There is an aspect of you that is free of suffering — immune to stress and untouched by difficult circumstances. It is available to you at any time and 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.”
A handout from the Kadampa Center for the Practice of Tibetan Buddhism explains the sky analogy:
Our minds are completely clear just as the sky is completely clear. The light of the sun shines down on us through the clear sky. Our awareness and wisdom shines through the clarity of our minds. Sometimes clouds fill the sky and obscure the sunshine, but the sky doesn’t get upset, the sky doesn’t identify with the clouds. The sky doesn’t judge. The clouds just pass through the spaciousness of the sky. They come…and they go….
Our minds are clear and aware, spacious like the sky. When a thought or an emotion, an idea or an image or a sensation arises in your mind, just observe it. Let it arise and let it pass. Each thought, each mental event… just like a cloud. Your mind…the sky.
This idea has found its way into the third wave of cognitive-behavioral therapies. For example, practitioners of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) refer to big sky mind as the observing self and teach a variety of ways to discover it.
How language obscures the observing self
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….
- 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 and 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 happy just don’t do justice to this fact. As result, they lock us into a sense of suffering.
Ask these questions
Our refuge is big sky mind — the witness, the observer. The challenge is to discover this aspect of ourselves, since it cannot be fully captured in language.
In Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life, Hayes offers three questions that point 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 an observer is fascinating. We have direct experience of it. Yet is has no boundaries in time or space:
- 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 blog post 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.”
What happens when we forget the observing self
This notion of the observing self has immediate applications.
Start with our reaction to unpleasant internal experiences — distressing thoughts and feelings.
Our typical approach to those experiences is to treat them as problems to be solved. We try to get rid of them, avoid them, or prevent them.
This approach fails.
Distressing thoughts and feelings are not like weeds in a garden. We can’t root them out, mow them down, or spray them with weed killer. In fact, our efforts to suppress certain thoughts and feelings can actually increase our distress.
Russ Harris, author of ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, notes that “virtually every addiction known to mankind begins as an attempt to avoid or get rid of unwanted thoughts and feelings, such as boredom, loneliness, anxiety, depression and so on.”
Thoughts and feelings are not problems
When it comes to our internal world, ACT therapists take a radical approach.
They toss the problem-solving paradigm out the the window.
These therapists refuse to label any thought or feeling as a problem. The word symptom is largely missing from their vocabulary. And they do not focus on reducing symptoms.
Instead, ACT is based on mindfulness — the moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness of thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness fully allows these internal events, revealing that they will eventually pass if we simply let them.
In other words, hold those internal experiences in big sky mind.
Thoughts and feelings are soft, wispy clouds that arise and pass away in our conscious awareness. Even violent storm clouds — intense feelings — eventually disappear.
ACT therapists use other analogies to describe conscious awareness. For example:
- Space. Consider the space in a room. It allows people to enter and leave the room. Those people can laugh, cry, or scream at each other. But no matter what happens in the room, the space remains unaffected. In the same way, awareness remains unstained by any thought or feeling.
- Game board. Intense battles unfold on the squares of a chess, checkers, or Monopoly board. Yet all the games eventually come to an end. The pieces are picked up, and the players disperse.
“What if you are the board on which this game was being played?” asks Steven Hayes in Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life. “What if you aren’t defined by your pain, but rather you are the conscious container for it?”
Thaddeus Golas, author of The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment, says essentially the same thing:
When you look at a lake, there is no water in your mind. Put another way, the awareness of a hard object has no hardness in it. The awareness of confusion is not confused. The awareness of insanity is not insane.
This notion of the observing self is both profound and practical. To learn more about it, start with Russ Harris’s wonderful article Embracing Your Demons: an Overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. He offers other free resources as well.
Also see the catalog of ACT books at New Harbinger Publications.
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