The Observing Self refers to that part of us that can stand back from a situation and see the bigger picture. It is the opposite of being locked into your own model of reality. But it goes much further than that…
When we are in the position of the observer, we can witness not only external things more objectively but also our internal experiences – our thoughts, feelings, drives, impulses etc. – without becoming hijacked by them.
On this page I’d like to explore how the Observing Self plays an important part in psychotherapy – and life itself – and how you can develop the capacity to see things from a more transcended consciousness, free from past conditioning and the emotional trances that rule your life.
The Observing Self – the opposite of hypnosis
When we speak of hypnosis what we’re really referring to is a ‘narrowing of focus of attention’. We become absorbed in whatever we’re thinking, feeling or doing to the point that other things fade into the background.
Sports people call this being ‘in the zone’. Daydreaming, meditation, creative hobbies like drawing or playing a musical instrument all involve greater or lesser degrees of focus and absorption.
For this reason, we can say that hypnosis plays a huge part in daily life; we regularly go into hypnosis when our attention zooms in on something for a period of time.
But the Observing Self is the complete opposite of hypnosis. When you step into the observer or ‘witness’ position you expand your focus of attention, like a photo lens zooming out away from its target so you get a wider shot.
And from this position you’re able to perceive alternative views and interpret things more accurately.
The little video below explains what the Observing Self is. But we need more than this; we need to know how to develop it otherwise we are still vulnerable to the demands and impulses of our egoic conditioning.
Negative self hypnosis
So, understanding that hypnosis plays an everyday part in your life, how are you using it?
Do you fret and worry for hours on end?
What about being stuck in an anger trance? Or an anxiety or depression trance?
These are all examples of negative self-hypnosis.
You go into hypnosis then mull over things to the nth degree, reinforcing the problem. Or you go into hypnosis then repeat a behaviour habitually or obsessively (as in OCD). And the same thing drives addiction; something triggers the urge, you enter the hypnotic state and before you know it you’re smoking again or snorting coke up your nose.
Once in trance (and what we’re talking about here is the REM state – our most powerful programming state) you reinforce the behaviour and associated thoughts and emotions.
In other words, negative self-hypnosis reinforces all the things you don’t really want in your life: the worry, low self-esteem, depression, trauma/PTSD, anger, addiction etc.
So, how to escape? This is where the Observing Self comes in…
How to develop the Observing Self
One of the key requirements in developing the Observing Self is calmness. We simply can’t see or think clearly when the emotional/survival brain is running the show. Strong emotion will distort how you perceive reality.
RELATED CONTENT: Zen Breathing: how to calm your emotions and think like the Buddha
But it’s no good trying to calm down by using positive thinking. This is because the brain processes emotions before thoughts.
I speak more about this in my article on the failure of CBT; you can’t just think yourself out of strong emotions. You have to find a way of calming down first. And one of the best ways is to employ something called the AWARE technique.
This will not only calm both mind and body but will also help you start to develop the Observing Self.
It’s almost as if you detach yourself from your emotions and thought processes and observe them happening ‘somewhere over there’. Getting some distance means that you are no longer entranced or ‘locked in’ by the power of emotion.
You can still see/hear/feel the emotion but it’s as if you are one step removed. And when you direct your attention elsewhere (stop fuelling the flames of emotion) the emotion will simply burn itself out.
So, let’s look at the AWARE technique in more detail…
The AWARE technique
Although primarily used to help with anxiety and anger, the AWARE technique can be applied to any emotion and will help calm the ‘survival’ brain, freeing you from old emotional patterns and reactions.
A = ACCEPT THE EMOTION. Don’t fight it. Fighting only creates an internal conflict. Know that strong emotions like anxiety or anger are simply the survival part of the brain (the fight/ flight response) firing off; it is nature’s way of protecting you from perceived danger.
W = ‘WORK WITH’ AND WATCH THE EMOTION. By accepting the emotion rather than trying to fight it, we have something to work with. So, with the emotion ‘on the table’ scale its intensity from 1 to 10 (where 1 is calm and relaxed and 10 is complete panic or overwhelm).
A = ATTEND TO YOUR BREATHING AND ACT NORMALLY. Once you have given the emotion a number from 1 to 10, focus your attention on the breathing. So much can be done with the breathing to help you feel better; a longer outbreath (as in Zen Breathing) will stimulate the relaxation response and often, just focusing on the natural rhythm of the breathing itself, will help you to feel calmer and more grounded.
R = REMIND YOURSELF OF YOUR RESOURCEFULNESS. After a few minutes of attending to the breathing you’ll free yourself from the emotional trance so that you can see the bigger picture and access your resources. The truth is that no matter how strong these emotions are now (or have been in the past) they do not define you as a human being. There is far more to you than that. So, when calmer, reflect on your abilities, strengths, things you’re good at, resources, previous successes, achievements etc.
E = EXPECT A BETTER OUTCOME. Having reminded yourself of your resources, use your imagination and see yourself using those resources now and in the future. See, hear, and feel things going better in the real world through the power of your imagination. This lays down a new blueprint – a new expectation – in your subconscious mind.
Get a more detailed description of the AWARE technique. Download to your phone and use it whenever needed
The benefits of using the AWARE technique
When you practice the AWARE technique and escape the trance of powerful emotions and black and white/all-or-nothing thinking, you start to raise your level of consciousness.
You are no longer operating on survival mode but are developing two of your most powerful allies, the Observing Self and the imagination. Once calmer, and from a more emotionally detached position, you can see things improving, feeding your mind with what you actually want.
You might call this positive self-hypnosis or ‘generative trance’; a more expansive state of consciousness.
Just imagine the differences in your life when you’re no longer being bullied around by those old impulses, reactions and emotions…
Once the Observing Self is in charge, the egoic-conditioned mind becomes servant rather than master. The tables are turned.
You can calmly assess a situation (that used to trigger you) and choose to respond differently. You can work with your emotions rather than being bullied by them. You can think more clearly because you’re functioning from the higher cortex rather than the limbic system.
And lower emotional arousal in the daytime will no doubt have a positive impact on the quality of your sleep.
RELATED CONTENT: How to get better sleep – starting tonight!
Going beyond the Observing Self
Developing the Observing Self is a vital skill to master if we’re to evolve further as a species, otherwise we remain stuck at a quite primitive level of thinking. But there are other rungs on the ladder of evolution, beyond the Observing Self.
There are other, higher states of consciousness, or what therapist and spiritual teacher Stephen Wolinsky calls ‘no state states’ in his book Trances People Live.
This is where subject and object become one.
The thing is that when we are observing something we still exist in the ordinary world of duality. You – me. Subject – object. This – that.
Real transcendence doesn’t simply mean rising above something but merging with the observed object and becoming one. Our consciousness merges with others’ consciousness. We see through the eyes of empathy and gain a ‘felt understanding’ of others’ perspectives.
But more than this…
Going beyond the Observing Self takes us into the realm of the mystics and the experience of non-duality, where everything is perceived as one thing. And when you’ve had the experience or merging with the universe – however fleeting – there’s no way those old emotions can boss you around anymore.
Find out more about my experience of non-duality and the use of mysticism in psychotherapy.
Remember to download a more in-depth handout about the AWARE technique to free yourself from limiting emotions.
Developing the Observing Self is one of my 10 Steps to Self Mastery. Turbo charge your personal evolution now!
Books about trance and the Observing Self
Here are 3 related books that you might also be interested in reading *
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