One thing that will happen as we Observe with increased clarity (see blogs, Observing: So Much I Haven’t Seen! and Learning to Observe) is that we will see things that we would rather not have seen. And, once we see them, we will be unable to un-see them—we may even be stymied by how it was that we didn’t see something so apparent for so long. Buddhist priest Pema Chodron provides the answer:
When you become conscious, the first thing you discover is why you stayed unconscious all those years. Being conscious means you really have to feel what you feel, which is frequently very vulnerable and raw.
No wonder we consume ourselves with busyness and other means to avoid observing!
Chodron notes that when things aren’t as we would wish, we often blame something or someone outside of ourselves, or label ourselves as a failure. Instead, we can aspire to “holding the rawness of vulnerability in our hearts.” And as we practice observing external truths and our pain in response to those truths, we will slowly increase our ability to expand rather than contract into our discomfort—to accept and thereby release our fears, rather than cling to them.
As you practice observing, you will notice that there are some people to whom you afford more attention and Observe more clearly, and others about whom you make greater assumptions or notice less. Sometimes in our most intimate relationships, we become poor observers —we assume that we know everything about our beloved and stop paying attention. Individuals with less social status also receive less attention. As you notice yourself not observing as closely as aligns with your values, congratulate yourself on your insights—and, start again.
There are also characteristics that can make it harder for us to Observe individuals with the clarity we would wish. Recognizing your limits is valuable—you may only be able to Observe (and engage with) this person for short periods of time. It is helpful to remind ourselves that people who talk “too much” probably really need to be listened to—if you can give this person the gift of your attention, it is a lovely gift indeed. Similarly, people who talk very little—or about unimportant things—may have lost hope of being listened to. Speakers who are highly emotional make us anxious and are hard to give our attention to—receiving the gift of nonreactive attention can help an anxious person to find calm.
As well as interpersonal challenges, we can face internal challenges to observing. Observing our beloved is an act of suspending the self. We may fear losing ourselves or that we will “not get our turn.” Both of these fears suggest that we feel disempowered in the relationship.
When we are afraid of what we might hear, it feels unsafe to relinquish control—to listen and attend to the beloved. We may fear that we or the relationship cannot tolerate the conflict that could arise from being honest. The hardest messages to listen to without reactivity are criticisms of important parts of ourselves by someone whose opinion we care about, as these can trigger our shame, guilt, and insecurities. As we Observe these fears in ourselves, we seek to acknowledge and lovingly accept them.
Often as we start practicing observing, we become flooded with awareness of unbidden thoughts and feelings—and, not soon after, the Critic appears to judge those thoughts and feelings. Buddhist priest Sharon Salzberg councils,
We cannot will what thoughts and feelings arise in us. But we can recognize them as they are—sometimes recurring, sometimes frustrating, sometimes filled with fantasy, many times painful, always changing. By allowing ourselves this simple recognition, we begin to accept that we will never be able to control our experiences, but that we can transform our relationship to them. This changes everything.
Our goal in observing is to recognize and allow all thoughts and feelings. We are seeking to accept whatever arises. Even as we see self-criticisms arise, we can meet those criticisms with love. This doesn’t mean approving of or sinking into these thoughts, but rather that we acknowledge our fears and the thoughts that arise from those fears. For most of us, it is habitual to deny the unpleasant observations of ourselves and our needs. Psychotherapist Tara Brach observes, “Our habit of being a fair-weather friend to ourselves—of pushing away or ignoring whatever darkness we can—is deeply entrenched.” Oddly, we can become more comfortable with criticizing and degrading ourselves, than with facing our raw scared selves.
Grief and Agency
As we Observe more clearly, we begin to see how our current delusions are grounded in false assumptions—about our past, about our beloveds, about our relationships, and about ourselves. This can lead to profound grief. We are mourning the loss of a cherished hope for a past that never was. Our increasingly clear observations leads to seeing those shimmering mirages for what they are—and it hurts so much to let those false oases go!
For example, someone wished me “Happy Birthday!” the day before my actual birthday. Instead of being grateful, I was deeply hurt. I had to acknowledge that my birth was not the life-impacting event to them that I had believed—or, at least they didn't remember which day I was born. My grief over this and other shattered hopes is important for me to Observe and validate. It hurts, and it may always hurt. And as I acknowledge this pain, I am more able to Observe the love that they do have for me and the relationship that we can have. I can release my false expectations and tests of them, and appreciate what they have added to my life.
Observing is deep and significant work. As our love for ourselves becomes more unconditional and reliable, our scared, vulnerable parts will feel safe to make themselves known—this is part of the healing process and will provide us with agency-enhancing options. But, it is not easy. I applaud you in your bravery to even consider this work. Know that you are solo, but not alone, on your path.