The Observer and the Observed Redux

We create an image of ourselves.

We see ourselves as others see us. Or perhaps as our imagined God sees us. Or as we wish we could be. Or should be. Or would be if we had different parents, lived in a different part of the world, spoke another language, had another partner, lived in a different era, et cetera.

Projection is not inherently a problem. We can’t actually separate ourselves into the one who observes and the one who is observed.

In that sense, separation is an illusion.

But we can – and do – believe that this separation is real. We can subtly convince ourselves that the image is “right” or “best” or “most deserving” or whatever.  We begin to believe that self, pursue that self, flog that self, worship that self . . . We divide the world into those who help and those who oppose.

In this way, we are removed from our actual living. We look away from our self towards an image of our self and forget that the image is just an image.

So we are removed from our living, and this makes our living incoherent, often painfully so. Say I have a problem at work. I watch the image of myself replay the problem, then invent a solution, then live happily in the solution.

But the image is not me, and so I go on living in my problem. The image can’t actually do anything; it is like a shadow, or any other projection. To solve something requires that we not project.

But we are very very good at creating, projecting and watching the image. One has to be good at this, in order to get along in their family and their society.

Your parents say “you are this or that.” So you learn you are a thing; naturally you look for that thing. Naturally you try to make that thing conform to the expectation of those upon whom you depend for survival. Parents, teachers, bosses, cool kids, et cetera.

We learn that good girls do this; bad boys do that. Successful men do this; successful women do that. God loves these people but not those people. On and on it goes.

All of that information – to which we are subject at an early age, and then bombarded with as time goes on (which “going on” has become almost impossible to manage in the age of the social) – are the projections of others.

We build our own projection based on the projections of others. It’s the best model. We do it before we know we are doing it; we aren’t allowed to question the process.

But of course this is a terrible way to live, and causes us all kinds of grief, both personally and collectively. It’s inauthentic; we live as a projected image that is supposed to satisfy the world and it doesn’t work.

So the question, years later, becomes how do we stop projecting an image of ourselves. How do we live with the one, rather than an imitation of the one?

This is the old problem of the observer and the observed. It has been around for a long time. You are the observer and the image is the observed.

Intellectually, the solution is easy enough to state. The observer and the observed are one; they appear separate but in fact they are not.

But that generally does not end the experience of separation. It describes it accurately, it focuses our attention well enough. But it doesn’t solve it.

It’s like facing a big river. We are on one side and home is on the other. So we say “well we have to get to the other side. We need a bridge.”

We have accurately stated the problem – which is important – but there is a lot of space between “we need a bridge” and actually building somehow a bridge.

Some of the people with whom I first began to personally explore this condition solved it with Zen Buddhism. I admire them a great deal, and consider Buddhism a coherent and reasonable approach.

Some people I met subsequently resolved it in therapy. They worked very hard – it was painful at times – and, in truth, I think they got lucky with great therapists (which are harder to find than one thinks).

I met some people – a few – who solved it by working with new age forms of Christian mysticism, mainly A Course in Miracles. This become for many years my own preferred method, and though I do not always think of myself as an ACIM student, I am deeply grateful for and attentive to it.

Later in my living – particularly in the summer and fall of 2017 and onward – I began to meet and read and dialogue with people who readily saw the problem but did not get overly worked up about it.

They came out of STEM fields mostly. If they didn’t – if they were, say, philosophers – they tended to rely on STEM fields for their insights. For them, the observer/observed split was something that happened, was acknowledged as an illusion rather than a reflection of some observer-independent reality, and they carried on accordingly.

No big deal. They weren’t uninterested in the problem, especially as it applied to their respective fields. They just weren’t intimidated by it. It was like “we need a bridge” and so the work instantly became, “let’s build a bridge.” The problem was only relevant in terms of optimizing the fix.

Those folks were a real eye-opener for me. They still are. The problem I had spent thirty years studying and addressing, sometimes to considerable personal detriment, was to them just . . . not a big deal.

Could it be they were right?

Well, as it turns out they were right. But so was I. So were my Buddhist friends, and my friends in therapy, and my new-age Christian mystic friends.

That is because the way you solve the observer/observed puzzle is personal. There is no right way; there is no one way. There is only the way that works, and that is subjective and contextual.

Yet for me, seeing that it was a) subjective and b) not a big deal was deeply liberating. It was not the answer, but it certainly cleared the way for the answer to be given.

I wasn’t looking for anything outside of me any longer. The answer was given to me; I had it already. That I was overlooking or otherwise not noticing it was not stressful. It’s much easier to look for a lost ball if you know what room it’s in.

And, critically, I was no longer intimidated by the question. It no longer felt as if it were the purview of the few – the priests, the gurus, the geniuses, or even the lucky. It was for everybody. It was no big deal.

So you could give attention to the situation you called a problem, and the answer would be revealed. You could build the bridge.

Naturally the question arises: what is the bridge?

On the one hand, the answer is: you tell me. And I am not being disingenuous! If you asked me what the best pie was, I’d say the same thing. I mean here it’s apple but over there, with you . . . you tell me.

On the other hand, the answer is almost always implicit in the question; the form of the question, broadly speaking, sketches the form of the answer.

Where does the observer/observed situation arise most clearly for you? In Nisargadatta and Ramana? In A Course in Miracles? Eugene Gendlin? Richard Feynman?

The answer to that question will reveal the focus for your attention. If the answer is ACIM, then give your attention to ACIM and let the answer be revealed. If it’s Feynman, then give attention accordingly and watch the answer arise. Et cetera.

Importantly, if the answer if Feynman and you are obsessing over A Course in Miracles, then probably all you are going to learn is that ACIM isn’t for you.

It is okay – it is more than okay – to let go of that which does not work. Its not working is how it tries to let go of you. So, you know, cooperate with universe. The answer is not hidden from us on purpose. It’s important to remember this. Where the light is, sight is.

When you “see” the answer it will come as a recognition because you already know it; you just didn’t know it was the “answer.” It will be like, “oh. That.”

And living will go on. The answer, so to speak, just clarifies the nature of the work. You have to write and teach more, or you have to go away to a monastery, or you have to run for office, or you have to live alone in a strange city. Whatever.

That will be okay: that will be just another appearance, another swirl of phenomena unto that which – in all the change, never changes.

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