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Appendix 1

The observing self

The observing self is the transparent centre, that which is aware. It is the most personal self of all because it supersedes thought, feeling and action, for it experiences these functions. No matter what takes place, no matter what we experience, nothing is as central as the self that observes. In the face of this phenomenon, Descartes' starting point, ‘I think; therefore I am', must yield to the more basic position, ‘I am aware, therefore I am'.

The most important fact about the observing self is that it is incapable of being objectified. When you try to locate it to establish its boundaries, the task is impossible; whatever you can notice or conceptualise is already an object of awareness, not awareness itself, which seems to jump a step back when we experience an object. Unlike every other object of experience — thoughts, emotions, desires and functions — the observing self can be known but not located, not ‘seen'.

There is a Yogic discipline that prescribes the exercise of ‘Who am I?' to demonstrate that the observing self is not an object: it does not belong to the domains of thinking, feeling or action: ‘ If I lost my arm, I would still exist, therefore I am not my arm. If I could not hear, I would still exist. Therefore I am not my hearing.' And so on, until finally ‘I am not this thought', which leads to a radically different experience of the self.

Western psychotherapy has yet to confront this paradox. The infinite regression of awareness, like two mirrors placed face to face, has largely been a subject for philosophers rather than scientists. The psychiatric and psychological literature refers to the observing self as ‘the observing ego', but does not explore the special nature of that ‘ego' and its implications for our understanding of the self.

The observing self is not part of the object world formed by our thoughts and sensory perception because, literally, it has no limits; everything else does. Thus, everyday consciousness contains a transcendent element that we seldom notice because that element is the very ground of our experience. The word transcendent is justified because if subjective consciousness — the observing self — cannot itself be observed but remains forever apart from the contents of consciousness, it is likely to be of a different order from everything else. Its fundamentally different nature becomes evident when we realize that the observing self is featureless; it cannot be affected by the world any more than a mirror can be affected by the images it reflects.

In the midst of the finite world is the ‘I', and it doesn't belong in that world. It is obviously different from the world, but the difference is ignored. All else can be objectified, has limits and boundaries that can be described. All else is a segment of the world of fixed or relative dimensions. The observing self, however, is not like anything else we know.

Adapted from The Observing Self: Mysticism and Psychotherapy, by Arthur J Deikman (1982), Boston, Massachusetts, Beacon Press

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