Taking Refuge in “Big Sky Mind” — the Observing Self

Scotland

There is an aspect of you that is free of suffering — immune to change and untouched by circumstances. And, it is available to you in any moment, in any place, if you only know how to access it. 

In many meditation teachings, this aspect of ourselves is called the witness, the observer, or big sky mind. Practitioners of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) call it the observing self and suggest a variety of ways to discover it.

According to Steven Hayes, psychotherapist and developer of ACT, the observing self transcends our ordinary identity. That identity is created by language — specifically, by the ways that we complete the sentence I am…. For example:

  • I am sad.
  • I am angry.
  • I am happy.
  • I am afraid.

Language is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it creates a coherent sense of self — a definite someone who experiences the events of everyday life and creates a story to make sense of them.

On the other hand, we can hypnotize ourselves into thinking that our sentences tell the whole truth about ourselves.

The problem is that language is static while reality is dynamic. Thoughts and feelings — even the most ecstatic or distressing — come and go. Nothing about our internal experience is fixed or permanent. Sentences such as I am sad and I am angry just don’t do justice to this fact. As result, they lock us into a sense of suffering.

Our refuge is big sky mind — the observing self. The challenge is to discover this aspect of ourselves, since it cannot be fully captured in language.

In their book Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life, Hayes and Spencer Smith offer questions that can lead us to a direct experience of the observing self:

  • Where is “here? This word does not always refer a specific place, such as the address of your home or office. In essence, “here” is a place from which observations are made.
  • When is “now? This word does not always refer to a specific time such as Tuesday or 8 am. In essence, it is the time from which observations are made.
  • Where is “I? You can’t use your finger to point to “I.” Again, this is simply a space from which observations are made.

This sense of a observer is fascinating. We have direct experience of it. Yet it is not a physical thing, and it has no boundaries in time.

Hayes and Smith suggest that we continue with three more questions:

  • Recall a memory from your childhood. Who was it who watched those events unfold?
  • Who is it that ate your breakfast this morning?
  • Who is reading this right now?

“Notice that you are here in this moment reading, and notice too that the person behind these reading eyes was there when you ate breakfast this morning and was there when you were a child,” Hayes writes. “You’ve been you your whole life, though there have been many changes in your thoughts, your feelings, your roles, and your body.”

In my next post, I’ll explore how ACT uses metaphors based on the observing self to reduce suffering.