The Beauty of Self-Observation Practice

-by Rob Schmidt

Self-observation is the foundational meditation practice of the Tayu tradition. We strive to bring Self-Observation practice into every moment of our lives. At first the challenge is simply to remember to practice from moment to moment. As in the creation of any new habit, we cultivate diligence and perseverance to establish this new habit of practice during the ups and downs of daily life. Or, as some Buddhist sutras put it, we strive to become ardent and resolute in establishing mindfulness practice.

As Self-Observation practice becomes established in awareness, its effects grow. Over time, concrete changes in consciousness become clear. For example, the arising of unwelcome, unhappy thoughts may decline in frequency, in severity, or both. Or one may find that emotional patterns such as the arising of fear under certain circumstances become less common and/or less intense.

In one sense, Self-Observation is nothing more or less than the cultivation of non-grasping, non-clinging consciousness. By not identifying with physical sensations, with emotional feelings, or with mental perceptions, images and thoughts – in other words, with virtually the entire contents of ordinary consciousness – we demonstrate to ourselves that awareness can be senior to all phenomena that we experience. Thus it is possible to conclude that objects of awareness – sensations, emotions, mental phenomena – do not constitute awareness itself. We don’t need to grasp anything to be aware. In other words, awareness does not need to be conditioned by any phenomenon. Demonstrating the implications of this to oneself can be, simultaneously, utterly pedestrian and completely revolutionary.

It is pedestrian because the experience of non-identification is available at every moment, and because we have all had the experience of non-identification. We have all seen a thought arise, loom large, and evaporate, without the tendrils of mind futilely clutching after the apparition. (Example: Children play with words and ideas, in the same way as they play with dolls or blocks, dropping them and moving on to some other activity without any reluctance to disengage.) We’ve all seen sensations and emotions arise and dissipate, in ways that make it seem as if such thoughts, emotions and sensations were happening to someone else, as if in a movie. (Example: During and after moments of great stress, such as a traffic accident, or while experiencing “stage fright” when addressing an audience, a sense of distance between oneself and one’s emotional experience can arise spontaneously.) As the practice of Self-Observation deepens, we see increasingly that all thoughts, feelings and sensations arise and die, or arise and change, giving birth to new and different phenomena. This impermanent nature marks all thoughts, feelings and sensations, despite the efforts of our minds to cling to a putatively solid foundation of belief or repetitive experience. Self-Observation practice reminds us, moment by moment, of the flux of both interior and exterior phenomena. This is both the grit and the glory of the unbidden, unanticipated, ordinary moments of life.

Self-Observation also offers radical insight for the moments when the ordinary “magically” becomes extraordinary. As Self-Observation deepens, the urgency to occupy every moment with something – any distraction – lessens. We can begin to appreciate that we need not relate to our sensations, emotions, and thoughts as obstructions or obstacles. When we see these phenomena clearly, they become “as if transparent” because practice provides the context wherein we learn how not to cling mechanically to phenomena. It is at such moments that we embody Gurdjieff’s dictum “to be in the world but not of the world.”

As we learn to relate to our lives without clinging to particular aspects of them, something new – and quite extraordinary – is created in the world. We begin to see existence as it really is, without self-imposed blinders. Two insights arise together as expressions of this. The first is the realization that no phenomenon is indispensable. Everything arises, blossoms, and fades – or changes into something else. Thus, raindrops die as raindrops to become the moisture in soil that sustains plants. Our lives, and everything that makes up our lives, inevitably enact this truth. No phenomenon is indispensable because there is nothing to grasp after that will not transform into something else and thus slip from our clutching hands.

In parallel with this realization is the insight into freedom produced by not identifying with phenomena. We recognize that the option of freedom is ever-present. In each moment, we can turn off the compulsion to grasp after things, like switching off a bad television program. As practice deepens, the reminders of the option of freedom increasingly provide comfort and serenity where fear was used to tread.

The beauty of Self-Observation lies in its dual nature. It fills ordinary moments with practice in non-attachment, yet it connects us with a universe of incalculable multiplicity and wonder. To put it another way, the beauty of Self-Observation derives from its enhancement of the sense of inevitable linkage with everything, which paradoxically arises from the practice of non-clinging. As spiritual adepts through the ages have known, great gifts are those that enable the perception of truth. May we all learn to appreciate the beauty of the gift of Self-Observation.