Reflection: On Being the Observer


When you practice stepping back and giving yourself breathing room, you become a better observer.

Whenever you look at a painting, my guess is that you don’t start out by standing with your face a few inches away from the surface. By doing so, your gaze would blearily focus upon a fuzzy set of details. Your mind and periphery would kick into overdrive to put the remaining pieces into place, but likely to no avail. You know that the easiest way to view a work of art is to observe it from a distance in its entirety and either step in to examine the details or move on.

With the mind, it’s easy for an anxiety from the past, an anticipation of the future, or even an overwhelming circumstance in the present to take center stage. At the moment, everything else fades into the background as the obstruction moves into the spotlight. And it can send you headfirst into a prolonged cycle of rumination that spills over into your day.

Just like trying to view a painting by standing inches from the canvas and paint, by only analyzing a problem up close, the problem becomes the entire picture. Your frustrations only ease when you take a step back. When viewed from afar, the problem becomes only a detail within the colorful swirl that is the bigger picture. It’s usually a minor detail, too.

Take a moment to reflect on something that has caused stress or anxiety lately. You might find that what caused such anguish wasn’t that thing itself, but something bigger; that particular something was just the final straw. Or you might even find that getting so worked up over it was unnecessary to begin with.

One valuable gift meditation provides is space to reflect. It creates the mental and physical space necessary for tuning into the inner workings of the self.

One valuable skill meditation teaches is how to take a step back and observe. Whether it’s a thought, emotion, feeling, sensation, distraction, situation, or circumstance, the space you create in your practice gives you room to see obstructions and distractions for what they are instead of getting overcome or overwhelmed by them. A thought is just a thought. An emotion is just an emotion. A feeling is just a feeling. You are none of these things, but the observer of them.

And it’s not only learning how to observe but observing from a place of non-judgment and non-resistance. When you shift your perspective in this way, you see internal and external stimuli from this place during meditation. You’re able to observe what’s getting under your skin in a safe and neutral environment and not be so triggered by it.

You learn what’s a momentary inconvenience and what’s something that requires more attention. Once you see what’s there, you’ll be on your way to either letting it pass or dealing with it so you can move on. It can feel uncomfortable, but by allowing yourself to feel discomfort in an environment where the stakes aren’t so high, you’ll be more likely to act and less likely to brush the issue under the rug for another day.

If you don’t carve out time to deal with what’s lurking in the shadows, they’ll continue to darken everything in the bigger picture, especially the good.

The more you practice observing the inner workings of the self, the more that perspective follows you into your daily life. While you might not be able to control it every time, you’ll be better able to take a split second to note how a situation makes you feel, see it for what it really is, decide if it’s worth getting worked up over, approach it from a place of ease, and choose the best way to mindfully respond instead of instinctually react.

It requires space and a little time, but over time, your ability to observe will strengthen. When you become a better observer, you see that an obstruction in the way of your happiness is usually just a temporary blip—a minor detail—within the beauty of the bigger picture. Take a step back from whatever is bothering you and choose if you want to move in closer and look at the details or move on. It’s a powerful and liberating feeling.