Recently, I lead an ACT (pronounced like the word “act,” stands for Acceptance & Commitment Therapy) group on the topic of the Observing Self.
This is one of my favorite topics of the curriculum I’ve pieced together for my weekly group, because I have a small obsession with great metaphors, especially in the mind + body realm.
If you haven’t read my intro post on ACT and are curious about it, check that out here, but it’s not necessary to benefit from this post.
So what is this “Observing Self” anyway? Basically, it’s the part of you that notices everything — thoughts, feelings, memories, body sensations, sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and touch. The part of you that has been constant no matter the changes in your life circumstances and physical body.
Most of us without any mindfulness training are only peripherally aware that this part exists. Instead, we are fused with our “Thinking Self,” which is that constant monologue (sometimes dialogue!) internally chattering away with thoughts, especially about the past, the future, judgments, worries, and making up stories (interpretations) about our present experiences.
Have you ever had that sensation of just directly experiencing a beautiful sunset without the endless stream of monologue? That feeling of pure “whooooaaa”? In many spiritual traditions, those are considered spiritual experiences. In my Unitarian Universalist tradition, it aligns with one of the six sources of our living tradition:
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.
Anytime we have a direct experience of something — a sunset, a waterfall, a moment of pure connection or intimacy, an eye-rollingly good bite of fresh chocolate cake — we are connected to that experience through our Observing Self. Sure, our Thinking Self is probably not far behind, narrating on about how you must figure out how to replicate this recipe, so-and-so would love this place, when can you come back, maybe you should snap a photo for Instagram?
Nonetheless, that pure, direct experience is what life is all about. If we allow ourselves to sink into those moments just a little bit deeper, a little bot longer than we might normally, we have an opportunity to expand joy. Also, the Observing Self can save our butts when we’re caught up in painful thoughts or feelings. How so?
That’s where the sky and the weather come in.
Think of a perfect, expansive, clear blue sky. We had one of those here in Tennessee the other day and I smiled widely at it, having that direct experience of infinite clarity, just for a moment.
Of course, it’s rare that we look up and see just a sky. We might see clouds of various types, rain, the sun, the moon, stars, lightning, birds, airplanes, flying pigs (hat tip to a former client for that one), and any number of other airborne phenomena. Sometimes, the sky is so full of clouds that we can’t even see that big beautiful blue behind them — we lose sight of it altogether. If we were able to travel up thousands of feet, we’d be above the clouds, once again in the clear blue that was there all along.
No matter what phenomenon comes into the sky — even the most harsh tornado or thunderstorm (pain) — that sky always remains unchanged. Even when the sun (joy) isn’t visible, it’s actually still there, you just can’t see it for the moment because of the other things that are present with you right then.
And so it is with our Observing Self. This part remains unchanged, despite any of the fleeting thoughts and feelings that are present for your at any given moment: regrets about the past, worries about the future, fears about the uncertain, anger toward a loved one.
I find it helpful to remember this in moments where I get caught up in difficult thoughts and feelings, because I believe that I can’t actually suppress or change them… not beyond the short-term, at least.