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Metacognition: Thinking About Thinking
Adam Blatner, M.D.

November 4, 2013: This is the last in a six-lecture series on "Thinking About Thinking" given to the Fall Session of the Senior University Georgetown.

Introduction: Personal Background

I'll begin by telling you a little about myself. I've always been interested in this topic of spirituality. I've been interested in the other facets I've mentioned too---creativity, illusion, social embeddedness, language---but spirituality---or what I then called comparative religion---became my college major at U.C. Berkeley. I haven't felt committed to any particular path, but for purposes of self-disclosure, I'm sort of a blend of the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, with a dose of Baruch Spinoza and Jung and some others. It's a blend I continue to feel free to revise, and I'll mention more about my attitude of spiritual privilege---that I feel entitled to create and re-create what leads me on. The point for today is that I have been genuinely interested in the what it's all about and the nature of psychology and spirituality, but not so desperately that I've felt compelled to settle into one groove and evangelize that path. My purpose here is just to witness that along with the other ways to think about thinking, well, it's one way to do this.

Spiritual Privilege

I was raised in an area that was superficially religious, as all good Americans were expected to be in the 1940s, in Los Angeles, but nobody fussed much at me about explorations in my teen years. Probably I was lucky in my misfortune that my Dad died when I was 12, because I didnít have to rebel much. But still, rebel I did, but not much. Enough to read the books of skeptics, and yet stayed interested. Itís clear this was of vital importance to many people even though some others had doubts.

My young and middle years were intriguing, as I look back on them. I discovered Jung, whose work I thought had died outóthe parts of California I was in being more Freudian. And then in the 1960s all heaven broke loose as many people were writing about shamanism and new ideas, and Zen and all that stuff.

As result, I sniffed around, which revealed a sense of entitlement to do so. Having later been in Kansas and Kentucky and Texas, I realize that inner freedom to look around was spiritual privilegeóa term I learned only a few years agoóalong with other kinds of entitlementówhite privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, middle-class privilege, and so forth. We take a number of freedoms and the resources to ask for help and to expect help for granted in many ways. Subtle oppressionóthe opposite of privilegeóreally is dominant in many parts of the country, and can be in many of the aforementioned ways.

But spiritual privilege... I sort of took that for granted until going to parts of the country where more often than not people felt pressure to behave and even say they thought in ways that were culturally acceptable for the majority in that region. Now this has begun to shift and our kids feel more freedom than we did, or perhaps our parents did. Itís a time of change.My studying comparative religion during this time of changed, reading books associated with these changes, make a difference. So thatís some of my background and you can read more on my website.


Talking about spirituality is a little awkward because science seems to have been battling religion, though in fact that is an illusion fostered by journalists who thrive at getting sound bites from the extremes. There are lots of folks in the middle. Lots of people who are more scientific but like me, recognize how little we know, and many who suspect there is a depth dimension where spirituality and psychology meet.

Letís address some definitions first, then, about spirituality and religion.

Spirituality may mean different things to different people. When I use the word, though, it represents an activity people do, often within the context of a religion, sometimes out of or beyond it.

Spirituality is an activity of developing or deepening your relationship with something deeper, more inclusive. Many call this a sacred realm, or God, The theologian Paul Tillich called it the Ground of Being. It has many names and what I was saying last week goes double for god-talk.

But religion is the social organization of the spiritual impulse. Itís when two or more are gathered, when folks try to codify what itís all about, and folks will do that sort of thing. The point of religion is that the way Iím using it, the term refers to some grouping, of millions or thousands or even just hundreds of people.

The philosopher Whitehead said that religion is what one does in oneís solitude, but I think he was talking about spirituality, because when we were young they didnít make that differentiation. Einstein talked about a religious sensibility but again I would call what he was talking about ďspiritual.Ē

The point to note is that some folks are spiritual but not religious. And some are neither spiritual nor religious. And some are both. But there are a lot of people who donít really work their religion. They show up, get forgiven, do the rituals, participate, feel good, and thereís nothing wrong with that. But itís not for them much of a psychological journey. They donít feel called upon to re-evaluate and change at any level.

This is much of the religion we learned about. People were this or that, they affiliated, they were more or less loyal, which correlated hardly at all with how much they did the rituals, attended church, gave money, and were part of the group. Personal development was not asked for or expected.

So this wanting to make your spirituality relevant for you, to make it work for you, thatís something that has always been there with some few folks but not generally expected. Preachers would suggest it, ask for it, but there were few actual incentives to make much of a difference in life.
Other people found themselves betwixt and between and found spirituality to be relevant. Many pursued other religions, Eastern religions, other types of spirituality. Some have returned to their home religion, some have affiliated elsewhere. Some change denominations because of the quality of community they offer.

Meaning Making

Thinking about thinking, one of the things we do is make meaning. This is instinctive. We'll perceive a random pattern and after being confused for a while, a pattern---we think---seems to appear. Sometimes there is a pattern hidden there. Sometimes we've just made it up. That tendency to perceive and co-create a pattern is called a "Gestalt" function and was observed by psychologists maybe 80 years ago.

Spirituality overlaps with making meaning about a very complex world. Both pattern discovery---the Gestalt dynamic---and spirituality overlaps with creativity and language and social embedded-ness. But back to the Gestalt dynamic.

The mind has instincts, and it isn't just to sex, or food, or standing upright, or speaking. There are many tendencies and it doesn't pay to try to reduce them to one or a handful of "basic" drives. Freud did that and others came along and said, in effect, "Hey Sigmund, here's some more." In the 1970s, for example, the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut noted that a core dynamic was that of feeling one's own sense of self as coherent and valued. A few decades earlier, other analysts noted the need to be bonded---that interpersonal embeddedness I talked about two lectures ago.

The sense of meaning is an externalized equivalent of the sense of self. If one feels a sense of self---and not everyone does all that strongly---then the I who does things seems conscious and in charge. It often isnít, but if you look, there you are. The sense of meaning is how we perceive the outside world as things making sense. Like the sense of self, the sense of meaning may be strong or weak. Again, these dynamics partake of what is called the Gestalt function, from the German, meaning that it all seems to hang together. The mind makes sense out of nonsense. We see this more vividly in our dreams, when it turns a mild overactivity of the brain into stories. Iím not saying there isnít more to it than the illusion of meaning making, but fundamentally, the mind will make meaning of most anything.

What occurred to me is that all these functions of sense of self and meaning operate from weak to sometimes too strong---a mind-spectrum---which I'll talk about next February. And at the higher end of the no meaning to a strong meaning we start developing a coherence that partakes of what might be fairly called a philosophy of life. The more this is forced to be put into words, the more it may be subject to re-evaluation and revision and can advance to a more articulated philosophy. Just as some folks' spirituality may advance to degrees that may merit being viewed as mystical, so some generally felt philosophies of life can advance to being professors of philosophy at colleges.

It occurs to me, though, that most folks pretty much accept the implicit meanings of their culture, subculture, and peers. It works for them much of the time. As a teenager I learned this maxim: Pain makes man think; thinking makes man wise; wisdom makes life endurable. So life goes on, people not infrequently come up against situations that shake the conventional meanings. Pain. The mind is marvelously able to cover it over, seal it over, make sense, in a non-word sort of way, so this may go on without ever much elaborate thinking happening. But some want answers enough to search and thatís where religion comes up. Some of those meanings work and sometimes they don't. Anyway, meaning-making is a function that we do more or less consciously to keep in balance.


Sometimes a story that's not totally rationally coordinated can seem more true than some intellectualized formula. It strikes a chord. It feels meaningful. I feel this way when I sing Christmas songs---some of them---I think because I personally think every baby that's born is precious in its potential, as if a hundred angelic guardians are born with it to guide and protect it. But of course, that's my own funny myth.

In the olden days myth was something others believed. Myths wer not true. Our myths were not called myths. That's what we believed, and they were true. Not like other people's myths. But around the time we were kids there were more and more anthropologists and students of comparative mythology who noted that Western people also had myths. Of course, what we believed may be true, maybe, but they partook of the same elements that people who were benighted also believed. Of course, because we in the West were more technologically advanced weapons-wise, we were the "winners" and thus had a tendency to promote our culture's favorite beliefs beyond what we imagined to be the folly of the less enlightened. We didnít notice that we were simply promoting our myths.

Once the era of gross conquest and oppression died down and our need to be self-righteous in what we did lessened; and once we started looking around, it became more clear that we, too, had thousands of mythic basic assumptions that we hadn't begun to question.

What Professor Burger was really talking up in the 2nd lecture, by the way, is two words: Challenge assumptions.

So looking at our own myths and other people's myths became an in-between academic study between anthropology and religion. Comparative mythology. Around the late 1960s Joseph Campbell among others re-framed myth. No, myths werenít what uncivilized people believed, while we enlightened people had our superior beliefs! On careful examination, Westerners had as many and varied myths as primitive peoples. Myths are simply stories that embody common assumptions. Myths are simply stories that embody common assumptions!

Joseph Campbell explored hundreds of western legends, including current manifestations of them, and many whoíve followed have had riches in the Disney and Star Wars and Star Trek and Sports, and and and.   We are immersed in stories that hide underlying assumptions that go beyond romance.

Well, romance is one myth, in our culture, almost sacred. Celebrated in song. But for much of history, romance was for the pre-marital flirtations and occasional discreet or indiscreet affairs, but hardly until the 18th century the basis of marriage. Well, thatís a whole Ďnother story, except to say that analyzing the myths of a culture exposes a great number of ideas that havenít been neutralized and may then be acted out without or maybe with shame.

Religion is chock full of myth, and another major myth is that religion is done in churches and business is business and ethical standards of course differ so whatís the problem. Some folks donít buy this, but, hey, theyíre losers, so pay Ďem no never mind. Ours is a profoundly hypocritical culture that has not awareness of how hypocritical it is, in part because thereís a lot of do-good-ism.

And though some may say itís a battle of sin versus righteousness, there is so much hanky panky in the mid-range that the issues are psychological, cultural, dealing with the other categories I've talked about, language, social embeddedness, and so forth.


This is not to say that psychological-ization excuses sin. There was a bit of a drift in that direction in the mid-20th century, to making excuses for sin. In West Side Story the song, ďGee, Officer KrupkeĒ mocks this. Karl Menninger of the then well-known Menninger hospital in Kansas wrote a book in the 1960s titled ďWhatever Became of Sin?Ē  His point is simply that for those who are willing to look at themselves critically, it may be fair to analyze petty misdeeds. But psychoanalysis was not meant to be an excuse for meanness and other pretty destructive behaviors. The ethos of finding oneself and to hell with spouse and kids had gotten out of hand, as had other things that were absolutely worthy of guilt.

The point here is that thereís a lot to notice in common myths. Itís not value free. Some myths are more anti-social than others and should evoke guilt and shame. Psychology is not meant to be a source of excuses.


Some folks carry spirituality to the point of mysticism. A few have breakthroughs in this way. Mysticism---in the sense of having a deep, compelling experience about the depths of what is felt to be the object of spiritual relations---continues to be a bit mysterious. But we should not back off of our considerations just because we haven't figured out a way to examine the phenomenon. Rather, psychology needs to be part of looking at whatís going on. See my webpage paper about this:

I talked about spirituality, and mysticism is just spirituality on steroids. A small number of people want to take it to the limit, and Iím reluctant to presume to say this is any more abnormal than those who want to take theatre or sports or any endeavor to the limits of their talents and ambition.

Nor am I praisin

g them: I think many people who take it to the limit may be less than talented or driven or trying to do something that is profoundly wasteful or even wicked. But the point here is that it happens, and itís worth noting. All kinds of folks, and the point is that spirituality may be as valid and non-ďsickĒ as sports or politics or any other endeavor. It need not be crazy. Occasionally it is, and occasionally itís evil, so spirituality doesnít get a free rid. But anything can be done foolishly or wickedly.

So if you have some spiritual inclinations or psychic or parapsychological gifts, hey, see where it takes you. And if youíve had a mystical experience, donít feel that you must be crazy. Psychiatry has gone overboard in presuming to judge too much based on the few who clearly were troubled in a negative way.


This is a lovely word: Things just open up in a kind of emotional and intellectual breakthrough. A person having an epiphany, well, it all falls together, it seems. It all makes sense. Sometimes itís crazyótruly, literally. Sometimes it works, and a great invention or discovery comes out of it. I donít know that we can say a whole lot more about it other than this opening up and onrush of ideas is not in itself either good or bad. By their fruits shall ye know them.


So wrapping it up, I'll post more on my website. There's a lot there already. Just google Adam Blatner and you'll get it, papers.

Also, I want to invite you to email with me, if you have questions. I enjoy the exercise of trying to answer them, without claiming authority to provide the ultimately right answers. The field is opening more and more.

We live in a deeply changing world. One of those changes is that mind itself, the world of thinking, thinking about thinking, meta-cognition, is becoming mainline. A century ago it was what was out there, now more what is in here. And I noted that thinking in its larger sense includes feeling, intuition, imagining. It includes what contributes to your sense of self and meaning. And that latter category bridges over into spirituality.

Return to Top       For comments, suggestions for revision or additions, email me: adam@blatner.com