By Tasha Friedman
Can the mind be your partner in spirituality? Does the path to transcendence only run through denial, or is it possible that everything around you is helping point the way?
It’s such a relief to step out of the paradigm of conflict—with your mind, your senses, your environment—and discover that the world has actually been flowing with you all along. Flowing into you, in fact.
Self-Observation and Self-Awareness
“Self-observation” and “self-awareness” are terms which are used frequently in psychology and the self-development field, outside of any spiritual context. Scientific study of the human mind must acknowledge its reflexive capacity, that mysterious ability to point to a “me” in any situation, which seems to mark the boundary between human and animal life forms.
Of course, lacking a deeper understanding of consciousness, objective science can do nothing to explain this aspect of the being. It can only deal with forms that can be perceived and analyzed: objects, not the subject.
Here, I will follow Sahajananda in defining “self-observation” as an attention to the limited self, in terms of psychology and personality, while I’ll use “Self-Awareness” to refer to a reflexive awareness of yourself as the perceiver.
Unlike Self-Awareness, self-observation is inherently dualistic. Even though the object of observation is internal, there is still a sense of me (the mind) observing something (another aspect of the mind).
It is possible to be highly self-observant without the vertical dimension of Self-Awareness. Many people are very conscious of their own psychology and emotional structure, even to the point of neurosis, but lack the sense of the “I am” that underlies everything they experience.
However, although self-observation and Self-Awareness are different, they are not contradictory attitudes. Self-observation can flow into Self-Awareness.
Close observation can lead to detachment from the content of the mind. Watching your thoughts and emotions for long enough, you can start to perceive the real nature of the mind, which is quite different from how most of us conceive of it.
The Truth Is Always There
One of the most reassuring teachings from Buddhism is the assertion that everyone will become enlightened someday. Why? Because the truth is always there, although a million illusions may come and go above it. Sooner or later, no matter what you do, you will bump into it.
Observing the mind works in the same way. Look closely at your thoughts for long enough, and you will start to notice how they come and go on their own, without any need for you to direct them. You will notice how emotions come like a change in the wind, and stories construct around them. Sooner or later, you will start to perceive spaces between thoughts, a restful silence out of which they arise and into which they dissolve.
From this insight, self-observation can blossom into Self-Awareness.
Of course, observing thoughts is a very different attitude than just being in the thoughts. Taking enough space to observe the mind, even in this dualistic way, is already an act of detachment.
Even though in meditation you try to go beyond the mind, not investing yourself in its content, an understanding of its processes can make it easier to transcend them—and to embrace the gifts that the sensory mind has to offer, without getting swept away by them.
Re-collection of the Senses, Recognition of Beauty
Spiritual practice should never lead to feeling dry and dull, though this is a common misunderstanding when hearing phrases like “renunciation” or “detachment from the senses.” It’s actually the opposite.
How much of the beauty of life is lost because you weren’t present for it? Because you were too busy thinking about it, planning how to get more of it in the future or hoping for something more exciting?
Practicing presence is a way of reclaiming the beauty that is all around you. When centered in the Heart, life becomes an aesthetic experience, not only of flashy, dramatic events but the small and precious moments that constitute the fabric of daily existence.
The first breath of fresh air when you step outside in the morning. The touch of a door handle, a cup, or the ground under your feet. The rich color of a leaf.
Any experience of the senses can point back to the “I am.” It can be a reminder of yourself. Being fully present, the energy of the senses will naturally draw inwards, like turning a mirror to Awareness. From seeing, you realize that “I am seeing,” and then simply “I am.”
In ordinary thought, the mind has a centrifugal tendency. It spins outward, creating more and more associations that quickly take you far from your starting point. Return the mind to an intended object, enjoy a moment of stability, and the process starts again. This game is familiar to anyone who has ever tried to meditate.
It’s not something bad or wrong. It’s just the function of the ordinary mind, spinning worlds of stories out of the central point, the seed of pure Consciousness.
But the mind can work in another way: like a centripetal force, driving everything back to the center. This is the Recollection described by St. Teresa of Ávila, the great Christian mystic: gathering every perception into the source of perception itself, like bees returning to their hive.
When a sense perception, instead of a jumping-off point for a train of thought, becomes a reminder of Stillness, its energy is reabsorbed and embraced in Awareness. The external world starts to fold into itself, and the very idea of an “outside” or “inside” dissolves into the singular space of pure Being.
This embrace of the world is an expansion of what you may taste in meditation, when all thoughts and perceptions start to flow into a single point. Except, rather than sitting with eyes closed, allowing sensations to fade away, you are walking through the world in all the vibrant spontaneity of life, deeply engaged with the dazzling multiplicity of appearances—the thousand faces of Shakti that remind you that you are Shiva.
Going back to St. Teresa’s bees: a good worker bee never goes home empty-handed, and in the same way, this re-collection of the senses also draws inwards the flavor and sweetness of every conscious moment. The unique beauty of the sensory world is not lost but amplified, honored for the miracle that it truly is.
Finding Reality All around You
“The mind is an enemy. The senses are a trap.”
You’ve probably encountered these sentiments, explicitly or implicitly, in many spiritual environments. But always, what brings you down can bring you up, what takes you away from yourself can point you back home, and all roads lead to the same point.
There is no need for struggle or conflict with yourself. Use all the tools available to you, everything that is around you, and trust in life to reveal its own truth.