Stories, Beliefs, the Self: Who are you really?
Updated: Mar 14, 2022
Reintroducing you to your Observing Self.
(Part of the Heal with ACT series)
Think back to the earliest memory of your life. Try and go behind eyes of this much younger version of yourself again.
Maybe you thought of a memory of a time when you were in Primary school. What was the memory about? Were you able to take the perspective of your own two eyes?
With a little bit of effort, you can seemingly go back in time and re-experience that event again.
I, myself, reflected back on a time when I was in the big, green field of my primary school catching harmless grass spiders with my friends. I can still remember the smell of the early morning dew, and how we used old school plastic radio cassette tape covers to trap the spiders in.
If you really think about it, it's such a strange thing - that we can go back and relive a memory of ourselves from so many years ago. We are so very different compared to that point in time, but yet, there seems to be a part of us that hasn't changed since then.
A part of us that we identify as "me".
Let's really take some time to think about this question - do you know which part of you hasn't changed at all since then?
1) It's not your thoughts and understanding of the world.
Those have evolved tremendously!
Since the time of that memory, you've probably gone to many years of school. Your mind is filled with all manners of new knowledge, science, math, logic and experience. Even your physical brain has grown in complexity and size too.
As we talked about in the previous article, even your self-stories that you carry with you would have changed since then. Your beliefs about yourself are no longer the same, perhaps even compared to just a year ago.
So one thing's for sure - your thoughts, experiences and beliefs have changed since then. In fact, your thoughts are always constantly changing.
Try this out for the next twenty seconds:
Close your eyes and simply observe your thoughts. Just let your mind float to wherever it wants to, but as you do this, try to:
Notice where your thoughts seem to be located in space - are they in front of you? Above? Inside you?
What do your thoughts appear as - Images? Words? Sounds? Your own voice?
Really try doing this for the next twenty seconds. If you can, ask yourself, who is noticing your thoughts. There are your thoughts on one hand, but then again, who is the one noticing them?
You might find that there are two processes going on - one is the flow of your thoughts as it happens each day, but there's yet another part of you that is able to observe those thoughts as they arise.
2) Your feelings are always changing too.
As you already well know, your feelings change from day to day too. Sometimes we are happy, glad, excited. Sometimes we are sad, mad or angry. And sometimes we are an emotional mess.
How are you feeling right now? Can you label the exact emotion you are feeling? Since that earlier memory of yours, you've probably gone through an uncountable number of experiences where you've felt a million feelings.
Some of these experiences have caused you hurt and pain. Others have given you joy. Feelings colour our world each day and even change who we are and how we make our choices.
Undoubtedly, our feelings have always been changing too.
Now let's try the same exercise as above, but this time, observe what you're feeling right now. Go ahead and do it, it will make much more sense in a while.
Take twenty seconds and close your eyes. What kind of sensations do you feel? Where do they sit in your body?
Ask yourself, who's noticing them?
3) Your body changes continuously.
Can you imagine yourself in the body of a baby? I certainly can't. Even as I got behind the eyes of younger self in Primary School, I can no longer remember what it felt like to move around in the body of my younger self.
Beyond height, weight and size, our body has changed in so many other ways. We have scars of our experiences, some people with more hair in new places, some people with less hair in old places. We have new spots and moles. Unfortunately, we have new wrinkles too.
In fact, each cell of our body will be replaced by new ones every seven years. It's an entirely different body compared to so long ago!
So again, your body isn't the part of "you" that has remained constant. So then are you starting to get an idea of what it is that hasn't changed?
You might have an inkling now - but let's repeat the same practice again to be sure.
Like above, for the next twenty seconds, close your eyes and pay attention to your body. Try starting from your feet - feel how they are planted on the ground. Then slowly move up your attention up your calves and to your knees to your thighs and so on.
Where are your hands placed? How do your fingers feel?
Again, who's noticing?
The Observing Mind.
Well, I've led you down this path of establishing that your 1) thoughts, self-stories, 2) feelings, sensations and even 3) your body have all changed throughout your life.
In all three of the above "noticing" exercises, you should have found that you have this sense of awareness or presence of yourself that is capable of simply noticing.
It's separate from your thoughts, feelings and your body, and is able to turn your attention inwardly to whatever is happening in your mind.
This is the "I" that has also remained constant throughout your life.
It is the "I" that sits behind your eyes, even though the cells of your eyes have changed throughout the years.
This is the "I" that simply notices.
It's the "I" that observes.
We've talked a lot about the Thinking Mind in the last few articles - it's the always busy, problem-solving part of ourselves that is sometimes helpful, and other times not so much.
Yet what about this Observing part of your mind? Is it different from your Thinking Mind?
It is, isn't it? That's the reason why you were able to simply observe your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations from the three above exercise - which are all managed by your Thinking Mind each day.
For much of our lives, our Thinking Mind runs our day-to-day. Yet notice this, you were able to tune into this "I" that observes as and when you want to, just like in the above activities..
This Observing Mind is able to override the activities of our Thinking Mind. It is the oldest part of you that has been there since your birth. While the rest of you has grown and changed, it and this sense of "I" has always been there - exactly the same as it was many years ago.
Now ask yourself this - is this Observing Mind, this "I" that hasn't changed since your earliest memory - is it good or bad?
Is it helpful or harmful? Or is it "Just there"?
I am not my thought and feelings. I'm the one who observes them.
Hopefully, your answer was that it's simply "just there".
If you were to quickly notice how your fingers are feeling right now - if they are curled up or relaxed - are you making any judgements about whether they are good or bad?
Nope. You're simply observing.
Same thing as when you turn to notice your thoughts - when you are truly observing them, you aren't making judgements about whether they or you are good or bad - you're simply watching them.
This part of you, your Observing Mind, sees things as they are, without make any judgments or criticisms about yourself.
It's "you" in your truest form, the same "you" that you could relive in your memory from many years ago.
This part of you is always there. Sometimes it gets pushed away by the busy-ness of your Thinking Mind. But then again, as you've seen in the above, you can readily connect to it at any time.
Think about this too - it's a part of you that cannot be hurt either. Even though your body has changed throughout the years, like when you were sick or injured, this wasn't a part of you that could be harmed.
It is the part of you who can notice the pain, yet cannot be hurt or be in pain. It's the part of you who can step out of your thoughts and feelings, as painful as they are, and just watch them as they occur in the present.
Harnessing the Observing Mind.
Since physical pain can't hurt it, the same can be said for emotional pain.
Thus, learning to connect to your Observing Mind helps you to gain some distance from our difficult thoughts and emotions too.
Currently, we only get glimpses of our Observing Mind from time to time. This is because, most of the time, it's been taken over by the constant flow of thoughts from our Thinking Mind.
Yet, when we learn to harness the Observing Mind and bring it to surface as and when we want to, we regain the truest perspective of ourselves that has been there all our lives.
The part of ourselves, the "I", that can simply observe distressing times, can move through emotional pain, observe difficult thoughts and the presence of harsh self-judgments, without ever being hurt by them.
All you need to do is learn to take a step back, notice who is doing the observing, and in that moment, you connect to the real "you" who is able to rise above the hurt and pain.
In the next article, we'll discuss some exercises on how to connect to our Observing Mind and bring out the real "you" more often. Know this too, it becomes easier with practice!
Thanks for reading this "Heal with ACT" series. The structure of this article is based on the book "The Happiness Trap" by Russ Harris. I encourage you to read this wonderful book on ACT.