One of the fundamental concepts in most contemplative practices—and most definitely in meditation and mindfulness—is that of the observing or noticing self.
The what?, I hear you say. Who is that?
The short answer is, it’s you, or a part of you. Just like there is a part of you that is reading this right now, there is another part that is noticing you reading right now.
Psychologists refer to the part of you that is doing the noticing as the observing or noticing self, or the self as context. It’s a place where you can just chill and notice what is going on in the rest of your body and mind.
You may have heard it referred to as “pure awareness,” or the witnessing, observing, noticing, or transcendent self.
“Oh, look,” your noticing self might say. “A thought about getting a new car just like the neighbour just zoomed by.” Or, “Well, well, well! I notice that there is a feeling of intense desire about that chocolate brownie springing up over there.”
So, who is the noticing self actually noticing?
Psychologists refer to this part of you as the conceptualised self. This part of us includes all the beliefs, memories, thoughts, ideas, judgments and so on that come together to form your own self-image, or who you are as a person.
Most of us will spend our lives in the second one—the conceptualised self. This is completely normal, and most of the time completely fine. But when we become strongly identified with all of our beliefs, ideas, and judgements (our self-image), especially if they are negative or narcissistic, we tend to get a little stuck and rigid, which can cause all sorts of problems to spring up.
The tricky part is that unless we have learned some specific skills, we won’t know that we need to fix within our being stuck and rigid. So, we’ll go off chasing more money, or do something like buy a sexy, new car like our neighbour’s, thinking that will solve our problems and make us happy.
Mindfulness skills, or mindfulness therapy, can help us manage ourselves through this maze of thoughts and feelings whilst remaining anchored. Mindfulness skills and mindfulness therapy also reminds us of what we value when things get tricky.
However, to go deeper into the roots of these afflictions, let’s take a look at what meditation might have to offer us.
The early yogis studied the same phenomenon in Vedantic philosophy, and came up with some interesting answers. From their perspective, there are even more layers to ourselves. They called these multiple layers of self the koshas.
Yogic philosophers also believed that you could become stuck in one of these bodies when you identified deeply with it, and that this could lead to negative attachments, greed, discontent, and so on. To the yogi, the goal is always full self-realisation in the bliss body.
The yogic philosophers developed full and comprehensive practices, including yoga postures (asana), breathwork, meditation, and other lifestyle and behaviour-based solutions to allow the dedicated to reach the bliss body. These techniques were developed through trial and error, experiment and observation. The techniques that worked were passed down through lineage, some documented in texts such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, others still held as close secret.
Both ways of looking at the world hold value. The simplicity of the self as a context makes it an easy one to apply to ourselves, and if we are not seeking to go any deeper than the surface level, this should be enough.
Mindfulness training can assist us in developing the skills we need to become familiar and comfortable in the noticing of self. It can also unhook from any problematic thoughts and feelings.
Mindfulness offers great tools for everyday life. However, for the seekers amongst us who yearn to experience the world differently, the power of kriya meditation awaits—a place where we can learn to deliberately shape our energetic and mental landscape, unlock our potential, and expand beyond our limitations.
To experience this separation between the two selves, try the following:
1. Listen to the sounds around you.
2. Notice a sound, and name it.
3. Now, observe it like a curious scientist. Note the tone, resonance, volume, vibration, and any other qualities you can.
4. Move to the next sound, and repeat this process for several minutes.
5. Now, dial into your breathing and focus on the sensation of breath moving in and out of your chest and belly.
6. We now do the same exercise with our thoughts that we did with sounds. Keep your focus on your breathing, and it is inevitable that a thought will float into your mind and distract you.
7. When a thought enters your mind, treat it just as you did the sounds you observed earlier—observe it like a curious scientist. If you are visual you can watch it play out in colours, shapes, forms, even sounds. Contemplate: if this thought were on a movie screen, what would it look like? If you are not so visual, experience this thought in whatever form it takes.
8. The trick is to keep your observing scientist hat on, without getting hooked by your thought and too engaged with it.
9. Once you have spent several moments here (max 20-30 seconds) drop this observer mentality, and come back to your breathing.
10. Repeat with the next thought as it comes up.
Through this practice, we can easily come to see the separation of the two selves, and begin to come to a greater understanding of ourselves just below the surface.