The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living – Socrates
We humans have a unique ability that rarely gets talked about in this culture. It’s the ability to observe our own inner experiences as if an internal witness was privy to them. In other words, to engage the ‘observing self’. Most children and young people are not taught how to develop their observing self, which is a crying shame because it is essential to relieve anxiety and suffering.
I’m suffering! How do I get relief?
We all get caught up in difficult thoughts and feelings, and long to be free from this suffering. So it is hugely helpful to cultivate our observing self, also called the observing mind.
The observing mind is about turning our mind’s gaze inwards. Saying this seems obvious and easy, but it can be hard to describe how one does it. In essence, it is about paying attention to our feelings, and paying attention to our thinking. This is the opposite of letting thoughts and feelings build on themselves until we are depressed or very anxious.
As therapists and counsellors, we encourage our clients to use their observing mind, because it enables them to ‘step out’ of their mental and emotional trance states (which we all get stuck in) and gain a fresh perspective on their experience. This technique is used as a key skill in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
How do I ease suffering using only my mind?
The observing mind is actually a function of your prefrontal neo-cortex, the front of your brain which is like the conductor of the brain’s orchestra. But it is not just a matter for science and psychotherapy. Recognising and attending to our inner life has also been very important for artists and writers over the centuries. Yet anyone can do it! It simply requires a mindful presence, a bearing witness to inner feelings and thoughts as they unfold.
So how can we get better at observing ourselves in moment of suffering? I usually start with the body, sometimes called somatic experiencing (SE). Try this:
- Get a global sense of your physical body. Exhale. Now, where exactly is there pain or tension? How would you describe these feelings to someone else?
“Right now I have a tender subtle ache in my left hip, a subtle but pressing pain in between my shoulders blades, a little more on the right. My shoulders are sore. My upper chest feels a little tight in the middle. I have a small headache behind my eyes. My belly is relaxed”.
- Now, notice how you feel. Can you express in plain (or fancy) language the feeling in you?
“I feel quite calm. My belly is relaxed. And yet I have a bit of anxiety. There is a slight tension, a tightness in my mid-region from my throat to my solar plexus”. (It helps to have the correct anatomical names for body regions).
Metaphor is great too. “Feels like I have a bowling ball in my gut” or “It’s like an elastic band around my head” or “It feels like a concrete block on my chest”. Name it to tame it!
- Now notice your thoughts. Pause to watch the thinking mind. Wonder to yourself: What is my next thought going to be?
“Right now I am noticing thoughts about my work, worries about the days ahead, certain clients, and about my daughter. Other thoughts of family members spring to mind”.
I could get quite specific here to isolate particular thoughts or perceptions that seem to be present. This can be helpful as we focus inwards.
Don’t try to block thoughts. Notice them instead.
As I sit here typing, wondering what my next thought might turn out to be, I stop typing and notice that each time I ask that question: “What will my next thought be?”, my mind goes shy! I enjoy the mental stillness for a moment. Sooner or later the thinking mind kicks in. Here is an example.
As in this example, my observing mind always takes turns with the thinking mind:
Observing mind: “What is my next thought going to be?”
……10 seconds goes by with no detectable thoughts…..(bliss!)
Thinking mind: “I have so much to do this week. How will I get it all done? (Note tightness in my belly). When will I find time for me? My shoulders ache. I need more sleep”
Observing mind: (gently) Aha, that is worry (about the future, about obligations, about my energy). That’s ok. (Pause. Breathe.). So, what is my next thought going to be?”
Use the mind to tame stressful thoughts and feelings
The observing mind is that part of us that gently and deliberately attends to experience as it unfolds. It uses language to name what we are thinking, feeling, or sensing. But it does not identify with the thoughts and feelings. It does not get consumed by them. It simply notices. It can be like we are watching an internal movie or perhaps have an “inner witness”. We literally bear witness to our private experiences.
Note: This is not the same as dissociation where we go numb or feel shut down. I always feel more “full” or more alive when I employ internal observation. This process helps me become closer with myself, to feel what is there, without pushing it away. I often feel something warm in my body and more grounded after a while.
More inner peace through non-striving
Our observing self gives us the presence we need to feel the stress in our system without fighting. When we feel fully, we connect to ourselves and slow down. We stop striving to get to a better moment. We accept what is. Observing and accepting ourselves this way calms the nervous system and gives us greater awareness and self-compassion. This, in turn, benefits our coping, decision-making, and communication.
This process is also supported by making a written or verbal records of our inward gaze, the very practice that makes journaling beneficial and makes therapy useful for so many people.
Practice it for yourself. I highly recommend it at 3am if you cannot sleep! Even more importantly, it is the observing self that frees us and grants us a sense of “agency” and capability to change ourselves and our world.