Adam Blatner, M.D.

Posted December 27, 2010: From an article published in 2004 in Re-Vision: A Journal of Consciousness and Transformation, (Vol. 26 (4), 2-7)..

Although the journal I published this article in (in 2004) deals with consciousness and transformaton, I don't see these as two separate categories; rather, I suggest that it is in the nature of consciousness to expand and  undergo a qualitative change, a consciousness transformation. The thesis of this paper is that rather than viewing consciousness transformation as a single dramatic event, it is better to recognize it as a gradual process in which hundreds of smaller transformations generate a new infrastructure. At certain points in its development, this system then can express emergent properties beyond those of its component elements.

Development and Change

Transformation involves new learning, especially the kind of learning in which the learner goes beyond merely acquiring new information. Jean Piaget, a cognitive psychologist who worked and published mainly between the late 1920s and the 1950s, noted that learning involves two types of processes, assimilation and accommodation (Piaget 1951). Although his work was mainly on children, this idea also applies to adults. Piaget described a model of learning in which the mind is viewed as a multi-modal map, called a “schema,” which involves not only thoughts but also a felt sense of what the world was about.  Learning involves an interplay between experiences that add further information to a person’s inner map by assimilation and other experiences that require that the individual expand or modify that map through accommodation. Assimilative learning is the most familiar type of learning because it dominates our present educational system. It involves mainly memorization and skills acquisition but is the type that is most readily forgotten.

Accommodative learning is also familiar because it occurs naturally when a child learns to walk, control one’s bowels, ride a bicycle, or swim. This type of learning creates an experience that is impossible to forget. It even becomes difficult to remember what it was like before one knew how to do these things because it involves a subtle change in how the self is experienced. However subtle these changes, such accommodative processes should be recognized as being transformative. Certain more passive but dramatic accommodative experiences are also transformative, such as trauma, near-death experiences, or being deeply loved, because they change the way one feels about self and the world.

Puberty is a major example of accommodation and developmental transformation. Before puberty, members of the opposite sex are regarded as vaguely exotic and at times irrelevant. However, with the help of hormones and sociocultural patterning, they become objects of attraction, which creates sexual excitation and forges new relationships. During puberty, development becomes increasingly complex as multiple lines of learning are integrated into one’s concept of self. For example, interest in the opposite sex becomes more than a matter of fantasy and excitation; it quickly becomes a process requiring grooming, communications skills, a relinquishment of childish egocentricity, follow-through, and later the additional complexity of commitment. Similarly, other types of personal development, such as work, spirituality, or general socialization, also involve the integration of increasing numbers of roles. However, some of these lines of development may fail to synchronize with the others, so that although a person may appear to be fully mature, certain roles remain in a rather primitive state, resulting in immature modes of thinking and feeling. Emotional maladjustments and character pathology may be usefully viewed as being the product of such underdeveloped dimensions of the personality.


While a single or small number of dramatic incidents can occasionally trigger consciousness transformation, the challenge remains of integrating these learning experiences. This generally requires the concurrent support of a significant number of adjunctive conditions or changes which, in their aggregate, constitute an infrastructure of accommodative events. As an analogy, in the political and economic arenas, significant development requires the construction of an infrastructure consisting of resources, people with required skills, adequate supporting institutions, corrective procedures, laws, education, and motivation, among other factors. In the development of the individual, similar types of skills, situations and support are needed. Without them, new learnings and changes are neutralized. This effect is one of the main discoveries of the application of systems theory in family therapy. Working on one person in a family can be ineffective because other family members draw that person back into the family’s established relationship patterns.

Applied to the understanding of consciousness transformation, this idea of infrastructure explains why various writers and teachers note that individuals need to be established at one level before they can effectively advance to the next. For example, in the system of Kundalini Yoga, the increasingly higher levels of consciousness are identified as the various ”chakras” and associated with different locations along the spinal column. Ken Wilber (2000) charted out several development maps and subsequently noted that a variety of domains of life involvement must be coordinated and balanced to be established. In addition, drawing on the then largely unpublished papers on “spiral dynamics” by Clare Graves, Don Beck, and Christopher Cowan, Wilber noted that individuals are also caught up in the evolution of the collectives in which they are embedded (Wilber (2001). Like the work of Erik Erikson (1963), this approach stresses the importance of social interactions in reinforcing personal developmental transformations.

Much of the research and writing on adult development, though, generally has addressed what the majority of moderately educated people in America in the late twentieth century have already experienced. However, there is a lack of studies on people who have reached significant levels of compassion, creativity, wisdom, spontaneity, spirituality, and the like. Each of these dimensions have been briefly addressed in some more recent books, but future research should address in greater detail the heightened capacity for self-reflectiveness, also known as meta-cognition.


The Greek word root meta means beyond. Applied to the thinking process, meta-cognition refers less to thinking about what one is doing or experiencing and more to paying attention to the ways one is thinking: the biases, emotional pulls, patterns of avoidance and desire, reasoning, and especially the relative effectiveness of one’s own mental processes. The philosopher Herbert Fingarette (2000) drew attention to the distinction between consciousness as a general awareness--the state of most people--and an explicit awareness--a focus on the thinking process itself, or an awareness of being aware. In this sense, meta-cognition includes not only a sharper awareness of the thought process but also a curiosity about the many ways one’s thoughts happen. This curiosity develops skills for noticing the way one sometimes justifies an idea, lapses into more childish types of reasoning, or is tempted by the “deadly sins” of envy, spite, anger, pride, or lust. But it also nudges intuition, aspirations, and the call to a “higher self.” Meta-cognition involves working with these many currents of the mind, to learn to manage one’s own thinking more consciously and effectively. Although Piaget only vaguely hinted at this idea, the more sophisticated models of meta-cognition seem to belong only to the rare intellectual elite. However, we are living in an era in which the promise of meta-cognition for everyone is more achievable, through a number of cultural developments.

A good model for understanding the emergence of meta-cognition involves the recognition that the mind operates simultaneously on different levels: on the level of the various roles one plays, and another, “meta” level where the mind coordinates and modulates the ways those roles are played (Blatner, 2000, 151). For example, a man may be engaged in the role of father coaching his son in baseball. In addition to paying attention to the details of his son’s performance and the complexities of the game, this man is more or less consciously modulating the intensity, rate, and wording of his coaching statements. Some fathers lacking meta-cognition simply react, unconsciously blending what they previously have had modeled for them as children, their positive or negative reactions to this, and other innate behaviors. But others might pause to consider that those attitudes and approaches may not work with their boy. This self-reflection is an example of meta-cognition.

The roots of meta-cognition lie in the emergence of a self-reflective capacity or meta-role. This emergence occurs as a toddler begins to learn about the psychosocial phenomenon called “play” At first, a toddler just messes around and tries different things. Piaget called this stage sensori-motor play. But then the process becomes more socially interactive. The awareness of an audience and the concepts of imagination, deception, and teasing develop. The exploration of the possibilities of paradox, surprise, and pretense lays the foundation for the element of humor. Exploration also opens the door to the next step, role playing. A young child knows that he or she is not really the person--such as a “daddy,” “fireman,” or “superhero”--he or she is pretending to be and understands that the transformation is make believe. Part of the fun also is that so much of this social context of playfulness can be established just with a look or a change of voice pitch or rhythm, without extensive explanation (Blatner & Blatner, 1997).

Although this type of role playing is not yet meta-cognition, it is the birth of the meta-role, which coordinates and modulates the way the various roles are played. A slight progression toward meta-cognition occurs as the young child learns to comment on the flow of the action, such as by saying, “Time out. I have to go to the bathroom,” “Wait a minute, you’re playing too rough,” or “Let’s do that over.” Such sentences are understood as being separate from the roles being played. These are the beginnings of the ideas of rehearsal and improvisation (Blatner 2000, 119). (More on the meta-role function (as "choosing self") on a related webpage.)

This role playing eventually evolves into real life roles, such as knowing how a child respectful of parents behaves, being quiet in church, speaking softly when asking for help in going to the bathroom, excreting in the toilet rather than in the pants. During play, while the child pretends to be a firefighter or a doctor or has make-believe superhero adventures, he or she is further learning about the ordinary range of social roles. These roles, especially certain roles as “good guys” or “bad guys,” are replete with sets of expectations, attitudes, status, and modes of behavior.
Moreover, the child also acquires to various degrees a range of meta-cognitive skills that help the child learn some self-discipline about which roles are played when. This learning of skills and information as they apply to various rules is what dominates normal education, and also most sports. Although young people are taught to learn to think more critically and develop better reasoning skills--which are slightly metacognitive--education generally remains focused on the information being thought about. The learning of meta-role skills is seldom explicitly taught and is assumed to be implicitly learned.

Metacognition should not be confused with patterns of self-doubt or self-consciousness, which can be automatic patterns of disqualification of one’s own perceptions and ideas. Many families instill these qualities through pathogenic patterns, such as hyper-criticalness and shaming. In addition, some children are more temperamentally inclined to doubt their own sense of reality. But self-doubt and self-consciousness are not meta-cognition. In fact, active exercises of meta-cognition, such as psychotherapy or a disciplined self-help program, are needed to correct these habits.

In terms of dynamic psychology, the meta-role is part of what Freud called the ego, and Eric Berne called the “Adult Ego State” (Berne 1961). However, in talking about roles as a derivative of the dramaturgical model in social psychology, the base metaphor of which is “all the world’s a stage,” the meta-role can be best compared to an inner director and playwright. Those skilled in meta-cognition are not confined only to conventional modes of rational thought. They realize that cultivating emotional sensitivity, empathy, body-awareness, imagination, inspiration, improvisation, and intuition are as important as ordinary thinking. These two levels of thought address different domains. The ordinary roles each person plays focus on the circumstances associated with various relationships and situations. One thinks about the issues at work, the challenges of raising children, how to prepare dinner. The meta-role, in contrast, considers which roles to play when and determines how well those roles are being played. The ordinary role repertoire includes not only social roles, such as parent, friend, cousin, club member, political party member, worker, and the like, but also fantasy roles. To varying degrees, everyone identifies with sports heroes or movie or television characters. These imagined roles thicken life experiences considerably. Even the ways a person eats, sleeps, excretes, carries or moves his or her body, communicates nonverbally, and changes voice tone are socially conditioned. If that same person were raised in a different culture, these basic body functions would be experienced and conducted differently. Much of the texture and value in life comes through the way an individual interprets and exaggerates various modes of role playing.

The meta-cognitive functions, though, are a bit different. They focus on the mind’s relative effectiveness in various skill areas, such as observing, investigating, interrogating, exploring, rationally thinking, imagining, intuiting, deciding, choosing, modulating, improvising, balancing, distinguishing, letting go, persevering, playing, synthesizing, and creating. Beyond these skills, meta-cognitive functions include the awareness of the use of these different operations and a determination of which meta-cognitive skill is relevant to the situation at hand. The habitual exercise of any one of these skills or group of them is not in itself meta-cognition. In fact, most personality disorders might be thought of as fixating on only some skills in this repertoire. Ideally, the self-reflective person is open to an ever broader repertoire of skills and becomes wiser about how to use which skill at the appropriate time. For example, a more self-reflective person would be aware of the times when it is inappropriate to be a clown and other times when it would be useful to be playful or even silly. Similarly, even a person who is not characterized as a prima donna recognizes when a more dramatic form of self-assertion might be just what is needed. Conscious role flexibility is the key. The value of the concept of metacognition and the point of this article is that a transformation from ordinary awareness to a more self-reflective type of consciousness is possible.

Cultural Supports for Meta-Cognition

One precursor for modern developments was the meaning of science, not only in its implications for our being able to know and thus affect the objective world, but also for its implications for the nature of consciousness itself. Science is in its essence a meta-cognitive step, for it invites us to question our own thinking. It recognizes the realities of illusion and self-deception. Around the same time as the development of science in seventeenth-century Europe, there was a resurgence of questioning one’s own thinking. The philosophical field of “epistemology” (which asks how we know what we know) emerged vigorously from the surrounding sea of dogma, tradition, and willed belief. Socrates’ dictum “know thyself” supported this wave of thought because on the surface it seems that we do know ourselves, but on closer inspection, the opposite is closer to the truth. Following this tradition, the introspective philosophers of the seventeenth century began to exercise their skills of self-reflection.

In the context of psychoanalysis, however, the art of introspection became more systematic around the beginning of the twentieth century. Over the next few decades, a more skeptical attitude emerged regarding the pervasiveness of self-deception, along with a more careful cataloging of the various ways this occurred. During the 1940s, a variety of other approaches were added to psychoanalysis, and by the late 1970s there were more than a hundred of them. All of these forms of psychotherapy had the implicit cultivation of the skills of meta-cognition or self-reflection as a common denominator. The term psychological mindedness, as it referred to patients who seemed interested in the process of probing their own mental functioning, was another term that became prevalent in the mental health fields.

In addition to the proliferation of psychotherapists and different types of counseling, a parallel process of popularization of psychology has occurred in our culture. The stigma of psychotherapy and personal reflection is lessening, and more people are buying self-help books, reading introspective articles in magazines, and watching psychologically oriented television talk shows. Although at the time of this writing, the majority of people seem to find self-reflective and psychological talk somewhat threatening, a greater sense of psychological-mindedness is approaching the norm. From the 1960s through the 1970s, the human potential movement expressed an extension of psychotherapy, which applied methods to help healthy people become even healthier. Originating in efforts to reduce racial tensions and promote leadership skills (via the “T-Group” in the late 1940s), group methods that examined communications styles and attitudes proved helpful enough to be incorporated in the sensitivity training of managers and leaders in various industries during the 1950s. In the 1960s, these methods merged with new theories of humanistic and existential psychology and became known as the encounter group. These methods continued to be refined and focused into a wide range of personal growth programs, with various workshops being presented at progressive learning centers such as Esalen or Omega Institutes. Since that time, although encounter groups have all but disappeared, more focused forms of psychological development have proliferated in the forms of coaching, consulting, religious retreats, and programs for prisoners, among others.

The development of self-management skills has become a significant part of management training in general, and the related fields of organizational and human resources development are shifting away from the old-style, temperamental bosses toward a new generation of managers who recognize that fostering creativity and teamwork among workers requires a more sophisticated skill set (Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee 2002). A similar development is happening in schools, where it is becoming increasingly commonplace to find programs that address bullying, anger management, sexual harassment, drug abuse, peer pressure, and premature sexuality (Cohen 1999). The general idea of social and emotional learning is a growing trend, and it promises a continuation of the move toward meta-cognition in society.

Another cultural development that promotes meta-cognition has been the “consciousness raising groups” that were popular in the early 1970s. These groups included mostly women seeking to understand the cultural shifts associated with feminism--that the personal is political. This explicit awareness of misleading attitudes and modes of thought became a part of a wide range of civil rights efforts. The discourse on oppression--the idea that both oppressors and those oppressed share a common complex of beliefs--has been a related meta-cognitive tool. Such thinking also broadens the circle of caring so that individuals can question the way many people and groups or classes of people have been marginalized.

Another trend toward increasing psychological-mindedness is seen in the increasing use of support groups, beginning with an expansion of the twelve step programs for alcoholism to apply also to other types of addictions, such as drugs, food, debt, gambling, and sex. Family members also gave each other support in groups, as “co-dependents” or “adult children of alcoholics” (ACOA). This type of support expanded to become groups for those grieving or anticipating the loss of a loved one, cancer survivors, and victims of life-threatening diseases.

Meta-cognition has also been supported by the emergence of a variety of spiritual endeavors and religious traditions that attend more to introspection than dogma. Within Christianity, there has been the emergence of New Thought and Religious Science--a conglomeration of sub-groups or denominations that are relatively light on dogma and focus instead on underlying attitudes. Buddhism–especially Zen and the Southeast Asian approach called Vipassana, or “mindfulness,” meditation–also draws attention explicitly to the ways the mind operates. From Hinduism, the more refined forms of yoga similarly attend to the complexities of mind and how they foster illusion. In turn, these approaches have influenced psychology and, more specifically, an important outgrowth of humanistic psychology called transpersonal psychology. (The people associated with this field have been among the main contributors to ReVision.)

Meanwhile, developments in fields related to the behavioral sciences continue to bring attention to the nature of thinking. Linguistics, semantics, semiotics, communications studies, anthropology, comparative mythology, comparative religion, history, cultural studies, literature, poetry, esoteric and occult studies, neuroscience, parapsychology, and a host of other developments all offer new tools for thinking about the ways we think, imagine, and feel. Along with these, the general cultural ferment of the postmodern condition, with its accelerating rate of change, multicultural mixing, mobility, communications, computers, and the Internet, and rising expectations and demands, combine to throw conventional habits of thinking, attitudes, social role definitions, and established relations into question. Society needs to become more explicitly aware of biases, avoidances, stereotypes, overgeneralizations, to develop creative responses to the ways individuals think and feel about problems. Tendencies to rely on habitual modes of thought are themselves becoming the problem.


The identification of these concepts can in itself serve as a tool for transforming consciousness: “Finding a name for something is a way of conjuring its existence, of making it possible for people to see a pattern where they didn’t see anything before” (Rheingold, 1988, 3). Therefore, meta-cognition and the intentional exercise of the various component skills of the meta-role, can become significantly more effective when done with explicit awareness.

In conventional psychotherapy or personal growth programs, people learn to exercise their various meta-cognitive skills, including self-observation, decision making, and internal conflict resolution. By recognizing how all these are forms of self-management, people can identify with the meta-role. For example, the role of the chief executive officer of a company is increasingly highlighted in modern culture in light of the news and expansion of multi-national corporations. It is a glamorous role–and one capable of profound corruption. Nevertheless, it is often a useful metaphor to suggest that like the many divisions and departments in a business or industry, each individual is a complex of many roles (Blatner, 2003). Effectively coordinating one’s many parts in the complexities of a changing world is a highly skilled job, one worthy of great remuneration. However, sometimes the metaphor of the artist or the inner playwright and director can be more effective, because in meta-cognition, one has to manage and direct the many roles they play.


Consciousness transformation may be better appreciated as a complex structure of many converging lines of development, each building on the other. Similarly, cultural developments converge and progress. Marshall McLuhan, a pioneer in media studies who coined the phrase “the medium is the message,” said, "The hybrid or meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born . . . a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by [the separate media] on our senses. . . . The crossings of media release great force.” (1965, 55)   Applied to meta-cognition, many trends bring forth a more explicit awareness of the nature of consciousness itself, along with a concern for more intentionally coordinating and balancing its many functions. There are numerous approaches to fostering this more conscious exercise of the way we go about being conscious in our culture. The more we play with our roles, the more we become explicitly consciously aware that we are playing and that we can learn to play more effectively, interestingly, and cooperatively.

Just as cognition has expanded from thinking about the world to thinking about thinking, so has evolution expanded as a concept. Originally describing a strictly biological phenomenon, evolution has emerged to become a major principle in considering history, spirituality, philosophy, and consciousness itself. New possibilities for a qualitatively different, more reflective, and more wisely intentional mode of consciousness are emerging, creating a world in which meta-cognition is taught as a group of skills and thus wisdom becomes more expected. This progress may take hundreds or thousands of years, but the seeds have been planted.


Berne, E. 1961. Transactional analysis in psychotherapy: A systematic individual and social psychiatry. New York: Grove.

Blatner, A. 2000. Foundations of psychodrama: History, theory, and practice. (4th ed.). New York: Springer.

Blatner, A., (& Allee Blatner). 1997. The Art of play: Helping adults to reclaim imagination and spontaneity. New York: Brunner/Routledge-Taylor and Francis.

Blatner, A. (2003). Metaphors in psychotherapy. Available from

Cohen, J., ed. 1999. Educating minds and hearts: Social emotional learning and the passage into adolescence. New York: Teachers College Press.

Erikson, E. (1963). Childhood and society (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.

Fingarette, H. 2000. Self-deception. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goleman, D., R. Boyatzis, and A. McKee. 2002. Primal leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

McLuhan, M. 1965. Understanding media. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Piaget, J. 1951. Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood. New York: Norton.

Rheingold, H. 1988. They have a word for it. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher.

Wilber, K. 2000. Integral psychology: Consciousness, spirit, psychology, therapy. Boston: Shambhala.

Wilber, K.  2001. A theory of everything: An integral vision for business, politics, science, and spirituality. Boston: Shambhala.


Adam Blatner is a Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, a Fellow of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, and retired from the faculty of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. Living north of Austin, Texas, he teaches and writes, and has a special interest in topics related to consciousness transformation.  Website:     Email: