The Observed Is the Observer. Huh?

The Observed Is the Observer. Huh?

Wolf eye

I mentioned in my last blog that I’d been reading Krishnamurti. It’s tricky catching on to what he’s about — well, for me at least.

Here’s my best shot, for those interested:

His most repeated statement is: the observed is the observer.

But what does he mean? What we observe, the world as it is, is pretty much a shit show of corruption, violence, greed, etc. Psychologically, it’s a world of comparison, envy, judgment, opinion and division — in other words, conflict and suffering. Can’t argue with that. And we are not other than all of that given that we (humans) created it. So the one observing the shit show, inside and out, is identical with what s/he observes. Owning this is the starting place. When we imagine that there is a “me” separate from what “me” observes there is division and where there is division there is conflict.

He would not abide, for example, a personality theory like Internal Family Systems, which divides the person into a bunch of parts that act independently and need to be negotiated with by a Higher Self in order to function well. We don’t have parts. We are the experience of the parts. Granting them independent status and then having to negotiate with them is fragmentation. This is the very definition of suffering for K.

So basically, I am the mess I observe. After all, humans created the mess, I am a human, and then the mess created me. The mess is real, but it’s happening in the past as the past. More on that below. There’s nothing to fix therefore. It’s already happened. You can’t fix the past.

The trick is to stop acting as though it’s still happening. Slide into the present.

So what’s up with “I am that which I am observing / experiencing”. What he is saying is that there is no discrete “I” over here looking out upon a world that is “over there”. I am my experience of reality. Now and now and now… The “I” that I think is observing has been cobbled together throughout one’s life from the various identities we inherited and/or curated: from trauma, from relationship failures / successes; and from institutions we were born into (religious, political, economic, family), etc.

In reaction to these experiences, we form an image of a “self” but the image is just that. Then, it gets fixed “in time”. And we attach to it. Others also have images of us, and we have images of them, that we’ve similarly fixed in time. And the time is the past. But when we identify with that image or identify others with an image, we lock ourselves and others into the prison of the past. When others threaten, for example, the “good” image we have of ourselves by telling us that we aren’t as good as we think we are, we either collapse or attack. Or if they have political opinion that differs from mine, I write them off. As though they are attacking “me”. But they are only attacking an image.

The first step is detaching from the image. It’s our brain self, our past self. It’s not alive in the present. And it keeps us in the past.

The problem arises when we go to fix the mess we’ve created, whether that’s the world or ourselves. Trying to fix it with the same mind that created it is a recipe for continued suffering.

Just so we’re clear, that mind is the brain, for K, and the brain is a rolodex of past experiences, memories, meaning-making and thought.

Emphasis on “past”. (Apparently, K is not as enamoured of the brain’s capacity as is modern neuroscience). He does recognize that it is essential to function, but that it needs to be servant not master.

Thought, for K, is matter. Which seems weird at first, but what he means is that the past is lodged in our grey matter. The brain is a past-regurgitating machine. It is useful for remembering things like how to get to work, people’s names and coming up with apparently new ideas. But it doesn’t actually produce anything new. You might argue that Einstein’s brain produced a fairly new and world-changing theory. But Einstein himself attributes his breakthroughs to intuition not his brain. (Intuition doesn’t come out of the brain. Rather, it passes through a healthy brain). Thought is the presence of the past.

K distinguishes between intelligence and thought. Intelligence comes on-line when the brain (the past) assumes its proper function as servant of intelligence.

According to K, we’re imprisoned by the past = brain = thought. The brain can produce the idea of freedom, for example, but given that it’s 100% conditioned by what happened to us in the past, by pleasure and pain, by trauma, by false identifications with family, political parties, nationality, status, etc. , and by what we’ve read about freedom, it’s an illusion. As long as our identity is attached to the past, we’re never free. We’re in trouble and we generate trouble — in the form of suffering.

Thinking our way out of the prison might move the bars back a couple of inches. It doesn’t unlock the door.

The only way out is to “observe without an observer”. Which is not easy to imagine. At first I thought he was recommending a mindfulness practice — you know, watching without judgment, opinion, preference or action, the contents of our consciousness, including the solutions we produce to our problems and the larger problems of society. In other words, watch the past (our brain) do its thing. That’s a piece of it. Somehow, though, I don’t think it can be reduced to this. After all, I can be watching my mind do its thing, and still feel like I’m doing it somewhere behind my eyeballs ( the observer) . I may be able to detach from the contents of my consciousness but “I” am still there.

Going deeper then, how does one observe without an observer, so that the “me” of the brain is transcended?

Well, there are two ways to make this happen. The first is more of an escape strategy.

Anything that commands our full attention can temporarily suspend the observer. Extreme sports, rapture, good sex, a martini, weed, psychedelics, meditation, etc. When these things “work” it’s because the default “I” of ego gets lost in what it’s doing. Attention is drawn away from the “observer” and into the experience. There is only the experience and no experiencer. And it feels fucking great. The literature about this calls it a flow state, and every high performance athlete has experienced it. The game commands attention to such a degree that the thinking self stands down. There is no separation between the athlete and the game.

Except… the relief is addictive. So palpable is this escape from the hell of ego (which remember consists of all past identifications and heartbreak), that we can end up going on an endless search for the next escape. Disaster films must get evermore disastrous to “hold” our attention. Violence must get ever more violent. Workouts and games must get ever more intense. Sex must get more kinky and more frequent. I must have just one more drink. Or one more hit. We end up chasing the experience, which is also suffering.

Any attempt to escape from forces that we don’t understand is addictive. The film, The Fight Club, comes to mind. Why would you want to bludgeon yourself and others over and over again? I suspect it’s because in this fight for your life, you escape the ego with a super-focused attention. There is only the fight, the fighter disappears. If true, it gives you a sense of just how painful it is to be stuck in the hell of ego, which, to repeat, is the past.

Which brings us to strategy number two. K beats the drum of “understanding” repeatedly. What we have to understand is the whole set up: the identification with institutions (economic, political, religious, family); with authorities and teachers who want to tell us how to live; with the image that we curated in response to heartbreak, trauma, all the memories these experiences generated; and ultimately the “I” , which is an image not a fact. By “understand” he means, not just intellectually get the idea of it, but to feel it, bone deep and in our guts.

Then we have to want to end it. We need to be “serious”. This takes discipline, but not discipline as in the application of will and effort. But rather in its true meaning, to learn and apply, learn and apply. In other words, you have to want more than anything else to stop the suffering generated by an independent “I” that is distinct from what it is observing and experiencing.

Then what? Well, partly, as mentioned above, it’s mindfulness. Bring awareness to our thoughts without generating an opinion, judgment, preferences or stories about what the thoughts might mean. In other words, treat all thoughts as the past hijacking the present. They are the brain doing what the brain does: reproducing the past. Let it be. Don’t try to change what’s happening. In other words, be present to the past, in awareness. The awareness of being with the past, without judgment, brings you into the present. The observer is the observed. There is only the experience in awareness.

Awareness is not “you” — not, that is, the “I” that is a conglomeration of past experiences that got fixed in an image.

Awareness is you. Paradox abounds.

You, as awareness, are infinite. Boundless. Non-local and local. Free. Not identified with any authority, institution, image. Timeless. Not the past. Not the present (because the “present” is a thought), and not the future. Even “present” is a construct of time. Awareness is timeless.

To bring awareness to the past, “your past” , is to face all that keeps you attached to the “I”. Fundamentally it is death, the end of “I”, because if I’m not that, then what? Then who? But as we’ve discussed, it’s the end of past identifications. The end of knowing. The end of certainty. All these are forms of death. It’s allowing or surrendering into what is…living without knowing, without identity, without certainty, without self.

With the end of the observer and the experiencer, self-referencing ends. We stop asking what does this mean for me, what does this say about me, how am I performing over here, am I loved / loveable. We stop the narcissistic recruiting of all experience to shore up ego, and let things and others be. This makes it possible to actually love, which is to let the others be their experience without othering them.

To undergo the death of “I” as a separate and distinct entity from the rest of reality is, says K, the end of suffering and the beginning of joy. The joy of letting things be as they are, and if things need to change, then implement change not from the mind of the brain, but from “intelligence” – which is awareness minus the hamster wheel of the past.

Bruce Sanguin Psychotherapist

Written by Bruce Sanguin

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