The Thinking Self and the Observing Self

Hi there – This was inspired by the work of Dr. Russ Harris, The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living.

The Thinking Self and the Observing Self are the two major aspects of the everyday Mind. Both are always simultaneously operating in the mind. They operate in parallel and they communicate with one another. Both the Thinking Self and the Observing Self have utility; otherwise Nature would have eliminated one of them by now.

Often one or the other dominates the stream of awareness that is the flow of our life, of our experience. Whichever aspect is dominant is heavily influenced by experience but there is also a genetic component as well.

Connection with the experience of the present moment happens through the Observing Self. It involves bringing attention to what is happening here and now without getting distracted or influenced by the Thinking Self.

The Observing Self is by nature nonjudgmental and non-interpretive. In fact, the Observing Self cannot judge experience because judgments are thoughts which are products of the Thinking Self.

The Observing Self cannot (and will never) get into a struggle trying to figure out reality; it sees perceptual sensory data just as it is, in the moment, openly, without constructing a verbal overlay of meaning on top of the data.

The Mental Matrix through which we interpret the world is constructed by the Thinking Self.

If we are having thoughts that things or people shouldn’t be as they are, or that we shouldn’t be as we are, or that reality is good or bad, right or wrong, then we can be certain that we are attuned to the Thinking Self. It tells us things like life could be better somewhere else or we could be happier if only we or someone else were different.

When we notice that we are struggling in our thoughts, we can deduce that we are fused with the cognitive creations of the Thinking Self.

The Thinking Self works like special sunglasses that color both what and how we are able to see the world. When we interpret our life experience through the Thinking Self, we perceive the cognitively constructed private subjective world, a world of comparisons, of dichotomies, of expectations.

The Thinking Self allows us to use symbolic language processes like planning, designing, or problem solving, which can be quite handy. You cannot design a building or go to the dentist without the Thinking Self. The most brilliant human pursuits are dependent on the symbolic language of the Thinking Self.

And, importantly, human suffering is made possible through the capabilities of the Thinking Self. For example, only the Thinking Self can get bored. Boredom is a verbal thought process, a story that life would be better, more interesting, or more pleasant if we were just doing something different. The Thinking Self can easily become bored because it can convince itself through mental comparisons that it already knows all it needs to know about the present and it is free to move on, to think about something else.

Whether we’re walking down the street, driving to work, eating a meal, having a conversation, or taking a shower, the Thinking Self is quite capable of taking it all for granted. After all, it truly thinks it has done this stuff before, so no further attention to the present moment is required. Rather than help us connect with our reality in the present moment, the Thinking Self often captures our focus and takes us mentally to seemingly more interesting thoughts in a different time and place.

When the Thinking Self dominates, we spend most of our time only partially aware of our surroundings, scarcely capable of noticing the richness of the world we actually inhabit in the present moment.

The Observing Self, unlike the Thinking Self, is incapable of boredom. It perceives everything it notices with openness and interest, because this moment is fleeting, alive only this instant.

The Observing Self is always present and is always available. Through the Observing Self we connect with the vast range of our human experience. It does not matter if the experience is new, exciting, familiar, or unpleasant– it’s all simply acceptable, it is all ok. And, a fascinating thing is that when we have an attitude of openness and curiosity in the present, moments which the Thinking Self had anticipated with dread often either disappear or they turn out to be much less unpleasant than we had expected.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook

One Response to “The Thinking Self and the Observing Self”

  1. Thank you for this information! This is helpful for me. I have read the Happiness Trap which is a great book as well.