It occurred to me the other night as I was falling asleep that meditation is a special cognitive activity. This is not the first time I have had this thought but whenever it occurs, I am always perplexed. Meditation seems to be one of the few behaviors where the achievement of it necessitates that you are metacognitively unaware that you have achieved it. Because meditation is concerned with the dissolution of conscious thought in favor of mindful awareness, it is impossible to metacognitively think “I am now meditating” while successfully meditating. Whereas thinking “I am now running” does not interfere with the action of running, if you think “I am now meditating” while meditating, you will immediately cease to successfully meditate. This leads to a paradox of sorts wherein the desire to pat yourself on the back and think “Keep up the good work!” or “I am so good at meditating!” will immediately halt the action that you are trying to congratulate yourself for achieving.
It is hard to think of other activities that involve this same kind of paradox. Nevertheless, this puzzle seems like one of the central features of meditation in terms of fostering a cognitive skillset useful for everyday coping. It teaches you to act without mental commentary, to breathe without thinking “I am breathing”, to be-in-the-world without reflexively thinking about your situation.
Moreover, what is the difference between controlling your breath voluntarily and merely watching your breath? The answer to this question seems to me important for getting clear about a number of cognitive puzzles, including the nature of conscious introspection and the distinction between voluntary and involuntary behavior. I don’t think I have a clear answer to this puzzle yet, but I would be interested to see what other people think. It is something I often think about as I am falling asleep, shifting back and forth from watching myself breathe to actively controlling and slowing down my breath. The interplay between these two actions is incredibly fascinating given the mindful awareness of breath often slows it down (longer exhalation periods) in the same way that actively controlling it does. Therein lies the mystery. Who or what is the controller and the controlled? The breather and the thinker, the watcher and the watched? Jaynes has some interesting insights on this question, but I don’t have time to go into them in this post. I am currently working on a paper though that goes into detail spelling out the nature of conscious behavior versus nonconscious behavior. The difference is roughly that between walking and sleepwalking, acting while introspecting and being-in-the-zone. The interesting question then is to the extent to which we can be completely unconscious while still maintaining our capacities for complex perceptual-behavioral loops. I would wager that we underestimate our capacity to do things unconsciously and overestimate to extent to which conscious control is necessary in everyday habit.