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Learning to Observe


My past blog, Observing: So Much I Haven’t Seen!, explained that Pausing is a necessary, but not sufficient, prerequisite to Observing. When we pause, we have the time to observe what is truly in front of us. However, we each carry assumptions about and expectations for our futures, based on our prior experiences—these implicit memories and their procedural knowledge (see blog, Implicit and Explicit Knowing) guide what we notice, to what we pay attention. For example, when my spouse and I were house hunting, we once visited a property independent of each other. Reunited, I commented on the awkward floorplan; he had noticed the subpar plumbing and electrical dangers. I wasn’t sure that we had seen the same house! We had, but we had observed completely different aspects; fortunately, we agreed that it wasn’t a good purchase.


Because of our categorizing, binary-loving brains, our belief systems about “how things are” may also make us blind to observing what is actually occurring. For example, research has shown that people change more rapidly and are more varied in their behaviors than we assume. This makes us bad at knowing what we will want in the future and also unobservant of what our beloved is actually doing or saying.


The Principle of Complementarity states that the opposite of a fact is a falsehood—a fiction. The Principle of Complementarity also states that the opposite of a great truth may well be another great truth. Both of these concepts provide avenues for improving our observing. First, the facts and fictions: our observations may be distorted to the point that we are missing an important aspect of what is occurring or believe we are “seeing” something different than what is in front of us. For many years I did not see that a beloved had a drinking problem. I knew that they drank more than I wished, but due to my attributions and fears, I did not recognize that they had an addiction. And, the other aspect of Complementarity: two seemly-opposing great truths may both be true. With patience and love for myself, I have learned to see my concurrent security and insecurity—seemingly-opposing dispositions that co-occur frequently for me. I have come to understand that love is perfect, and yet our loving will always be flawed—these two great truths can also feel in conflict, and yet they are simultaneously true.


Deliberate Observing Practices

Just like with pausing (see blog, Pause Practice: Scary, Transformational, Subversive Stuff), our observing skills will benefit from intentional practice. Our meaning-making brains have difficulty removing interpretations from observations. If I see someone frowning and think, “They look angry,” I have inferred their emotional state from my observation of their facial expression. As people frown when they are concentrating (as well as when angry), my inference might be very wrong. Our deduction of intentions is often grounded in our fears. My inference that my beloved’s frown signifies anger might reflect my insecurity about my lovability. If so, I will not only assume they are angry, but that they are angry at me. When I start in with a defensive, snarky comment, my deep-in-thought beloved will understandably feel attacked.


Every behavior has four dimensions: duration, frequency, latency, and intensity. Although your observations will probably not include a precise description of all three, it can be helpful to ask: How long is the behavior lasting? How often is it occurring? When does it occur? And, with how much fervor did the person engage in the behavior? We are trying to answer the questions of who, what, when, and where (‘why’ is saved for the next practice, Empathy)—who did what, when, and where? Our goal is to remain curious and open to whatever we might perceive.


Increasing our capacity to Observe is available to us at all times and can be easily integrated into daily life. As you wait in line, you can practice describing what you Observe. As you walk, ride, or drive through your life, you can practice observing. With my students, I use video clips to challenge them to write down exactly what they see and hear—and we can replay the clip to see what was observable and what was inference. For me, a helpful sentence stem is, “I notice that….” Then, I can ask myself, “What did I see or hear? What might I have missed?”


Observing Our Relationships

After deliberately practicing observing as a spectator, it is time to move into practicing observing in our relationships. Observing in our relationships, our goal is to observe ourself, the beloved(s), and the situation. What we can Observe about ourselves is richer than what we can Observe about the beloved, as we have access to our internal sensations. Observing ourselves, we start by observing our bodies: our breath, our heart rate, any places of tension or ease, our feeling, and our thoughts. With the beloved, we seek to Observe their posture, voice tone and pauses, and facial expressions—as well as any words or actions. With the situation, we are seeking to observe what else is around us, and might be affecting us and our beloved. As my yoga instructor states, we look for the places of ease as well as dis-ease.


One aspect of observing is to identify feelings. We notice, without judgment, our thoughts and emotions. An important aspect of this is to distinguish between what we feel and what we think we should be feeling—sometimes we have longstanding narratives that aren’t actually true anymore. As researcher Marc Brackett explains, “Our true feelings can be messy, inconvenient, confusing, even addictive.” We infer, without judgment, possible thoughts and emotions of the beloved—recognizing that they are only hypotheses. And, finally, we recognize our common humanity in having these feelings.


Oops…I’m Judging (Again)

As we practice observing, we will find ourselves falling out of observing and back into judging. When this happens, congratulate yourself for noticing (this is a big success!)—you have observed our human tendency to judge! Then, return to Pause (at least briefly) and back to Observe. As psychotherapist David Richo notes, “Practice is about surrendering to the way things are inside us. Our success is in noticing how our mind works and in coming back to our breath whenever we become aware of our distractions.”


One aspect to observe when we fall into judging is “What was it that turned you from observing to judging?” Was there some discomfort, triggered by what you were observing? Was there some truth, some inconsistency, that you didn’t want to see? Law professor and race mindfulness facilitator Rhonda Magee uses the term “witness”:

So while we hold our histories and cultures with respect, we loosen our attachment to them as more special than others’….As we spend more time as the Witness, we observe more of the processes and social practices by which we participate in the construction of race in our lives.

Racism and other judgements about people based on demographic characteristics will inevitably cloud our ability to clearly observe. There are many inequities and harms that we have been socialized to deny. As a White person, I have the privilege of not having to “see” racism. But wearing blinders impedes my ability to be intimate with myself and others.


Knowing that it is a skill that will take time to develop and requires compassion for ourselves as we see more clearly our distortions, we seek to Observe what is happening right now.


Power of Observing: Trust and Truth

Observing allows us to disrupt our automatic response habits and opens us up to new opportunities in our relationships. As Buddhist teacher Gregory Kramer instructs, as we trust the emergence of whatever might happen, we discover that “patience opens doors that effort finds frozen shut.” Observing is a practice of trust. We Observe without the bias of a goal; we enter the moment with nothing to accomplish, attain, or control. And, through this trust, new truths emerge. We see what we previously denied or didn’t know existed—and we see what we don’t know, what we might want to inquire about.

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