What is the Observer?
On the spiritual path (or any path really) awareness is key.
To be aware of who we are is probably one of the most important, yet complex aspects of our journey. It is the foundation of our inner work. The state of awareness required to do this is often called ‘The Observer’.
So, what is The Observer and how can we cultivate it?
This is the first in a 3 part series of articles on ‘The Observer.’
Qualities of ‘The Observer’
Generally, we will want to observe 3 aspects of ourselves, at least to begin with:
So, we will need to find a place within ourselves that is beyond these three. That is the ‘Observer’.
Certain qualities of The Observer may alter as we move down the path but generally there are a few characteristics that stay constant:
It is a state of non-judgment. As judgments are simply fixed patterns of thought or coping mechanisms for things we lack, they belong in the realm of the mind, with some influence from emotions. The Observer views without judgment.
If judging occurs then it is separate:
The Observer does not judge the judgment.
It does not analyze or label – again that usually comes from the mind.
The Observer simply logs everything as it happens.
It exists only in this moment.
Reflection, while useful at times, is not The Observer.
However, what it does show is that The Observer has been present to a certain degree while the experience happened, and has recorded enough for you to look back on the experience.
In the beginning
As we begin to cultivate The Observer, we will almost certainly be coming from the mind.
This is a good place to start as it is familiar ground – we are used to approaching things through the mind. So, in the beginning the ‘Observer‘ will likely be reflective, looking back on the previous moment. This is ok, but its tiring, taking a lot of concentration.
But, with practice it will begin to come as second nature and there will come a point where The Observer is no longer intended – that is to say it is no longer an effort. It is either there, or it is not. In fact it may seem to come and go at random times.
If you feel this then great…!
It means you are beginning to touch the real ‘Observer’, what I call ‘Witness Consciousness’ which is beyond mind.
My early experiences
I’d like to share with you an earlier experience of my own as The Observer began to ‘kick off’ in my consciousness.
Here is my journal entry:
Becoming grounded in The Observer is in some ways surreal…
I am observing my movements, my thoughts, my feelings. Yet feel like none of these are ‘me’. I am stationary while this drama, this movie is being played around me, what’s happening now? I am not this.
Even now watching myself type, thinking about what words to put down to adequately express myself.
What is moving? I don’t feel like I am controlling this, it’s just happening.
My body has it’s own ‘mind’ controlling it without ‘me’ being directly involved (this is not quite the perfect way to express this but with limited words what can I do eh? )
I feel disconnected with this, not involved any more, yet also more connected, conscious of what’s going on. But its almost unbearable sometimes (ego clinging on, wanting to draw me back into the Matrix?)
This is all very strange, and yet natural.
It can be painful
Cultivating The Observer is not always easy.
Essentially you are opening yourself up to all your ‘stuff’. You will become more sensitive to discomfort and cravings in the body, subtle reactions to things you never knew you had, and destructive patterns of behavior.
Your coping mechanisms may well fall away just by being aware of them. And, on top of all that, your sense of identity will be seriously challenged as you realize that many of these things are not you.
Yes, cultivating The Observer can be challenging and overwhelming.
The benefits can far out-way the pain, especially if you realize that moving through your pain is the path to a more expanded sense of self.
You will experience more clarity in yourself, which in turn gives you a better understanding of which path is best for you and, therefore, a sense of purpose.
Even though you are more sensitive to your pain (and probably other peoples as well) you may find that you actually suffer less because you are no longer identified with that pain.
The ‘Observer’, while sometimes difficult to cultivate, is essential on the spiritual path.
Simple steps to cultivate the ‘Observer’
The ‘Observer’ is the term we have used to describe the state of consciousness that is a witness all our feelings and thoughts.
Cultivating The Observer is essential on the spiritual path. As we take a closer look at who we are, we are able to work on the parts that don’t really serve us, ultimately becoming clearer and more blissful within ourselves.
To begin with there are 3 main areas to focus on: the body, the emotions, and the mind.
All 3 of course will be active, to certain degrees, all the time and this can be a little overwhelming in the beginning, so it might be helpful to start your practice by observing one at a time.
As you become more practiced, it will seem as though The Observer flicks to whichever is more prominent at the time, although the less prominent aspects will still be observed in the background.
To that end, here’s a breakdown of these first three areas and what you can do to cultivate The Observer within them.
This is probably the easiest area to start with as it’s the most tangible to observe. It also doesn’t change at such a fast rate as the emotions and especially our thoughts.
Here are some things you can do to develop awareness of the body:
*Practice scanning your body.
You may want to start with the head and work your way down to your toes, or do it the other way round, whichever feels right for you.
*Begin by just being aware of each part of your body
Feel for any tension, pleasant or unpleasant sensations or pain. Then once you have practiced this, put it all together – observe the body as a whole and how each sensation ‘hovers’ in it’s own place.
*Observe the breath –
this is very powerful. The breath is a bridge to your higher self, as well as pointing to emotional states such as tension, excitement, or contentment.
It can also be extremely grounding. When you observe the breath, the tendency is then to try to control it, especially if you are tense.
This is certainly helpful to relieve tension, but before you do that it is beneficial to spend a little time just letting the breath do what it wants to do. Then there is no judgment of what should be, and more of an accepting of what is.
*Observe what happens to your body during physical activity such as eating, exercising, and sexual intercourse.
What do these things do to your body?
What sensations do you feel and where do you feel them?
How is the breath responding?
These are slightly subtler than the body, not tangible enough to touch but still often very prominent.
There will of course be times of extreme emotion and times of more neutral emotion, but even in times of neutral emotion it is helpful to just be aware of subtle feelings which may arise here and there.
Here are some things you can do to develop awareness of the emotions,
both from positive to negative and increasing intensity to decreasing intensity. There is no need to label, just to observe.
Observe what situations trigger your emotions.
What makes you angry or afraid?
What gives you joy or satisfaction?
No need to analyze at this stage, just observe…
Observe what physical sensations are being triggered by our emotions.
*Where do you get tight, for example?
*What emotions are triggered by physical sensations?
The same questions can be applied to our thoughts.
This is probably the hardest of the three to observe.
It is the least tangible, the most interchangeable, and can be quite overwhelming in the beginning. Not to mention The Observer is likely to be coming form the mind in the beginning.
This is the last step towards to true observer (what I call ‘Witness Consciousness’) which is beyond the mind. The mind is the closest step to ‘witness consciousness’ and yet probably the hardest to pass through.
Here are some practices to help develop awareness of the mind:
Observe the flows of thought.
There are different layers:
Conscious thought is likely to decrease to a certain degree when you are practicing as your attention is not focused on the outside
The ‘monkey mind‘ is the chatter that goes on in the background.
This is likely to become more intense as you observe it and can become a little overwhelming – be easy on yourself. Work to surrender to it and accept that it is there, but if it becomes too much don’t push yourself.
Finally, deeper unconscious thoughts may start to bubble up, though of course being aware of them means they are no longer unconscious. They are often related to desires and compulsions.
Putting it all together
After practicing these methods they will begin to become easier and you can start observing multiple areas at once.
This can occur through intention or may begin to arise spontaneously, which is great!
At this point you will really begin to become aware of the relationships between mind, body and emotions.
How does one affect the others? For example, something triggers anxiety – lets say a job interview – all 3 areas will be reacting.
You may get a strong emotion, which will trigger tension in the body – where is the tension?
Then your mind will likely start going over scenarios or asking “what if I don’t do well?”
Observe the spiral effect as each thought triggers more anxiety and more tension in the body and vise versa.
Of course, there is no need to get yourself worked up. Once these have been observed for a time and accepted you can work to reduce the feelings in order to be calmer and clearer.
Breathing is a great bridge between all these planes and it will do wonders to work with it.
A note on soft drugs:
We have all experienced expanded or satisfied feelings from soft drugs and entertainment.
However, they tend to have the effect of reducing awareness and so it may be beneficial to keep them to a minimum while you are still cultivating the ‘Observer’.
Meditation is a great method to use when cultivating the ‘Observer’.
Sitting and focusing on the inner will mean that the inner landscape somehow becomes brighter and more navigable. It is also great to do while doing simple tasks such as washing dishes or eating.
Of course meditation is really all about observing the inner landscape so I can’t recommend it enough.
Whether sitting in silence or going for a walk, it is sure to help you a great deal.
Going beyond the mind
have hinted on something called ‘witness consciousness’ throughout this article.
It is the term I use to describe the true observer which is beyond the mind. This will surely come with the practices that I have set out in this article…
Going beyond the Mind
Is there a kind of consciousness which is beyond the mind?
If so, how can it be accessed?
Once we have come some way along the conscious path, we may begin to sense that there are other forms of consciousness within ourselves that are beyond our thoughts.
We get glimpses, so to speak – a sense of expansion where we become hyper aware. It has a different quality to our thoughts. However, the mind is so enticing.
It is safe to view things in a logical way and our ego tends to lock us into our mind.
So, how do we transcend the mind?
A matter of Identity
Firstly, it is a matter of identity.
The philosopher Descartes famously stated,
‘I think, therefore I am’…
I will give you some questions for consideration:
*Who is thinking?
*Who is the mind?
It’s very important on the conscious path to ask, ‘who am I?‘
When you realize that you are identifying with something that is not the core of who you are, there is a tremendous sense of expansion.
who is thinking?
how can your mind observe itself?
In the field of Neuroscience there is increasing evidence that our brains are not simply reacting to outer stimuli, but actually creating the forms and patterns that we see, selecting them from an immeasurable spectrum of vibration (Karl Pibram, 1971 – Languages of the Brain – Experimental Paradoxes and Principles in Neuropsychology).
“So the problem is, how does the brain evoke the world, which is simultaneously the world in which it exists? Does the brain evoke the brain?”
Stepping beyond the mind
You may have noticed that so far I’ve been writing in a way that actually stimulates the mind; citing scientific research, quoting well known philosophers, and asking questions for you to ponder.
This has been somewhat intentional, both as a way of demonstrating how the mind can approach such topics, and also because it is possible to use the mind as a tool in order to move beyond the mind.
Yes, I know this seems a little paradoxical…good!! (evil laughter ensues…)
The mind can indeed be used as a tool to go beyond itself by being made to consider things that are not immediately logical and don’t have an answer which arises in the brain.
This method is also used in Zen Buddhism with the use of Koans. These are essentially questions or stories which are designed to show you what is beyond the mind.
Here are a few Koans:
*”What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
*”When you can do nothing, what can you do?”
Zen Master Unmon said:
“The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robes at the sound of a bell?”
And my personal favorite:
Shuzan held out his short staff and said,
“If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?”
Into the Heart
So far we have talked about ‘the Observer’ and how to cultivate this.
However, in some ways even The Observer carries some identity – even the name suggests this, so I refer to the true observer that lies beyond the mind as ‘Witness Consciousness’.
How does witness consciousness manifest itself?
Once you have begun to sense a part of you that lays beyond the mind, you can begin to cultivate it. What you can’t do is grasp at it and try to recreate the feelings that come with it.
This is just not how it works and the moment you grasp you are back in the ego, identifying with the feelings.
It is just a matter of giving energy to it by tending the garden in which it can grow. And, it really is like tending a garden, using love and awareness to provide the right conditions for something to grow of it’s own accord.
Many refer to this as ‘the heart center’ and it’s a good way of seeing it as witness consciousness comes from a place of love. This love flows naturally through each realm of physical, emotional and mental as an acceptance of what is.
It is such that you can be un-accepting and controlling on the outside, while processing a pattern that needs to be worked through, and still be totally accepting of this non-acceptance on the inside.
Cultivating the Heart
There are a few simple things you can do to cultivate the heart center in order to tend the ground for witness consciousness to grow:
Take lots of time in nature – being in nature somehow harmonizes us in such a way that the heart centre becomes closer. I don’t know how or why, but then that’s not important – feeling it is enough.
Sometimes I sense that the very essence of nature is acceptance.
Develop awareness of the five senses – this is a great way to cultivate the heart as the senses are the tool in which the heart centre experiences the world. You can do this at any time of day, but it seems to me to be especially lovely in nature.
Follow your joy – what is it that really makes your soul sing?
These moments of true expression of our creative or childlike energies help us to develop a sense of wonder, seeing the world as truly magical…
by Richard West