In order to get past the limitations of our particular type, we need to be able to observe our own habitual thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. But observing ourselves doesn’t come naturally. It isn’t that we lack opportunity, since the object of self-observation is always available. It’s that we find it difficult to observe any aspect of ourselves—from the most significant to the most trivial—without having an opinion about it.
We like it or dislike it, approve of it or disapprove of it, want to keep it or get rid of it—or get more of it. We find it satisfying (occasionally) or dissatisfying (more often). What we observe puffs us up or deflates us. Not only are we constantly evaluating whatever catches our attention, but the same attribute, behavior, feeling, or thought can be judged acceptable in one instance and unacceptable in another. The criteria we use for our self-evaluations are based in compulsion, so there is no rest for the weary—meaning each of us is just another moving target for self-judgment.
Most of the time, we use our self-observations to identify how and where we need to be fixed, so we can improve ourselves. Alternatively, if we like what we observe, we congratulate ourselves.
- I let myself get sucked into helping him again. Damn! I need to learn how to say “no.”
- I keep finding excuses not to exercise even though I make plans to do it. I am so lazy.
- Gee, I handled that situation pretty calmly this time. I’m getting better.
It’s an automatic process to move almost instantly from observation to judgment. It happens so quickly and so automatically we usually aren’t aware of it. So our observations just become fodder for the judgments that follow. It’s a vicious cycle.
If we judge something about ourselves negatively, we experience an internal conflict. Staying present to the experience of conflict or dissonance isn’t easy. It’s so hard that almost anything—any kind of activity, even useless activity—is preferable. At least it’s distracting.
But the goal of self-observation is to be able to stay present to what we observe without moving into judgment or trying to change things. Yes, the judgments will inevitably arise, but we can turn the tables by making them fodder for self-observation.
This requires commitment, patience, courage, and a willingness to surrender our overpowering desire to be in control since one of the first things we’re likely to observe is how little control we actually have.
Every now and then, we wake up for a brief instant of clarity and cry out, ‘What the hell is happening here?’ And then we fall back into our semi-conscious state as we continue bumbling about, half asleep at the wheel of our lives.
Lama Surya Das
Meditation and journal writing are both great vehicles for practicing self-observation, even if practiced in short bursts. The Ennea-Journaling Daily Check in is one place to begin.