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Self Observation is the Key to Mindfulness

Observing ourselves and noticing what we are sensing, thinking and experiencing is the key to mindfulness.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we see the 'self' as having two modes: the conceptualized self; and the self-as-context (or the observing self). The conceptualized self is who we believe ourselves to be. It is the stories and narratives we tell ourselves about who we are and how we are in the world. The self-as-context/the observing self, is for when we take a step back and notice what we are sensing, thinking and experiencing (almost as if we are studying ourselves like a scientist, examining and exploring our experiences). Our minds have the ability to do this, to pause and tap into what we are sensing and thinking. For example, you might be thinking, "I had a really rough day at work!" You have that thought, but then there is another part of you, a part of you that is more stable and can't really be described…the part that recognizes you are thinking.

Observing the self is one of the most powerful therapeutic tools I know. However, it's also one of the hardest to explain because it's something you can't truly understand until you experience it. So, what follows are little tips on how you can experience observing yourself.

One of my favourite ways to look at self-as-context is through the chessboard metaphor. Imagine a chessboard in front of you, and on that chessboard you have the white pieces representing positive things in your life, and you have the black pieces representing the negative. When we are in our conceptualized self, it's like we're trying to move our white, positive, happy pieces across the board while killing off the black, negative, sad pieces. The problem is that even if we're successful at getting rid of some of the negative experiences (the bad memories/the difficult thoughts), new ones pop up…or even worse, the old ones come back. No matter how hard we struggle to remove the black pieces and struggle with the difficult things in our lives, new problems always appear. When we experience the self-as-context, when we observe and notice ourselves, we are the chessboard. We can let the white and black pieces exist and see them for what they are; thoughts, experiences, memories, and behaviours.

It has to do with a particular way that the mind can work, and it's related to something called metacognition (which is our ability to understand how we think). This ability can be enhanced through practice.

When you practice stepping outside of your conceptualized self and observing yourself – observing what's going on inside of you and around you - the more available this perspective, from the self-as-context, becomes to you.

Developing this ability to observe yourself is useful and important for many reasons. It can help you better understand various behaviours, habits (both good and bad) and triggers. It can also help you to: better understand your relationships and responsibilities (yours and others’) in various situations or conflicts, and begin to understand your emotions and thoughts in a more flexible and compassionate way.

All of that is very well said and done, but how do we actually go about developing these skills? How do we develop the ability to observe ourselves? Well, this can only really be explained through experience.

Give this a try:

Stop and silently listen to what you are saying to yourself. Listen to the voice in your head. Once you are listening closely, ask yourself the following two questions:

· Am I the thoughts that are going through my head?

· Or, am I the one who is aware of these thoughts that are going through my head?

If you can notice the thought, you can't be the thought.

Now that you have had a little taste of what it is like to observe your thoughts, here are a couple of ways to explore the self-as-context while walking in nature (or really anywhere).

While you are walking:

· Observe your thoughts when someone else walks by. Do you notice yourself making opinions about them? Perhaps you made a quick judgment on something? Why do you think that particular judgment or opinion came up? Is it really about them or does it relate more to something you think or feel about yourself? Do any other sensations come up when you see or hear another person during your walk?

· Take a risk and notice what happens. Take a different path or a trickier route; try something a bit different. What do you notice yourself thinking before taking this risk? What are the reasons your mind gives you not to do it? Do you have any fears? Are any of those fears linked to a particular sensation in your body? If so, let yourself feel them, and notice them without trying to change them. The goal is to observe the fears from the outside. It’s the difference between, “I am afraid”, and “I notice that this scares me, I see that I am afraid.”

There is a lot we can explore and examine about our experiences. Understanding how we react, how we think (and/or the nature of our thinking) and how we exist and behave in the world can offer us a powerful way to, not only be mindful, but also to find flexible solutions for what troubles us.

Copyright Moire Stevenson 2022


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