by Richard West
What is the Observer?
On the spiritual path (or any path really)
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
The Observer does
not judge the judgment.
It does not
analyze or label - again that usually comes from the mind.
simply logs everything as it happens.
It exists only in
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.
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
It means you are
beginning to touch the real 'Observer', what I call 'Witness
Consciousness' which is beyond mind.
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
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
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
This is all very strange, and yet natural.
It can be
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
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
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
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
Observe what happens to your body during physical activity such as
eating, exercising, and sexual intercourse.
What do these
things do to your body?
do you feel and where do you fell them?
How is the breath
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
Practice watching the rise and fall of 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.
No need to analyze at
this stage, just observe...
Observe what physical sensations are being triggered by our
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:
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.
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.
Focus on the third eye - the point between your eyebrows and about 1
Close your eyes and look
up to this area. You may begin to become aware of some kind of
energetic movement in your head. These are the underlying flows of
thought - essentially, the synapses in your brain firing off.
Again, take it easy and
don't push yourself beyond your limit.
Putting it all
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
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
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.
I have hinted on something called 'witness consciousness' throughout
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
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
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
A matter of
Firstly, it is a matter of identity.
Descartes famously stated,
'I think, therefore I am'...
I will give you some questions for consideration:
When you realize that you
are identifying with something that is not the chore 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?"
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
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 Buddhisms with the use
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?"
"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
Into the Heart
So far we have talked about 'the Observer' and how to cultivate
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
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
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.
There are a few simple things you can do to cultivate the heart
center in order to tend the ground for witness consciousness to
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?
moments of true expression of our creative or childlike energies
help us to develop a sense of wonder, seeing the world as truly