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Escaping the Observer Trap: Free Yourself by Observing the Observer

Are you feeling stuck in your mindfulness practice? Did meditation lead to big, positive life changes early on, but now years later you’re just sort of treading water with no sense of making progress? Mindfulness meditation is an extremely helpful and useful practice, but that doesn’t mean that it’s perfect, or that it has no pitfalls. In fact, it’s not uncommon for long-term mindfulness practitioners to get stuck in a particularly pernicious dead end, which is called the observer trap. Here’s what it is and how to free yourself from this cul-de-sac.

The Last Stand

Many traditions—especially mindfulness meditation—encourage you to observe your sensory experience in a neutral manner. Observe your breathing, observe emotions, observe thoughts, and so on, without reacting to them. This observer technique works really well because it gives you something like an outside perspective on your own experience. You can watch your own mind, your reactions, your emotions, your behavior almost from the perspective of another person, and that is tremendously useful feedback to have. It leads to equanimity, and the tremendous personal growth that mindfulness advocates are always talking about.

To release yourself from the observer trap, you have to observer the observer.

Taking this observer stance is so useful, in fact, that many teachers stop there and do not talk about the next important step in spiritual development. But there is a hidden problem with the observer technique, which becomes obvious once you think about it. Who is the observer? Who is this person who is behind the binoculars, watching your experience from the outside? This neutral observer you’ve created over time is actually just another—albeit smaller and less neurotic—version of the ego. It’s the sense of being a person who is doing the meditating. You could also call it a meditator ego or an observer ego. Creating this neutral observer is very useful, but the goal of meditation is not to create a new meditator ego, it’s to see through the illusion of the ego entirely.

It is quite common for even very dedicated mindfulness students in observation-based traditions to get stuck in observer mode forever. I have seen it over and over in my experience. Being the observer, a neutral meditator ego, is not such a bad place to be; certainly it is much preferable to the unconscious, robotic mode of life lived without any self-reflection. However, it impedes all deeper progress toward real awakening. So the only way forward is to let go of the observer ego; to release the sense of being a person who is doing a meditation.

For example, spiritual philosopher Ken Wilber tells the story of his first awakening. It happened at a Zen retreat, in which he was in a deep state of observing his own experience. The Zen master said to him, “The [observer] is the last stand of the ego.” Wilber says that “something snapped” inside him then, and he was plunged into a deep state of awakening. He had let go of the observer ego, of being a meditator, and instead had become the activity of meditation itself.

His story is not so unusual on the path of awakening. You only have to learn how to do it.

observer

Observe the Observer

To release yourself from the observer trap, begin by realizing that the observer, however comfortable or habitual, is still just another version of the ego. You’ve spent endless hours watching your breath and your emotions and your thoughts. Now it’s time to watch the watcher instead. You have to observer the observer. You do this, in typical mindfulness style, by carefully deconstructing the components of the observer itself.

The observer ego is constructed out of the same components as the everyday ego, but on a smaller scale. The everyday mind has thoughts about all sorts of stuff, the observer has thoughts about how the mediation is going, or how long until this sit is over. The everyday ego has emotions about all sorts of stuff, but observer has emotions about how this sit is going, or even blissful feelings of love and joy. The everyday ego has all sorts of body sensations, but the observer has a very special set of body sensations: the sensations of where he/she imagines awareness is located.

This last hint takes a bit of unpacking, because it is somewhat subtle. Most people imagine that awareness is centered in a spot in their head, usually somewhere around the eyes. This is a natural illusion, given that your eyes, ears, tongue, and nose are all located in your head. But if you, for example, feel your foot right now, you will probably imagine that you are somehow feeling it from your head. It’s as if a light of awareness is projecting down towards your foot. In reality, you have nerves in your foot that allow you to feel it right from your foot. (Of course, these sensations are processed in the brain, which is located in your head, but that’s beside the point—you are never aware of that level of brain hardware.)

So it is with the observer ego. It will feel as if it’s somehow located in your head and observing from that point. But that is nothing more than an arbitrary set of physical sensations (probably located around the eyes) that you’ve decided is where awareness is located. Those sensations are also part of the observer ego.

So to overcome the observer problem and get unstuck in your practice, closely observe the sensations (i.e. the thoughts and feelings) associated with the observer ego. This may be very uncomfortable at first, but this is where your many years of practicing neutral observation come to your aid. Here are some hints about how to do this:

  • Observe any thoughts you have about the meditation itself. For example: “I’m having a good meditation.” “I’m doing the technique wrong.” “I wish my concentration was deeper.” “I hope lunch comes soon.” and so on. These are thoughts of the observer ego.
  • Notice any emotions you have about the meditation itself. For example: frustration about how the meditation is going, joy at experiencing a deep meditation, panic about how long the sit may last, and so on. These are feelings of the observer ego.
  • Observe any sensations you have about where awareness seems to be located. Do you feel it’s centered in your head? Behind your eyes? Notice whatever body sensations you associate with the observer. Watch these very carefully.
  • In general, notice any sense that you are making an effort to meditate at all. Wherever this effort appears to be coming from, notice that. Let the meditation be a relatively effortless experience, not an effortful doing. It is the observer ego who feels like they are doing the meditation.

observe the observer

Is there a “Hall of Mirrors”

When people read the description of the practice above, some of them say that it just leads to “a hall of mirrors.” Meaning that self 1 looks at self 0, and then self 2 is generated to look at self 1, and then self 3 is generated to look at self 2, and so on. They claim that this turns into an infinite regress that will go on forever, and so the practice is “pointless.”

This critique of the practice is actually a mistaken one. It’s true that, when you first try it, you may notice this infinite regress for a short time. Maybe even a couple of meditation sessions. That can be mildly frustrating. However, if you give up at it that quickly, you’re missing out on the benefit.

If you sit with the practice just a little longer, something very different happens. The mind realizes that this infinite regress is happening, and it drops it. It lets go of the Hall of Mirrors and instead all “mirrors” dissolve into just awareness.

At its best, you will have a very important insight: that you don’t need to generate any viewpoint at all. The Hall of Mirrors only happens because you are making a whole 3D world in your imagination. In this 3D world, you need a position from which to view the observer. But you will realize that this position is both imaginary and not necessary.

Even better, you will have an even more important insight.

The Point Is Freedom

If you observe the observer ego carefully in this way, over time, it will deconstruct in just the same way your big, clumsy, everyday ego did early on in your practice. This deconstruction is much more significant, however. With this unfolding comes deep, lasting awakening.

You might think that you’re just creating another ego which you’ll just have to deconstruct again, but it doesn’t quite work that way. Once you’ve learned how to undercut the sense of being the meditator, you won’t believe or take for granted any new ones that arise. You will know that all sensations of a permanent location for awareness are false. You will know that all thoughts and feelings, even ones about meditation, are just content arising in awareness.

If you are caught in the observer trap, this one mindfulness technique can take your practice from a rote, mechanical stuckness to a profoundly alive and vital experience very quickly. Even if you have spent years of meditative drudgery without seeming progress, this can free you from your fetters. And freedom, after all, is the point.

Learn more about mindful awakening here

mask photo by gnuckx

face reflection photo by Shannon Kringen

30 thoughts on “Escaping the Observer Trap: Free Yourself by Observing the Observer”

  1. Hey Michael, I hope you don’t mind me writing you. I really like the Deconstructing website, it’s excellent.

    I read your “escape the observer trap” article, and it seemed a bit similar to another thing I read on a forum, and that guy had really good things to say about what he went through (he hadn’t read your article as far as I know). So I went about it, did it 24/7 (when I was not sleeping). Well, what I did was to use Shinzen Young´s formulation of the attentional skill set and how he divides up the sensory experience and just tried to observe over and over again those subtle image, talk and feel. So at first, I thought that I would have to get rid of the self (done with equanimity) because when the self disappeared for a brief time (or thinned out) it got more pleasant. But then it jumped back in. But I eventually developed enough equanimity to see that at first when a feeling arose, the self was quite thinned out but then it was met with resistance and the self came back online. So I started focusing on developing the three skills while using the observer as an object.

    Anyway, yesterday I guess I hit a critical mass and the process took over itself. Right now it’s a self-cleaning oven and I have a bit of a sense of self left but I’m pretty sure that’s going away as well. I’m not sure what’s going to happen or what I should do afterwards but yeah.

    Anyway, it was a great article, truly. It really specified what to look for, so I wanted to thank you for that!

    Regards,

    Aleksander

    1. Is trap only if you are trapped. When you really are in trouble. It can make it even worst by reading this. And you will understand it only when you will be awake, after observing it all what it was

  2. Hi, Aleksander ~
    I’m very glad you like the website and that the Escaping the Observer Trap article proved fruitful for you.
    Over time, you’ll see that it’s absolutely necessary and right for the sense of self to arise, over and over, like a wave.
    You have to welcome that arising of self with equanimity and love.
    That’s the subject of an upcoming article.
    All the best to you.
    M.

    1. Michael, thank you for this article, the blog, and your podcast. I am very new to meditation, only about 1.5 years of regular practice. I wonder if you would consider the technique described here to be something “advanced” to be done after gaining deep equanimity and concentration or if it could be part of practice earlier.

      1. Hi, Daniel ~
        If you’re doing mindfulness meditation, this technique is usually considered to be advanced. It’s not actually advanced, however. It’s something that you can keep an eye out for even when working on the basics. So glad you like!

  3. Hi, I want to congratulate yoy for your blog, and ask you if you know of krishnamurtis “the observer is the observed”
    What do you think about that?
    (sorry for my poor english)

    1. Thank you. I’m pleased that you like Deconstructing Yourself.
      Of course, I’m well aware of Krisnamurti’s teachings and like them very much.
      This particular article is pointing in the direction of such teachings, without getting into them too deeply. That will be in the next part!
      All the best,
      M.

      1. He was only talk and some people like to publish it. He said in his speeches many times that be aware of this what im saying. study your self

  4. Hi DY Team. I have some question. I think I am at the stage of observer of thoughts. I think my past impressions in brain is responsible for the origin of thoughts. Is there any way to purify the impressions in subconscious mind, so that only pure thoughts and emtions arise from it? But I do not want impure thoughts in subconscious mind to take me with them.

    1. Hi, Sahayan. In the main method I work with, greeting all thoughts with loving attention, over and over again, is the way to purify subconscious impressions. Allow all thoughts to arise without judgment. Do not fear any “impure” thoughts. You must make friends with your subconscious mind. Then all thoughts become pure.

  5. Hello I was enlightened 4 years ago and had since problem to get to nirvana through avidya. This helped me a lot and I am in nirvana now. Thank you very much.

  6. hey! i’ve experienced something i think is wonderful. if you could tell me if this has anything to do with mindfulness that would be great. i would describe it as completely immersing myself into something. for instance, when i look at an image it feels like i’m right there, observing the image from WITHIN it or from right in front of it or that i AM the image. doesn’t feel like watching from afar. when i listen to music, everything else falls away – i don’t even feel my body. no thoughts…nothing. like i AM the song that i’m listening to. reading, exercise, mathematics, it’s the same. i made sure to check with everything cuz it feels amazing. does that make sense? i can even immerse myself in my imagination. imagine that. it feels like pure concentration.

    what Ken Wilber experienced sounds exactly like what i’m experiencing. but the thing is i’m not a meditater. this kind of just happened yesterday. and i was able to figure out how to do it on command. which is why i’m here to ask.

    so, what do you think?

    thanks :]

  7. Hey, Michael. So, this article mentions how it feels like you’re observing with respect to a point in your head. I am able to shift this point as I please, to pretty much wherever I want, even outside the body. But I haven’t been able to get rid of it, which I think is the goal here(?). I was wondering what it would feel like once I’ve “seen through the illusion.” Would it not feel like i’m observing with respect to some point in space? It’s hard to imagine.

    Im so glad I found this website. It’s absolutely amazing.

  8. Hi Michael. I just found deconstructingyourself.com, which has come at the right time in my practice, so thank you for this website!

    Reading this article on the observer, I have a question about my experience in meditation:

    During sitting meditation I can get into a state of awareness that is aware of my thoughts from a perspective without any associated feeling tone or subjectivity. Like consciousness that lays underneath my ego that is assigning value judgements. E.g. a silly thought pops into my head that is humorous and a part of my mind (my ego-self) laughs internally, but the underlying consciousness is just aware of it all unemotionally (my normal ego-self feels almost like it is rude that this consciousness doesn’t find it funny!). It’s a slippery perspective that I only get into for short periods of time before sliding back to associating with thoughts of meditating (i.e. thinking about thinking).
    -> is this the observer ego? It doesn’t feel like a self per se, it feels just like pure consciousness. Borrowing a description I’ve heard before, it feels spacious in that it encompasses everything. I don’t think it’s nondualistic, since there seems to be a subject and object still…(i.e. pure consciousness is the subject and the thoughts, sensations, etc are objects).

    Thanks for you help,
    Matthew

  9. Fred Delameilleure

    Great article Michael as the one on Non-duality and Mindfulness.
    As to advaita, I have been reading in https://www.amazon.com/Essence-Enlightenment-Vedanta-Science-Consciousness-ebook/dp/B013NMPJPC
    It strikes me and I can understand that Swartz is critical about neo-advaita in the way he is. On the other hand I do not know what to think of the issue of karma yoga as preliminary to purify the mind in order that advaita can properly be understood or realized.
    Any comment?
    Fred

  10. Micheal, when I practice this, the focal point expands into what i can best describe as feeling everything as a vibration as a giant mass. I suspect however this is just another, larger, point of observation. I suppose I’ll know if when I find it, but at the same time, If i’ve found it, I don’t want to keep searching, rather explore it deeper. I guess i’m unclear as to how I’ll know the difference between an o server and awareness, unless the only difference is the idea of an observer and awareness is a mental construct of subject and object, where as being awake is the recognition that you are at once the subject and object with no base orientation. Can you offer any clarity here?

  11. Thank you,brilliant post ..I’m new to meditation so my Question is from perspective of beginner’s mind and it sounds like this : is “observing the observer” same as “choiceless awarenesss meditation” ?

  12. Sam Harris APP is guiding me,I’m very beginner so I won’t be ashamed of any idiotic question I’ll put out there (and sorry for my grammar) but it seems that main goal of meditation at it’s peak,reaching Enlightment in meditation is just to relax completely and observe .. just sitting numbly and just being

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