Awareness of Thoughts

Goal: Metacognition is the capacity to see thoughts as thoughts. Our default way of being is to be caught up in thoughts, to not even realize that we are thinking, and to assume that whatever thoughts we are having are true.  Yet our minds are thought generators, and may produce all kinds of thoughts, many of which may not be accurate. For instance, we might suddenly think of a mistake we have made in the past. As we think about this, we might begin to make assumptions about ourselves, that we are not very good at what we do or we wouldn’t have made a mistake, or that anyone who could make such a mistake is not a good person.  If we can interrupt this thought cascade and more objectively evaluate our thoughts, we might see they are assumptions and not inherently true.

Technique: The key to being aware of thinking is to practice pausing and noticing what is going on in the mind.  Once we do this, we can choose whether to pay attention to thoughts if they are present or to let them go.  The easiest way to let them go is by choosing to pay attention to something else, like the sensations of breathing.  If we choose to stay with thoughts, we might practice being a neutral observer. What would a neutral person think about this, or what would I think if someone told me this and I was neutral?  We can also be curious, especially if we have thoughts about the way things should be.  We can ask ourselves why we think things should be a certain way, or who said they should be this way.  Often, “should” is an indication that something is our belief, and often is not based on any independent or universal value.

The evidence: Mindfulness training including mindfulness of thoughts has been associated with improved attention, critical thinking and executive functioning (Frontiers in Psychology 2015;6:2043).

Suggestions for use: Practice pausing to notice your thoughts throughout the day.

Barriers and how to overcome them: Paying attention to thoughts as thoughts is challenging because we so quickly get caught up in them.  Listening to a guided meditation focusing on thoughts can be helpful, such as the one on the UVa Mindfulness Center website: