Our thoughts are so powerful they can spiral into the depths of depression or into a full blown panic attack. Our thoughts race, keep us up at night, and play a never ending reminder of our losses and failures. They can also encourage us, reassure us, and remind us of our values and reasons for persevering. The problem is when we get stuck in the one track tape of negativity. We are actually wired for this, it’s our survival instinct to always be on the lookout for danger. So what do we do? Some of us try to stay so busy we don’t have time to really think about our thinking. Some of us try to shut those thoughts down by self-medicating with food, alcohol, gambling, or even Netflix binges. Some of us enter a never-ending game of tug of war with our thinking and we try to control our thoughts and force ourselves to always look at the silver lining. This too is problematic because the tug of war is exhausting and sometimes there just isn’t a silver lining. So what do we do? We can take a page from most philosophical, religious, and spiritual traditions and learn to connect with our “observing self” also called our spiritual self or mindful self. Russ Harris, in his book The Happiness Trap, has an analogy that I really liked that helps describe the difference between our observing self and our thinking self:
Imagine you are filming a documentary. You film thousands of hours of footage and now you have to edit and select which clips to include in the movie. You pride yourself in being objective and you try your best to present a very balanced presentation of the movie. Only this movie is your life. You have thousands of hours of footage and your thinking self judges and criticizes which clips get to be played across the big screen. Your thinking self then narrates the movie with its own commentary and opinion about what is going on. In spite of your best attempts to be fair, the movie is inevitably biased because you had to choose what footage to include and what hundred of hours of footage to leave on the cutting room floor. If you’re feeling depressed, you definitely favor the footage that highlights how much of a failure you are. If you’re feeling anxious you favor footage of every time something went wrong. You then narrate what you see with a never ending stream of thoughts. This is what your thinking self does. But you are not the documentary movie. You are not just those clips selected from thousands of hours of footage. So who are you? You are all of it. As Russ Harris puts it, you are a combination of your observing self, your thinking self, your physical self. However the only part of you that is constant and does not change is your observing self (sometimes called spiritual or mindful self). Your thoughts change, your physical self changes, but your observing self, the one simply filming what is going on, is always constant.
Another great analogy to try and wrap our mind around this concept is to think of our observing self like the sky. The sky is always there and does not change. Our thinking self is like the weather, always changing and moving depending on what is happening around us. The weather will happen across the sky: clouds, storms, sun, rain, but the sky is always the sky. The art of mindfulness is learning to rise above the weather (aka the never ending stream of thoughts) and just be the sky and observe what is going on without judgment.
Connecting with the Observing Self
When we learn to connect with our observing self we start to understand that our thoughts are just our thoughts. They are just words and images that float through our mind. We are not our thoughts, just like we are not that highly edited and selective documentary. So whatever movie is playing in your mind, the I’m a failure movie, the I’m unlovable movie, the world is never safe movie, recognize it for just that, a compilation of selected and edited clips that fail to capture the fullness of your life. So how do we connect with the observing self? This is where the practice of mindfulness comes in. If you have a meditation, spiritual, or mindfulness practice already I urge you to reconnect with that practice. If not I recommend you start with the book the Happiness Trap as there are several excellent exercises throughout the book that help you learn how to practice mindfulness. Or check out a local yoga, tai chi, or meditation studio in your area. But you can simply start by taking a moment, 30 seconds even, to just observe. Just notice what is going on. Notice your breathing, notice how you are sitting, notice the colors around you, just notice. This is about observing and being aware, not judging or narrating. Just be aware in the moment. When we’re depressed we’re ruminating about the past. When we’re anxious we’re worrying about the future. In those moments we are everywhere except here in the present moment. Cultivating the observing self helps you anchor yourself in the present moment. This anchor then helps to give you the stability to handle all the storms passing through your sky.