A few observations and much reasoning lead to error; many observations and a little reasoning to truth. ~ Alexis Carrel
Years ago when I was working as a psychologist I noticed that a curious but common phenomenon would occur. There seemed to be a relationship between three elements:
When a client shifted in some way.
The extent of connectedness that was involved with the client.
The degree of objectivity maintained with the client.
It was as if I was walking a tightrope, where there had to be enough connectedness with the client to track what was occurring in their experience. But there also had to be enough objectivity to not become enmeshed with the client. Step too far in one direction or the other and then obstacles would appear. These obstacles would frequently present as a form of stuckness. Sometimes the client was stuck and at other times I became stuck. Occasionally we both became stuck.
One other factor played a hand in all this. It was not only the degree of connectedness with the client that seemed to play a central role, but also the degree of the connectedness with what was transpiring in my own subjective experience. I had to keep track of my inner world as much as I had to keep track of my client’s world.
While this phenomenon may seem complicated and may appear like it required a lot of effort or concentration, it felt quite the opposite. It felt natural and comfortable. Often intuitions or insights would appear from thin air when I was in this “zone”.
In retrospect, there are also seemed to be a relationship between the ability to objectively witness oneself and growth. Most clients want to satisfactorily patch up the presenting difficulty and then return to business as usual. This is fine and a perfectly acceptable manner to approach life. However, often there does not need to be a lot of consciousness or introspection in these scenarios. In my experience, when we treat the symptom usually later in life problems under different guises return to haunt us.
The clients which could objectively self-observe and bring a degree of consciousness to the problem, were generally the people who managed to change their lives in meaningful ways. Which is not to say that observation was the only variable at play. Other variables are always at play when it comes to growth and change. Nonetheless, the ability to self-observe with a degree of detachment but still maintaining connectedness seems to be one of those fundamental ingredients to creating a life we want.
Of course, I make this all sound easy as if it were second nature. But the truth is I often wondered why I could be insightful with clients but so oblivious to my own self destructive patterns of behaviour. It is no easy thing to turn our attention inward and meet the disowned and disavowed parts of ourselves. Yet it is exactly this inward turning which is necessary.
While it is an inward turning, it is also one where we are not swallowed by our emotions and thoughts. Rather we find a point of differentiation where we can observe the machinations of the mind as they occur without losing the connection of our life. Buddhists might put this method of observation under the broad category of finding the middle way. There is much to be said about finding balance in life and is one of the firmer ways to achieve peace in what we do.
However, to my way of thinking the person who expressed it best was the American Zen master Richard Rose. He proposed the concepts of observation and between-ness in his writings. There is an aspect of between-ness where Rose talks about tension, and being in-between two opposites of a pole. I am not Richard Rose, so perhaps he meant something different altogether. Yet as I understand it, it seems to fit.
To illustrate, consider two examples of opposite states of being. One extreme is a dissociative experience, where one can observe what is arising in life without having any feelings arise. They are effectively cut off from their emotions and their inner and outer worlds.
At the other extreme is being overwhelmed by emotions or thoughts– so much so that we cannot function effectively in the world. A person’s point of betweenness is to sit in the middle of the two. There should be enough contact with feelings so that they manifest unhindered, but not too much contact that one begins to feel overwhelmed by emotions.
Let us consider analysis and intellectualism in the same vein. At one extreme is an obsession with analytical and intellectual thought. A person becomes very rigid in how they operate in the world. We could use emotions again as another extreme, but instead consider a person who brings no degree of consciousness to situations. They become a loose cannon and function closer to someone with a personality disorder than not.
The middle point in the above is to allow enough conscious contact to occur but without becoming a rigid robotic analytical machine. There should be enough freedom there to allow the thoughts to arise without getting to caught up in them.
It should also be noted that the earlier use of the word tension refers more to energetic levels rather than any form of apprehension or anxiety. There needs to be enough energetic spark (tension) in the experience for the possibility for movement to occur. A way to think about it may be as follows. There must be a healthy mixture of some emotional content, a little insight, arising thoughts, and the appearance of intuition. But there also should be a degree of objectivity. This is a key, because without it a person could become overly immersed in the experience. Alternatively, they could wander through life without fact checking and acting on whims which have no basis.
Unless there is a brain injury or severe impairment of some type, nearly everyone already has this capacity for observation in the manner described above. When we watch movies or television, the same phenomena often occur. Though there are times, when we become overly immersed in the movie for the most part we can watch movies with objectivity. Similarly, when we are listening to other people’s stories, the same mechanism occurs. When we are on a train and objectively observing the scenery as it passes by the window, it is the same phenomena. The difficulty we find is that we have not learned to apply this way of looking at things toward self. It is a skill set worth developing and applying in life. It is one which will serve well as we navigate the vicissitudes of the path. Fundamentally, the technique is not to be overly involved, but to still maintain a connection to what is being observed.
It is a contemplative practice in the sense that we begin to know ourselves in a deeper way. The attitude we take is of venturing forward as explorers of the mind. There may be side benefits, in that the practice of observation is meditative in nature. The mind may settle down somewhat, and we may find ourselves more in tune with emotions and how the body operates. But strictly speaking, these are not our main objectives. The true objective here is to observe the machinations of the body/mind organism. In time, observing will become natural. Like most fruitful things, it does take a while and does require perseverance.