Becoming the Observer
Last week we began to shift our mindset away from resistance towards acceptance. We are noticing how it feels to open our hearts, minds, and bodies and notice how it feels to close off. We are practicing a new way of being in the world: approaching life with acceptance rather than fear, anger, or control. We use our will to consciously align ourselves with what is, rather than using our willpower to force our own agenda. This acceptance and attention to the present moment is the essence of surrender, the foundation of our spiritual power and healing.
In week two, let’s build on our new foundation by getting curious about what we find here in the present. One of the first things we may notice is that we have a lot of thoughts. We probably have never realized how much of our lives we spend in our heads: in past or future, or simply repetitive thinking. So when we begin to face the immensity of mind chatter happening inside us, we may feel overwhelmed or even uniquely broken.
This new awareness may challenge our practice of allowing right out of the gate. But we can take solace in knowing that we are not alone. This mental noise is a universal part of our human experience. Our brains secrete thoughts–just like our salivary glands secrete saliva. In fact, some estimates suggest that human brains experience over 6,000 thoughts every day. Our brain’s Default Network produces most of these, representing the lowest, most automatic level of human thought. Over time, mindfulness training can help liberate us from our brain’s limitations by teaching us how to work skillfully with all of our thoughts. By dropping into our bodies, we can find a deep and peaceful awareness that helps us live from a higher state of consciousness.
Mindfulness has two wings. Like the wings of a bird, both are required to find mental, emotional, and spiritual freedom. The first wing is wisdom: to see clearly what is actually there–to know ourselves objectively and honestly. The second wing is compassion: to hold all that we find in the space of loving awareness. As we begin to see clearly our mental chatter–rather than judge ourselves–we can reach for loving awareness and simply allow our mind noise to be as it is, with a curious and detached attention. At first, accepting ourselves in this way may feel foreign or even unattainable. However, learning what our brains are doing can be useful in this effort and help us find compassion for our sometimes anxious, irrational, and incessant thinking minds.
This explanation of the brain comes from the work of Richard Miller and the iRest Institute. His ideas and protocols have helped thousands of individuals use different forms of meditation to treat chronic pain, PTSD, and related symptoms since the 1980s. Perhaps this lens can nurture mindfulness and curiosity as we begin to observe our thought patterns this week.
The following content is adapted from “Our Body Has Sacred Windows to the Infinite (from “The Wisdom of the Body Summit”)” © 2019 Richard Miller (https://www.irest.org/) used, adapted and transcribed with permission from the author and publisher, Sounds True Inc.”
The Default Network
The Default Network is the lowest level of the human brain, generating the type of thoughts that represent what some spiritual teachers call “the ego.” This survival-based part of the brain has highly protective instincts and a pre-programmed negativity bias. This bias means that it typically assumes the worst, mistaking a stick for a snake or assuming that a whispering group of peers is talking badly about us. This negativity bias can team up with our innate confirmation bias, which searches for evidence to support its already-held beliefs. In this way, our default protective layer can be quick to draw and defend opinions, and then cling tightly to them. This network also spins in recursive thought, like a ticker tape replaying the same story over and over again. Thinking loops tend to be fear-based, repetitive, and very “I”-centered, feeding a “me-against-the-world” mentality. We can think of this part of our thinking mind as our “default” setting, where the untrained mind is simply trying to do its job to protect us and keep us alive.
The Dorsal Attention Network
The Dorsal Attention Network is responsible for attention and concentration. This network is constantly in motion, scanning our surroundings for threat to keep us safe. If we have an overactive Dorsal Attention Network, we may find it hard to focus. (“Squirrel!”) If we have been traumatized in the past, this network can be hypervigilant in its efforts to protect us from repeated harm. When a threat is detected, this network alerts our Sympathetic Nervous System, which moves almost automatically into a Fight/Flight/Freeze Response. When this happens, our thinking mind goes offline, and our primal instincts take over. These perceived threats, often called triggers, can spin us into unconscious reactions and self-defeating behaviors without our conscious awareness.
When we talk about recognizing the “monkey mind” in meditation classes, we typically refer to these two networks. Through meditation, we can learn to recognize the thoughts and sensations of our fear-based lower mind, un-hook our identity from narratives and emotions, and connect to our more evolved brain to find the more profound wisdom of our Higher Self.
Our Control Network is the part of the brain that takes executive control of our attention and concentration. The Control Network has the power to make a choice and switch between networks.
The Present-Centered Network is the highest and most evolved part of the brain. This network increases Gamma brain waves, which create insight, a sense of connection to the world around us, equanimity or balance, and well-being. Both REM sleep and somatic (body) awareness activate this network. When we drop into the body through mindful movement and meditation, the Present-Centered Network initiates our body’s Relaxation Response. This Response can move us out of the reactive Fight/Flight/Freeze state where we often make irrational decisions, and back into our thinking mind. Even pausing for one long, slow, conscious breath can bring us back home to our Present-Center and out of a reactive tailspin in tense moments. The sense of safety, presence, and non-self we feel in the Present-Centered Network helps us overcome our pre-programmed negativity bias and fear-based ego.
Each time we meditate, we strengthen the muscle that moves us into the Present-Centered Network. Our Daily Practice offers simple actions that support this effort, like returning to our breath, visualizing light, or repeating a mantra. These mindfulness tools can become vehicles to a higher state of consciousness, offering an ever-present portal to peace. We begin to realize we don’t have to simply endure life or settle for senseless suffering. We have a choice. Through basic awareness and consistent practice, we can learn to access the most mature part of our brain, freeing ourselves from stress, anxiety, depression, worry, and fear one moment at a time.
This potential for freedom is an earth-shattering revelation, a life-changing practice. It invites us to redefine our perceptions of salvation, spiritual rest, and mental-emotional freedom, from ideals that exist far away in the future to things that are available to us right here and now. This opens our eyes to a powerful revelation: we are not our thoughts. We are not our mind. What a relief! We are not crazy; we are just human beings operating with limited equipment. The better we understand this equipment, the more skillfully we can navigate all our thoughts and emotions, allowing us to come back home to our Selves more quickly, in and through the body.
We can ground ourselves in a Higher perspective as we learn to observe our thoughts and emotions without mistaking them for who we are. Our breath can anchor us in a safe place and allow us to gently detach from the monkey business of our mind so that we can explore our inner landscape with kind curiosity. We can practice a new way of talking to ourselves to foster both the space to see clearly, and the loving awareness to hold what we find without judgment.
“Hmmm. It is interesting that I am telling myself that. I didn’t realize I felt this way.”
“I notice I keep replaying this story in my mind. What is this story doing for me? What am I looking for through this narrative?”
Asking self-directed questions like these can be an essential key to our growth and a powerful and proactive regulator of our emotions. Self-inquiry can feel like a new and unfamiliar practice if we are accustomed to analyzing others. However, we empower our lives when we focus our curiosity inward to the only place we have any real control: our own actions and reactions. Sincere, non-judgmental, and curious questions also slow us down, moving us out of our Fight/Flight/Freeze system and into our rational brain. Once our thinking mind is online, we can choose a conscious response over an unconscious reaction. Curiosity can help us do this.
Observing with Compassion
This week, we practice the two wings of mindfulness: wisdom and compassion. We practice wisdom by noticing our mind stories with a kind curiosity–without judgment. We might even pay attention to which part of the brain seems to be driving in each moment, mindfully noticing what each network feels like in our mind, body, and spirit.
We practice compassion by allowing all that we find in the space of loving awareness. Let’s try not to judge our thoughts as right or wrong, but simply notice what they are. Our detachment allows us to see more clearly–without muddying the water with defensiveness, blame, or shame. We may notice that we tend to create habitual stories that seem to do something for us: excuse us, protect us, condemn us, or blame somebody. We call these habitual stories narratives. They represent not only thoughts, but whole systems of thoughts that produce an effect on our mental/emotional/physical weather system. When we recognize a narrative at play, we can practice detaching from the story and getting curious.
The mindfulness practice of naming can help us bring consciousness to what is actually happening. Instead of getting hooked by the narrative, emotion, or sensation, we can simply name what is happening inside us. “Worrying.” “Judging.” “Panicking.” “Planning.” We can drop into the body, bringing all our attention to the physical sensations that each of these states creates. We can watch the sensations rise and fall as we allow the narrative to pass, finding we can stay grounded as a compassionate observer throughout the experience.
Compassion encourages us to open up and allow our true thoughts and feelings to be seen. We might even place a hand on our heart and speak the words: “I love you. I’m listening.” We can create space for whatever arises, trusting that there is always room for “This, too.” There is nothing we could possibly think or feel that cannot be welcomed into the breadth of human experience. Some mindfulness practices even encourage us to welcome habitual dark or anxious thoughts as an old friend. “Ah, yes. I see you, old friend. Thank you for trying to protect me. But now, I give you permission to let go.”
This week as we practice observing, let’s take particular note of the thoughts that surface around food, exercise, our bodies, and our attractiveness. Many of us have held conscious and unconscious beliefs around these constructs for a lifetime. Let’s practice self-inquiry.
“What am I telling myself about the food I choose to eat? How am I framing exercise and movement? What am I saying to myself when I look in the mirror? How often am I using the word should?”
We can explore our answers further through journaling. If painful or traumatic memories surface, we can gently allow them to be; this provides a compassionate space just to feel what we feel. Emotional healing often feels like a messy and uncomfortable process, but there’s no way around it: we have to face and move through our pain to heal it. In fact, pain and struggle can actually be evidence that we are doing the healing work, that we are right in the thick of the process. Feeling is not weakness; the choice to feel is a courageous one we can be proud of.
In this vein–throughout the Course, our Daily Practice meditations will often invite familiar narratives or uncomfortable feelings to surface. As they do, let’s try to allow them. Let’s create space for them in our hearts and minds and view them with an open and loving awareness. Let’s be careful not to label them as good or bad. We are not trying to fix anything. We are just practicing a new way of relating to ourselves. (Hmmm, that’s interesting!) With practice, we will find that we can simply observe without judging, that we can feel pain without being overcome by it. We are like an open sky, and our thoughts and feelings are like weather systems, always moving through but never lasting forever. The more deeply we come to know these patterns, the less afraid we are to feel.
In week two, let’s give ourselves full permission to think and feel, free of judgment. Securely anchored in kind curiosity, our minds more freely release our true thoughts and feelings–which can otherwise hold power over us from the realm of our subconscious. We are stepping into a soul-excavation, a tender and intimate process that brings light to the dark corners we may have buried for a lifetime, sometimes even from ourselves. We may unearth hidden joys and treasures and uncover buried, broken parts that may keep us stuck in fear, anxiety, depression, pain, and self-defeating patterns that we often feel powerless over.
As we make space for all our thoughts and emotions, let’s really listen and allow them to point us back to the deep soul wounds that still need healing. Let’s recognize our choice to see clearly and feel deeply as courageous, uncommon, and strong. Let’s remember that nothing outside of us has been able to fix these things: they lurk in the shadows as hidden beliefs and internal voices that can rob us of the fullness of life we long for. Let’s dare to believe that when we bravely reach in and hold our darkness up to the light, a Higher Power can heal us–with our permission. With that hope in mind, let’s simply begin to see what’s there.