Becoming the Observer

I am large. I contain multitudes.

Walt Whitman

I have always loved that particular quote from Walt Whitman. As I grow and change, I always come back to those words of his with a new insight or depth of understanding and resonance with them. I found myself contemplating that quote again a few days ago as I was meditating. Normally we tend to identify with one version of ourselves. We play the role that we have given ourselves in our own story. We become overwhelmed by our emotions, only imagining ourselves as the one feeling the emotions, not realizing that we can choose to be another part of ourselves entirely.

To better explain what I mean by this, take the example from my meditation the other day. I began to feel tension seeping into my body, winding up my muscles, shortening my breath. My initial instinct is to succumb to these stress reactions. “I’m anxious. I’m so anxious. I don’t want to feel anxious. I’m wasting my meditation. Why am I so anxious? I shouldn’t be feeling this way. I can’t even relax while I meditate. What is wrong with me? There must be something wrong with me.” This is the death spiral of thoughts that come over me when I start to notice my own anxiety.

The pathways craved out in my brain supporting the habit patterns I exhibit internally in response to anxiety are quite strong. It isn’t always easy to switch to a different aspect of myself when confronted with these difficult feelings. Occasionally, I am able to flip a switch inside my own head, though. After taking a moment to come back to my breath and surrender to the thoughts and feelings that I was experiencing, I felt a significant shift. Suddenly I wasn’t the anxious girl, full of frustration and despair at my own inadequacies. I became the neutral, yet compassionate observer.

Suddenly I was the witness, the me outside of me, the higher self within me, watching lovingly, offering that other self understanding and tenderness. A healthy amount of space existed between me and the emotions I was experiencing. I could see that we weren’t one and the same, I and the anxiety. I began to tell myself that it was okay to experience those uncomfortable feelings. It was okay to be scared and stressed out. I didn’t need to run from those experiences. I could choose to hold space for them instead. I could choose to accept them and surrender to the moment, even if that moment wasn’t what I wanted or expected.

This internal shift is something that we can all learn to utilize with practice. It’s not the same as denial or disassociation. It wasn’t that I was using this other version of myself to run from or ignore the anxiety I was experiencing. In fact, it was just the opposite. I used that other version of myself to create a safe space for me to acknowledge those feelings while at the same time being emotionally available and separate enough to also offer myself comfort in that moment.

This concept is quite hard to explain, but it can be easy to practice. The next time you feel overwhelmed by a situation or an emotion, try this: When you catch yourself falling into unhelpful thought spirals, pause. Return to your breath. Take a moment to just explore the feeling. What does it feel like in my body right now? Then instead of thinking: I’m so anxious, I’m so sad, I’m so angry, etc. Change your internal dialogue to: I am noticing that I am anxious, sad, angry, etc. This shifts you from the perspective of the one suffering to the one observing from a distance. It helps you disentangle yourself from the more visceral reactions and gives you a bit of space so you don’t feel as overwhelmed and consumed by the way you are feeling. It’s much easier to be the observer and be able to offer your other selves comfort.

This technique may not always work to find relieve from difficult situations and emotions, but it is always worth a try. Shifting which “self” you identify with is also a practice. Don’t get upset with yourself if it seems hard or even impossible at first. I hope this explanation hasn’t been too confusing. Let me know if you would like any further clarification or what your experience with this type of mental exercise has been.

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