Updated: Feb 11, 2022
“Without self knowledge, without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern himself and he will always remain a slave.” G. I. Gurdjieff
What does it mean when you talk about your “Observing Self”?
You often hear the phrase “I think therefore I am” by Descartes bandied about, but we are all more than our thoughts. No matter what thoughts we have; whether when planning something or imagining or remembering things, there’s always a part of us that is able to notice our mind in action and is separate from the actual thoughts themselves.
Me, myself and I
The brain can be seen as being divided up into three aspects of self; the Physical Self (your body), the Thinking Self (your mind) and your Observing Self (concerned with self-awareness and psychological flexibility).
Whenever you observe your breath, your feelings or your thoughts, the Observing Self is the part of you that does the observing. It is basically a viewpoint of ‘pure awareness’ from which you can observe your thoughts and feelings without any attachment
Notice the difference between “I am bored. I feel really fed up” versus “I am having a thought about being bored”.
Interestingly, only the Thinking Self gets bored because thinking is a thought process
“The Observing Self, though is incapable of boredom. It registers everything it observes with openness and interest.” Russ Harris p140*
The practice of stepping back, being aware, then observing thoughts and reactions without any attached emotion is known as Cognitive Defusion and is one of the cornerstones of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy developed by Dr. Stephen Hayes. ACT combines Cognitive Behaviour Therapy principles with Mindfulness techniques.
There is a big difference between the sentence “ I am useless” to “I am having the thought that I am useless” The Observing Self observes ourselves thinking a certain way rather than embracing our thoughts as true as is the immediate tendency with the Thinking Self.
The Observing Self allows you to observe every thought, feeling or memory and see them as what they are, neutral; simply a collection of pictures, images and words ‘interpreted’ by the Thinking Self. Thoughts are not facts, they are judgments, evaluations and opinions by the Thinking Self but by ‘defusing’ our thoughts we can become more objective and see things more accurately which gives us greater freedom in how we respond to the feelings associated with them and avoids jumping to conclusions and making decisions based on all-or-none thinking. Effectively, self-observation creates a space giving us an opportunity to make conscious, considered choices i.e. we can reflect as to whether our automatic response is the best option for any circumstance or whether another behaviour or response would be more helpful.
Our physical self changes constantly as we age from birth to death; the thoughts and feelings coming from our Thinking Self change hourly if not every minute throughout our lives; our roles in life change at different stages of our lives within the family, the community and the wider world and according to what we are doing at the time. It is also possible for us to have multiple roles at the same time e.g. daughter, mother, wife, teacher, friend, student, etc but the Observing Self does not change.
“So the roles you play and your thoughts, images, feelings, sensations, and physical body all change continuously throughout your life. But the Observing Self does not change. The Observing Self is a viewpoint from which to observe everything else –thoughts, feelings, sensations, roles, body etc . But the viewpoint itself never changes.
You can think of it as the part of you that truly “sees the big picture”. By ‘big picture’ I mean everything you ever experience, everything you ever see, hear, touch, taste, smell, think, feel or do. The Observing Self “sees” it all.” Russ Harris p178*
The Observing Self is like a neutral observer without any responsibility, it just observes what you do and helps make you more aware enabling you to learn from your experiences. As it doesn’t judge or attach any values, the Observing Self can, as well as being described as ‘pure awareness’, be described as ‘pure acceptance’.
A distinct difference between the Observing Self and the other two selves is that the Observing Self does not change and cannot be harmed. Your physical self can be damaged though aging or illness or injury, the Observing Self will notice this but is not harmed. The Thinking Self, likewise, can be affected by painful feelings or damaging thoughts but neither can harm the part of you that simply observes.
The “Observing Self is always present and available. Through it we can connect with the vast length, breadth, and depth of human experience, regardless of whether that experience is new and exciting or familiar and uncomfortable” Russ Harris p140*
Your Observing Self and your emotions
The Thinking Self gives us many different ‘stories’ about ourselves. The useful stories help us form our map of who we are in the world. But the unhelpful stories are those that our Thinking Self generates that lead us to feel negatively about ourselves. By tapping into our Observing Self and using defusion to look at upsetting thoughts objectively, it gives them less power.
“You can think of your Observing Self as being like the sky, while thoughts and feelings are like the weather – constantly changing. And no matter how bad the weather, no matter how violent the thunderstorm, no matter how turbulent the wind, rain and hail, the sky always has room for it and cannot be hurt or harmed by it in any way. Even hurricanes and tsunamis, which may wreak havoc upon the land, are unable to hurt or harm the sky. And of course, as time passes, the weather will change, , while out beyond the weather patterns, the sky remains as pure and clear as ever” Russ Harris p180*
Similarly if we rise up above our emotions and thoughts we will find the Observing Self viewpoint from which we can observe our judgments and limiting beliefs objectively without attachment and being hurt by them. We don’t try to change the weather or control it, and so we should not try to control or fight with our thoughts but simply observe them and detach from them, knowing that above the ‘weather of our thoughts’ there is still a blue unaffected sky.
“Connection happens through the Observing Self. It involves bringing our full attention to what is happening here and now without getting distracted or influenced by the Thinking Self. The Observing Self is non judgmental. It can’t judge our experience, because judgements are thoughts and therefore a product of the Thinking Self The Observing Self doesn’t get into a struggle with reality; it sees things as they are without resisting. Resistance only happens when we fuse with our judgments that things are bad, wrong or unfair.” Russ Harris p139-140*
How can we use our Observing Self to feel better?
“Self-observation brings man to the realization of the necessity of self-change. And in observing himself a man notices that self-observation itself brings about certain changes in his inner processes. He begins to understand that self-observation is an instrument of self-change, a means of awakening.” G. I. Gurdjieff
It is our Observing self that gives us the capacity to change ourselves and our world so we need to learn techniques to engage our Observing Self.
Whenever we consciously rate a feeling or a problem on a scale of 1 – 10 we are immediately stepping back and using the Observing Self to look from a detached, purely observational perspective.
There are many techniques which help us step back but something as simple as humour can also be very effective. When we label ourselves or people label us as ‘anxious’, ‘angry’ etc our Thinking Self begins to identify with this behaviour and it is easy to lose perspective but we can break this assumption by engaging with our Observing Self and using defusion to find elements of humour in the situation
We can also use our Thinking Self to activate our Observing Self by using a story or analogy to describe what we are going through, find a solution or simply visualise ourselves distancing ourselves from the emotions we have attached. When we engage the Observing Self it helps us take a more detached view of our circumstances, allowing light in and putting us in a better position to find solutions or put things into perspective and accept a situation
An example could be to imagine putting your unwanted thoughts on a cloud and then watch them disappear at their own pace whilst you remain in the present moment aware but without judgement.
“When, with an attitude of openness and interest we bring our full attention to an unpleasant experience, the thing we dreaded often seems much less bothersome than before. Likewise, when we truly connect with even the most mundane experience, we often see it in a new and interesting light” Russ Harris p140*
Simply asking yourself whether what you’re thinking is a thought or a fact or where you think your thought originated from can also be a helpful tool for dissecting some of your beliefs and engaging your Observing Self.
To end, here is a quirky poem by Polish Poet Anna Swir which illustrates the relationship between your Observing Self and your other selves
Myself and My Person
There are moments when I feel more clearly than ever that I am in the company of my own person. This comforts and reassures me, this heartens me, just as my tri-dimensional body is heartened by my own authentic shadow.
There are moments when I really feel more clearly than ever that I am in the company of my own person.
I stop at a street corner to turn left and I wonder what would happen if my own person walked to the right.
Until now that has not happened but it does not settle the question.
Some questions to think about/or discuss below:
How often do you allow yourself the time to step back and observe your thoughts impartially?
How easy do you find it to separate ‘facts from fiction’ when it comes to your thoughts?
If you want to explore this subject further, here are a few links to get you started:
The Happiness Trap – Russ Harris*
Mindfulness skill practice with worksheets such as My Observing Head offers practical “hands on” techniques to stay in the moment, detach from inner turmoil, and take charge of toxic thinking habits for a happier, more self-empowered life.
Physical Thinking and Observing Self (Nesh Nikolic) https://youtu.be/0lzJ3CL1Jgo