
With your hand still on the table, close your eyes. The table is obviously not the same as your hand. Nor is your hand the same as the sensation. But, does the sense of hand, table, smoothness all arise together or sequentially? When the hand touches the table, is all that you sense sensation? All you feel is feeling? Are you aware only of awareness? Or even more precisely, cut out the you. There is just perception or awareness. If you are feeling your own interpretation, there would have to be a separation between the act of feeling and the object felt. Can feeling and felt ever be so separated?
Or what about other senses? Listen to a symphony. Where is the symphony? The instruments and musicians might be on the stage in the music hall. The sound vibrations might fill the space. But the symphony? Or let’s re-phrase the famous question asked by the English philosopher Bishop Berkeley : “if a tree falls in the forest, is there a sound?” Without an ear (and a brain) is there a symphony? Or you see a beautiful sunset, with deep reds and vibrant yellows. Without an eye and a brain, where is the vibrant color? “Where does hearing end and sound begin?” Where does seeing end and color begin?
When we reflect, we think there is an ‘I’ who reflects. What does the ‘I’ reflect on? Another ‘I’? A memory or a concept of ‘I’? Some objective “fact”? But as we’ve possibly determined through our experiments, the “I” who sees and the “thing” seen are not separate. When we reflect, we reflect on our own perception or memory and then create a conclusion based on that memory. We’re reflecting not on some depersonalized truth but on a very personal creation. Are we the seen, the seer—or the seeing?
One more experiment. As you sit in a room reading this, sit back a little and just take in the whole space. You are at the center, yet all you are aware of, feel, sense is your surroundings. Just be aware of the whole room. Then, change your awareness to focus on one thing, maybe a word in this blog, a book, a table. Sense yourself at the periphery looking at the object of your gaze. This is another type of awareness. You can and constantly do shift easily from the center to the periphery and thus provide a necessary contrast. You need to be aware of the whole so the details can have a context and, thus, make sense. You need the details to construct the whole. Details and whole are interdependent.
But remember the first experiments. This word being read is not separate from the awareness reading. When you read a word, what is the nature of the awareness of the letters? The word comes to you as a whole. But the letters make up that whole. Albert Low argues you are aware not “of” the letters but “as” them. Can the letters have meaning without awareness-as them as letters? Pick up a pen and write a word. You can guide the pen to write a word because you have a non-focused awareness-as the weight, size, texture, and point of the pen. Or going back to the table; if you put your hand on the table to steady yourself as you stand up from your chair, you are aware-as the table. Or, even better, let’s say you turn on the music. You can be aware-of the music as you study and appreciate it. But as your feet start moving, are you aware-as the music as you dance?
What are the implications of these experiments in awareness? How can they help anyone? I find them fun. Each time I do them and try to describe what I find, I understand my own life and perceptions better. And possibly, if I understand awareness better at this very basic level, I can do a better job of recognizing and interrupting suffering as I notice it arising. I can better understand the role I play in the perceived world.