Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the Weeks of Nov 29 & Dec 6, 2021

Impartial Observation

(Fourth Way Practice: 4)

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Self-observation is a basic practice of the Fourth Way. The very term self-observation raises two, often-ignored questions: what self is being observed and who is observing? On the face of it, self-observation is about seeing our thoughts, emotions, impulses, actions, and reactions impartially, without judging and without intentionally interfering or changing what we observe. Knowing ourselves more objectively has powerful transformative effects. The deeper value of self-observation, however, is not in getting to know the contents of our inner world. That value lies in the seeing itself, which leads us toward understanding the two questions and what our observations tell us about them.

When we see our thoughts arising on their own, without any intention on our part, we move toward realizing that we are not our thoughts. When we see our emotions arising on their own, without any intention on our part, we move toward realizing that we are not our emotions. Thoughts and emotions are just processes that go on in us, in the same way that our breathing, our heartbeat, and our digestion occur without any intentional action on our part. The trap is that because we can, for limited periods, intentionally direct our thoughts, and to some extent our emotions, we believe that all of our thoughts and emotions are expressions of ourselves, or even that we are our thoughts and emotions, that this voice in our head is us. Self-observation begins to dispel that illusion by showing us the automatic nature of the vast majority of our thoughts and emotions.

This leads us toward the realization that the self we observe is not who we are. Further, the self we observe is not really a coherent self at all, but rather an amorphous mass of unrelated, repetitive, and often-contradictory patterns of thought and emotion ingrained over decades of experiences. These patterns are our personal history, as well as our knowledge and skills, written into our brain circuits. We begin to get the hint that rather than observing our self, we are observing a non-self. We begin to get the hint that what we believed was our self, does not exist, that we do not have a self, in that sense. A memory bank of history is not a self. Thoughts are not a self. Emotions are not a self. This liberating revelation comes gradually and then suddenly through the power of observation, relieving us of a life-shaping burden we have carried unnecessarily and far too long. In the Fourth Way, this mass of patterns of thought and emotion is called the personality. Though it is useful and necessary, we are not our personality. The full and irreversible realization of this is a major step along our path.

The deeper question then comes: when we practice self-observation, who is observing? Who lives our life? Who did all those things and experienced all those experiences that resulted in these memories and attitudes, the knowledge and skills, the patterns of thought and emotion? And who is seeing all that now?

Self-observation might be better called non-self observation because the self we observe is not our real self. Our real self, our I, cannot be observed, because our I is the one who observes. There is no mirror that enables our I to see itself. More importantly though, what we can do is be our I. In true self-observation, the observer is our I. Before we come into that impartial and compassionate I as the one who observes, self-observation is often a matter of one part of our personality observing another part, and reacting against what it sees there, one part of our personality having an agenda to reform other parts. All that just deepens the illusion.

But the action of self-observation has a hidden benefit. Regardless of whether it is merely engaging one part of our personality to observe another part, the very act of trying to see oneself starts to penetrate to the one in us who can truly see, to our I. Self-observation makes room for our I and strengthens what is real in us. True self-observation trains us to live as our I. It trains us to see, to be, to be present.

To be clear, we should not confuse our I and our ego. The latter is not impartial, is entirely self-centered, or rather ego-centered, and is constructed from and hides behind our personality. As our ability to see into ourselves evolves, our I begins to see our ego for the illusion that it is.

There are other non-obvious benefits to self-observation. As we come to know ourselves better, our self-confidence grows. We understand our strengths and weaknesses, our quirks and virtues, and through that understanding we feel less fearful of exposure. By exposing ourselves to ourselves, confidence grows. Along with that understanding of ourselves, our compassion for ourselves also grows. We see how we are and we accept it all as is. Transformation and real change begin with total acceptance. When we stop trying to reform ourselves, real growth becomes possible. And importantly, as we accept ourselves more fully, we accept others more fully. While the particulars vary, we all have our foibles and we all have our wonderful qualities. No one is perfect. Self-compassion becomes compassion.

For this week, please reinvigorate your practice of self-observation. As it has been said, through self-observation, bit by bit something awakens in us that sees, until we can no longer not see.

See Also: Self-Observation Transformed

See Also: Know Thyself - Reconsidered

Revised 12/8/2021


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