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Mindfulness Matters: Creating an Observer

While understanding that changing our thoughts can indeed change our lives, I had a history of difficulty with the how-ness of this. Conversations on the subject would be filled with things like, Okay but how do I change my thoughts?  I try to replace old thoughts with new ones, but that doesn’t last long. My default is set to call BS on the new “positive” thought.  I just can’t do it!  It has taken dedicated study and practice of mindfulness to allow these limited ideas to fall away.

Being mindful is being present to the now of a moment, paying attention to what is happening within you as well as well outside of you. It starts with the intention to pay attention and then requires an observer within you to do just that. Momentarily suspending the judgment that comes so quickly and easily, the job of the observer is to simply take notice. Cultivating this observer is a powerful key to transformation. With this observer, I become aware of a fundamental distinction between what is happening and how I am understanding and responding to it. 

My understanding of what is happening is folded within the context of my history and greatly influenced by my beliefs and any assumptions I have made. Without my observer, I hold these judgments and certainties so tightly that I don’t see the difference between what actually happened and my perception of it. Without my observer, I cannot perceive the space between a stimulus and my response to it. Phenomena are followed so closely by my stories about them that I often have trouble separating the two. I then respond to what I believe is happening, which is not necessarily what is happening. Without my observer, I don’t notice how instantaneously I label and judge any given phenomenon. 

Mindfulness allows awareness to slip into that space between stimulus and my response. With my observer, I notice my thoughts about what is happening and how those thoughts affect my emotional and physical body. With my observer, I pay attention to the interpretation I have made to cause my emotional and physical reactions.

With attention, I recognize old and often automatic labels and stories, then interrupt those thoughts and entertain other possible stories. In this space there is room for a shift – out of an old, habitual thought and into new possibility. Change is now at hand because my story about what is happening becomes just one of multiple stories that I could tell myself about what is happening. Within that space, I can choose another story and with it, a different response.

The following example is from when I began cultivating my observer and would practice this way of mindfulness in small moments at work. Though I really didn’t know this colleague very well at the time, it didn’t stop me from making certain assumptions about her which helped create the story I had been telling myself about her, framing all of our interactions. With the use of my observer, I came to challenge that story and created some unexpected changes in the process.

One early morning we were the only two teachers in the building as I was making copies for the day ahead. She entered the room to work at the other copier without responding to my greeting. Instantly annoyed, I was flooded by thoughts of how rude she was and other justifications for not liking her because I was certain about what she was thinking as she ignored me.

Then I put my awareness on what was happening in my own body. My brow was furrowed and my face was hot. I also noticed that my stomach was tight and my breathing was fast and shallow. Registering these sensations, I took notice of the story I was telling myself that generated the upset causing them.

Next, I took a deep breath and allowed a new thought to shift me out of certainty and into curiosity. I realized that in fact I did not know what she was thinking. Momentarily suspending my story, I wondered What is she thinking? Well, why not ask her?

I took another moment to notice not just that her back was facing me but what else her body was doing, how she was holding it and said, “You seem upset, is everything okay?”

With this one question, she turned her whole body to face me and began to speak about something that had happened at home that morning that was still troubling her. I gave her my full attention and listened with my whole body. Receiving her words like this, I noticed that she began taking deeper breaths and holding her body with less tension.

At the close of this exchange which only lasted a couple of minutes, she thanked me for listening to her and offered me a genuine smile, which I returned. Becoming aware of and then suspending my own story about what was happening, I had become more present in the moment and an agent of change in how it unfolded.

Without my observer, it’s easy to predict what could and likely would have happened in that moment and beyond.

More than likely I would have held on to my annoyance to some degree or another in both body and mind. That would likely have impacted how I showed up to countless others that day, holding more tension in my body and being less receptive to or patient with others. More than likely additional interactions with her would have been filled with additional tension and hostility. Even worse, I could have mindlessly tossed a hostile or sarcastic remark about her to someone else.

But with the help of my observer, I created not only a new story, but a new day with a more ease and peace of mind. With this mindfulness practice, I created more peace within myself and between myself and at least one other.

Conversations around changing my thoughts are wider these days because I have a new understanding on how to do this. It requires more than just an intention to swap out one thought for another. Coupling the attention of mindfulness with the intention of peace of mind and meaningful change, allows the space for shifting over from one way of being to another. As my teacher, John G. Sullivan says, "There are at least two ways to look at anything, a small-minded way and large-minded way. Choose large mind!" As I release small-minded, ego-centered labels and stories, I shift into a spirit-centered space of larger possibilities and create positive change.

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