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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You Are Not Your Thoughts

Since I was in high school or maybe even younger, I developed a somewhat strange way of thinking that was comforting. A duality seemed to exist in me at will, and I would imagine my physical body as a cute helpless animal that my mind had to care for. It allowed me to feel compassion for myself. I had the tendency to be quite critical and cruel to myself, but thinking in this way helped me to be kinder and more loving when I was feeling devastated or overwhelmed.

More recently, however, a third part of me has begun to emerge in this strange mental play as well. The seed of this idea was planted by something I read once. I have no idea where, but I’m certain I did not come up with it. As you may have already guessed by the title of this post, the idea was you are not your thoughts. Even while we are thinking, there is somehow also a separate awareness of those thoughts. We aren’t those thoughts, we are the observers of our thoughts. I like to image this is what in yoga is often referred to as the higher self.

This realization has completely transformed the way I see myself. I see my consciousness as something almost apart from and deeper than both my mind and body. This view gives me space from my experiences. It’s as if my consciousness exists outside of my physical body. This physical body also affects the way my conscious is able to manifest mentally. The chemicals that control the way my brain is able to function are affected by so many different factors from my genetics to the things I do and experience each day. But I am not my anxiety. I am not my anger or my doubt or my shame. I am able to observe my body and mind’s experience of these things now from a distance with curiosity and compassion. This space keeps me from getting caught in a torrent of negative thoughts and overwhelming emotions. I just observe in stillness and let it settle. And it will always settle if you don’t keep stirring it up.

Maybe this idea is new to some of you. If so, I hope that you play with it in your own lives. I am still learning to utilize this mindfulness every day, but it has helped me more than I could have imagined. My wish is that by sharing what I’ve learned in a new way, it may also help others.

Observe in stillness.