Q: Why put such emphasis on observation of self? It doesn’t change anything.
A: It doesn’t change anything quickly but impartial observation of self is the best way I know to change myself and my relationship to life. We are tied up in knots. Strands of habit wired into the muscles, constantly repeated mechanical reactions and fixed self-images prevent insight, limit capacity and drain our higher energies, making it impossible to do the work of a real human being.
We are heavily programmed and we must de-program so we can see and feel clearly. This does not mean changing the program. De-programming cannot be accomplished by the one who is programmed. So I delegate the task to attention.
Analysis doesn’t untie the knots unless it triggers impartial attention. So, aim for impartial attention by observing self objectively…physical expressions of self. You will be dealing with the past because all the unresolved problems of the past are with you presently, whether you think about them or not, and they are expressed in the behavior you observe.
Q: You seem to suggest that attention is a kind of conditioning eraser.
A: Yes, it’s like that. Habits of behavior and thought are patterns of neurons in the nervous system. The linked patterns are held together with subtle energy we call sensitive energy, the energy of sensation. Patterns can be slowly dissolved by application of a higher energy which clears the energy field. That higher energy is attention. To work, it must be impartial. Why? Impartial attention means attention that is not channeled through, or directed by, the thinker who pretends to inhabit my headbrain. Headbrain attention is too weak to erase my conditioning. I must learn to trust the work to attention.
September 22, 2021
Q: Why put such emphasis on observation of self? It doesn’t change anything.
October 15, 2019
Let us say that your dominant characteristic, your ‘default program’, is fear. You are frequently fearful that strange and terrible things could arise from ordinary events. You are continually on the alert for possible difficulties, now and into the future.
Your way of dealing with this fact is to try to ‘manage’ the fear, which means to reduce it in some way, perhaps by rationalizing it, noting its unreasonableness, breathing it away or to avoiding it through distractions. Fear is the enemy.
But perhaps fear is your most useful asset. Fear makes you alert to what is happening around you, it summons energy and encourages active inquiry into what you are experiencing. Could fear be your steering wheel, helping you to navigate your terrain? But for this to be true, you must have enough separation from fear to give you the space to work with it. You cannot do this if you are the fear; you can do it if fear is your companion. Impartial observation of self could lead you in this direction.
Every impulse, every perception, every sensation and every thought presents input, possible leverage in the ongoing battle to know and stay inside my experience, living it, using it.
In a thousand times a thousand ways, each of us is looking for ways to ‘improve’ ourselves. I think I know what I need to be a better or more successful person. Seemingly the last thing I want is to deal with myself as I am. But I am the only path out of myself and into a wider universe. I can’t begin with some imaginary self-construction. Better to make my ‘flaws’ my companions.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi,
translation by Coleman Barks
September 19, 2019
“All we need is love’, says the famous song. And that is the cliché that we use to pacify the emptiness of ordinary experience. But love is not a simple pleasure or an easy solution; it is very painful to be so concerned about another and to suffer all their ills and problems. Love is rife with desires, needs and attachments which are part of its transformative power but not romantic at all. No wonder Buddhists prefer compassion.
There is another path which I think of as intimacy. This path does not replace the wish to love and be loved or its importance to us as humans but it does offer another form of transformation. My sense is that intimacy is what most humans want more than anything else. By this I do not mean sex. Intimacy is a complete lack of barriers and defences, allowing free expression between us, without effort. It is a state of openness, ease and trust.
Fourth way practices and theories do not encourage intimacy, in my view. Trying to self-remember or trying to voluntarize attention tends to isolate the practitioner. However, impartial observation of self can, over time, bring down the barriers and prepare for intimacy.
Perhaps I wish for an intimate friend to whom I can tell everything. Here lies a trap. If I complain to this person, I arm myself with judgment and blame, the greatest of defences, and intimacy is lost. Confession is an entirely different matter because it is disarming and carries within itself the quality of humility. My most intimate moments arise from confession, but there are very few, other than His Endlessness, who can be trusted with my confessions lest they hold them against me.
July 3, 2019
In our work, there is great emphasis on impartial observation of self. What is observed? Sensations, emotions, gestures of hands, face and voice, behaviors that arise habitually in reaction to what happens around us.
This is not metaphysical, not observation of thinking but rather knowing my physical reactions, neither judging nor justifying them.
As with any endeavor, this can become habituated too. I tend to observe the same things again and again. Of course, there is truth to this…we are repetitious creatures, creatures of habit. But perhaps it is also true that I need to look for the unexpected, the unknown states that escape attention.
Could I suggest that you look for the sensation/emotion of covetousness? In my view, it is one of the strongest and most consequential of inner conditions but it is no longer commonly part of our vocabulary and moral compass as it once was as the 10th commandment of Moses.
There seem to be two dimensions of this state. One is that I may be covetous, I want something that belongs to another…a skill, a possession, a relationship…it could be anything that brings enjoyment to another. Coveting is not simply wanting something for its own sake but also being willing to take from another…it is envy not only of the thing itself but also the enjoyment of it by another. In fact, the one who covets is governed by wanting what others have, not by inwardly searching for what is of value to himself. It is a kind of short cut to satisfaction that tries to mimic what others have discovered and achieved.
The other dimension is experienced by the one whose possessions are coveted. A common reaction is to sense that something I have is causing another to be aware of what they do not have. Was my enjoyment too obvious? Can I diminish or hide my enjoyment, even deny it, so that others will not want what I have?
It may be that covetousness is not part of your experience, in either dimension. Can you find out?
April 9, 2019
Collage by Sae Kimura
You continue to emphasize that everything in this work comes back to observation of self. I think I am beginning to know my habitual reactions but I do not see much change in myself.
This is a subtle process. You may not notice the changes that arise over time. It’s a form of homeopathy, like curing like. The tendency to anger is observed as anger…its sensations and related gestures. The cure is the thing itself. Anger releases anger. Adopting a posture of peacefulness is most often a form of repression which does not release anger.
By release you mean express?
No. I mean a voluntary release of the impulse, which means that it is transformed into energy which can be expressed in other ways or not expressed at all. I have the power to choose, in the moment.
So you are not erasing the tendency to react with anger?
No. I am putting the anger reaction on wheels. I have baggage but it’s mobile.
Perhaps you are missing a critical intermediate step. Observation, knowing the sensation and shape of your reaction as it takes place in real time, is the first step. The next step is to be impartial…that is, not reacting to your reaction. No judgment, no justification, just observation, recognition, perhaps amusement. Then you can easily move the reaction out of the way and respond to the situation at hand freely and creatively.
The secondary reactions such as justification and judgment must also be observed impartially.
When I discover and begin to track my habitual reactions, it’s natural that I should want to eliminate them. This is wrong motive. Perhaps it will come about, perhaps ongoing impartial observation will eventually erase the sensation-based electrical anomaly that sustains my reaction, but adopting this orientation risks becoming goal-seeking, which is not impartial observation. Our work is not a path to self-perfection, it is a path to freedom from self.
The freedom is in the moment, to be able to set aside the reaction because impartiality has put it on wheels.
March 14, 2019
In ordinary life, we seem to experience two realities. One of them is physical reality. Another is the reality of our emotional-mental space. The second reality is the one that gets almost all my attention.
Do I notice the quality of sunlight, the presence of trees, the continuity of the building on the corner which is there every day? Yes, but mostly in passing. In my ‘inner’ world, I am continually thinking and reacting, experiencing my likes and dislikes, my wants, my fears and expectations. These occupations appear to be as permanent as the physical world ‘out there’, or that is how I treat them, but they are not. They are of my own making.
It seems to me that the aim of work on self is to find that the inner world, the one where I expend most of my time and attention, can be changed in a fundamental way. The key is to find my habitual emotional reactions�not just the big, fat ones full of ‘sturm und drang’ but also, and more importantly, the smaller habits…of avoidance, giving up, feeling sorry for myself, impatience, pointless irritation, petty anxiety and so on. Each of these is a tool with a handle. Seeing them arise and turning them along a different path shifts my world fundamentally.
In a state of no-work-on-self, I take the world as a given and I fight against it to get the outcome I want, often unsuccessfully. In a state of work-on-self, I observe and change my reactions, using them to shift my world at the point of contact, to find greater fluidity and new possibilities. The world becomes more workable. This is a great benefit of impartial observation of self.