Becoming the Observer is more than just thinking about yourself.
It really is a different state of mind. Whether you are doing meditation, mindfulness practices, therapy, or other personal development work, becoming the observer is a critical skill to learn in order to make personal changes. Being the observer is more than noticing how you think about your self, and even your behaviors.
Being an observer of your self requires that you be aware of very subtle emotions, impulses, feelings in your body, and behaviors. In this state of mind you will have a different mental process. It would be more like sitting in a hunting perch watching and waiting to see what comes through the meadow. This can be difficult when we watch our self. Many of our behaviors, emotions, and impulses are automatic, and keep our attention so engaged that we don’t have any bandwidth left to notice when that impulse, thought, or emotion happened. We end up doing the response before noticing the sensation or thought that stimulated a response. Once we are engaged in the response or reaction, the opportunity to notice is lost.
Take time to listen to this free audio which will guide you through a meditation exercise on becoming the observer.
The ability to become the observer of your self and your behavior is a vital step in changing your behavior and emotional reactions
For instance, if you are prone to get angry ( or some other emotion or sabotaging behavior) you want to be able to choose not to say something before it comes out of your mouth in a way that you will regret. Since most outbursts happen so fast, just within the time it takes to have a nerve react, how do you intercede when the common sense of your intellect seems displaced during this time? It may seem to only show up after to tell you how poorly you handled it? The answer is to develop a number of new neural pathways in the brain that act as a kind of monitoring system. This will give your mind, and your brain, a new way of working to help change the old ways.
New neural pathways can be accomplished by doing some exercises regularly over a few weeks. Once developed, you will have a kind of conscious monitoring system in your mind paying attention to little triggers, your emotional state, and patterns of thoughts that often precede your outbursts. By being the observer you will have learned the important signposts to look for within your self, or in the environment that tell you that you are nearing one of those angry outbursts. Before investigating these lead up signals you won’t know they are there. You usually discover them through a process of reviewing past outbursts. In any case, once you have them you will see the signposts and getting a warning. This is what the observer part of your mind is able to do.
Once you have the warning, you are also in a different conscious state. Not only do you have the observer mind working but now you can also have your common sense reasoning on site early to consider the consequences of an angry outburst and that will help motivate you not to go there. With your observer active in your mind, along with your common sense reasoning, you have a much better chance of refraining when the angry aspect shows up to rant. You will have three parts of your mind working, two of them for refraining, and one pushing for the angry outburst. In the beginning the two parts might still be small and get overrun by the anger, but with time those patterns of the mind become stronger and can hold back the angry behaviors and words.
As you progress further you might use the power of your observer skills to look into the sources of your anger. You will find the exercises and practices of the Self Mastery Course will both help you to develop this observer state of mind, and give you an objective mindset from which to investigate the beliefs causing your reactions and behaviors.
Aspects of Being the Observer
When you get good at observing your self you will notice it the moment something triggers you. You will notice the first sensation of feeling uncomfortable, the impulse to want to do something in response, such as move, speak, or to withdraw from someone. When you are very skilled at being an observer you will be able to observe this impulse and refrain from acting on it. In this moment you will notice a second response, the one that happens in our body and emotions when we don’t follow the automated response of the first stimulus. It is in these moments that we grow out of old patterns and begin to consciously create new patterns and behaviors.
Becoming the observer requires that we do it in a neutral witness manner. It is not enough to just think about our self, any egotistical person can do that. When the ego part of the mind thinks about our self it often does it with a mode of comparison. The ego part of the mind will compare us to someone else, or an idealized version of our self we hold in our belief system. It is evaluating how well or how poorly we did something based on that standard for comparison. It might even judge us for not being very spiritually aware. It produces thoughts about whether other people are noticing us and what they might think. It is an egotistical thought that says we are not meditating enough or not doing enough mindfulness practices. While these may seem like observations, they are not. These thoughts are criticisms with an agenda. The result of which is that we feel worse.
When we act in the way of a neutral observer we notice different things. We notice when those thoughts are arising from parts of our ego and the emotions they produce. In more heightened states of awareness we might also notice the idealized version in the background of our mind being used as comparison. We might notice the idea that we could sit down and spend some time in quiet meditation, and then notice how our emotions, thoughts, and body reacts to that idea. As an observer we might notice negative thoughts rebut why it is not a good time, we are busy, or that we will be better served by something else instead. In these moments we can see the micro seconds it takes for our agenda to be changed, procrastination to happen, or for a conflict in agenda to arise and feel uncomfortable. The Observer state of mind doesn’t see any of these rebuttals or redirects as a problem as that would have an agenda. It just notices as if you were studying the brush stroke style in a particular painting, or the wood grain in a piece of furniture. If it were to think anything about them it would say, “I notice a rebuttal or conflict coming from parts of my mind,,, interesting.”
The Observer Aware of Itself as a State of Mind
When you become the observer you will notice that your thoughts arise all by themselves. You will notice that your mind thinks all by itself and you can sit there and listen to it and watch the images it projects. In the beginning of noticing you will often have reaction to the chatter of internal dialog. There might be thoughts wishing it would quiet down, or that you aren’t meditating very well, or confused as to why they don’t stop. At this stage you are having too many reactions to really be the observer yet, but you are a step closer to that state of mind. After a while you move on to observe the reactions as well as the initial impulses. This is another state of mind for extending your mindfulness practice.
One of the byproducts of this process is that you realize that you can sit and listen without responding to the initial impulses, or the reactions to those impulses and thoughts. When you are doing this you realize yourself as something separate from these impulses and the mind that is doing the thinking, talking, and reacting. You are calm and conscious of your self while around you the mind is busy with chatter and impulses to do something. You become aware that your mind is separate from you. With this awareness you also become aware that you are separate from your mind. This can be both a very interesting new sense of self, and uncomfortably unsettling at the same time. The unsettling part will soon pass.
As you practice becoming the observer you will notice more subtle things that affect you
In the beginning you might notice you are procrastinating. Over time you will notice the different things you are doing to procrastinate. With progress you will notice how when you think of starting on a task that your mind jumps to checking your email, or calling a friend. With more practice you might observe a kind of automatic impulse down your arm that moves your hand to your computer or phone. You will become aware that you really barely thought about doing something and your body was already in the action. You may begin to wonder what is making this happen and why does it happen? This kind of curiosity will help with motivation to practice more and diversify your mindfulness practices. In this state of mind there can be a sense of curiosity about all these subtle things happening. You might have a state of wonder, or watchfulness while watching your mind, as if you were waiting at a coffee shop for someone you are interested in but have only talked on the phone.
Resistance to this Mindfulness Practice of Becoming the Observer
At the same time, the ego part of your mind will likely be doing things to push you away from further investigation. Becoming the observer of these resistance dynamics such as procrastination challenges the status quo of the ego and unconscious belief system. This may cause uncomfortable feelings. This will lead to the next layer of practice for an observer. You will need to observe these uncomfortable feelings and refrain from acting on them. You might notice that these feelings send the signal to your mind that you should get busy doing something so you feel better. The result of acting on these feelings will likely be that you become so busy that you don’t have time to practice being the observer as intently as you were doing. You might notice that this is a kind of defense by the belief system to stop the changes in new behavior you are making. What I am saying here is that your ego mind and unconscious beliefs will put up various kinds of resistance and roadblocks to your practice of becoming the observer. And of course each person’s experience will vary. Some people might find it easy, but I have found those people to be rare. Sometimes it happens that a person is in a place in their life that such a self awareness happens quickly and easily. For most people becoming a self aware observer is to be worked at.
As a practical exercise, begin sitting still and noticing all the sensations you feel with each inhale and exhale of your breath. Then begin to observe all the things that come to pull your attention away from observing the sensation of breathing. This will give you a good start for developing the skills of a conscious observer.