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The Awesome Power of Observation
We all have unique life experiences that inform our Observations
Anais Nin is quoted to have said "We don't see things as they are; we see things as we are". I love this quote and find it quite profound and absolutely true.
What we see, or how we identify and define that which we see is directly related to the people we are. By that I mean that our life experiences and personalities are unique and thus, we will interpret the same things but from different perspectives which will alter how we come to express our opinion and experience of these things.
A twenty something college student is probably going to have a much different reaction to a work of art, or a movie than a senior citizen who is retired. Both of them will use the same senses to view the movie, or artwork, but each person has unique backgrounds and life experiences that will inform how they experience or view the piece. The college student may come away with a sense of boredom and disinterest and the senior may be moved to tears! They each are drawing from their own well of life experience to find the meaning for themselves.
As I've written here before, I am just beginning my journey as an Art Museum Docent, and it is this experience that has given me much to ponder and to write about. I am learning how to do exercises of Observation of works of art, and in so doing am reminded how much Observation can be used to help us along in our own day to day lives. I will elaborate on this further now.
Step Outside Yourself
Last week, my first assignment from Art Docent school was to Observe an assigned work of art and then answer several questions about it. This is not a particularly difficult or exciting assignment, but I found it to be very eye opening.
My assigned piece was a sculpture of a horse by the artist Deborah Butterfield, entitled Ponder. Ponder is composed of wood, wire and metal; all found objects.
I came to my assignment and was happy to have been given Ponder as I find him to be a wonderful work of art. The assignment asked that we spend an hour viewing our piece of art and only after having done so, to answer the questions that were posed to help dig deep in our observations. We were asked to view the object from as many angles as possible; to leave and return to give the best sense of viewership and observation.
I found this exercise to be so enlightening about the way in which we see the world and how that view informs everything we do! As I sat and looked at this sculpture it became more real to me. I started to see a sense of movement and feel a sense of personality that I did not pick up from my earlier, more casual observations of Ponder. It was as though, given a bit of time, that Ponder began to speak to me. If he were real, he would have been neighing and blowing gently; leaning his neck over so that I could pat it and feed him an apple.
By the end of my hour with Ponder I could almost smell the barn stall and the wafting of horse manure, my observational exercise had become three dimensional! It was really unexpected how much I came to experience this sculpture from all my senses in ways that would never have occurred without taking a bit of time, and separating myself from my Ego and intellect to free my mind.
As I answered all the questions that were posed, regarding what I observed in my work of art, I found myself having more insights into the work of art itself. It was this experience that caused me to think about how I have been practicing stepping out of my own way, to become an Observer of my own life.
Observe and Learn
I have found that I can be an observer in my own life to be better informed about where I'm going, and how to get there.
For example, I have found myself feeling very anxious lately about something. I can get pretty caught up in my worry and find myself spiraling into a very negative place. But, when I catch this happening I am learning to stop myself in the moment and step back. What I mean by this, is instead of going into the spiral of worry and feeding this, I just stop the train and get off! I quietly behave as though I'm watching somebody else and not myself. I look at myself as though from above and outside and observe the process. What I see is this thought of "oh I'm going to run out of money if I don't find a job" and observe what I do with it. I see myself getting anxious at the first thought, which provokes even more anxious thinking. I have now compounded the original message and it's snowballing into a big, scary worry! What was just an objective thought about my finances has now become a big, nagging, all consuming worry that is wearing quite a rut in my psyche.
Unchecked, this will now start gnawing away at my ability to concentrate and to feel good. Over the next few minutes, to few hours I am going to be ruminating on this negative thought and it is gradually stealing my ability to feel hopeful or positive in the moment. I have stopped living in the moment and have fast forwarded into this Doom and gloom scenario and am starting to feel all the anxious symptoms that go along with such thoughts; churning stomach, increased heart rate, maybe a headache and eventually sleeplessness.
Now, what if when I first had this thought about my finances running out, I just stopped and took a breath. Maybe even a series of deep, cleansing breaths to clear my head and center myself. Now, I've already blocked some of the anxiety from circulating by simply stopping and taking time to breathe.
Next, I ask myself to just step away from the thought. What I mean, is to disengage and become objective. For me, this means to behave as though I'm observing myself but from outside of myself. To some this feels like looking down at yourself as though from above and out of your body. As an observer you can now see how this process of thinking of a negative concept and then letting it run away with you is creating angst and is taking you away from living in the moment.
You can ask yourself "what would it take to let this go and move on to something else?". You can offer yourself some reassurance "you have the resources and the time to prevent financial ruin". You can comfort yourself "I know this is scary and difficult, but have faith and it will all work out"
However you choose to work through this, by being an observer you can take some of the sting out of the worry and deal with it more objectively. Much like my Art school Observation exercise, the longer you observe, the different the object looks! The longer you step out and away from that which is disturbing you and removing you from the pleasure of the moment, the different it will look! What began looking like a very scary situation might morph over a bit of time spent observationally to look like an opportunity for growth. By stepping out of the problem and looking at it you might actually find some answers or some comfort. By doing this, you are better able to return yourself to the moment at hand and fully embrace living in the now.
Tips for Being an Observer
I would like to share some tips that I have found useful as I'm learning to become an Observer in my own life.
1) Pay Attention to your Self Talk. We all have a running dialogue about who we are. Some of us speak out loud, while others just think about what we are feeling. Are you fond of saying things like "You are smart, you can do this!"? Or are you guilty of saying things like "You are just not smart enough to do this; you will fail"?
If you are prone to negative self talk, this observational exercise will be a great step in helping reduce that. When you step outside yourself and "hear" these negative opinions expressed it will feel much less acceptable than when we stay engaged. To step outside is to hear just how hurtful negative self talk can be! The next time you catch yourself saying (or thinking) something unsupportive and negative about yourself, step back and ask as an observer might "why do you think such a thing?" "How might we reframe this thought into something more positive and affirming?" By doing this, you can redirect your criticism and refrain from beating up on yourself.
2) Be Aware of what's happening in your body. By this I mean that our bodies give us physical cues when we are upset, or when we are particularly happy. I suggest that you pay attention to your body. If you are feeling queasy, dizzy, having headaches or other signs that you are anxious or unhappy, LISTEN! Step outside and act as an advocate as though for a friend. Ask yourself "why is your stomach churning, what is with this sweating and rapid heart rate?" Be aware that you are having a reaction to something you are thinking. Be an observer and find out what is going on in your head that is causing you to be reactive in your body. In doing this, you are showing compassion and curiosity and you can uncover what is behind your feelings. As you find that maybe you are anxious about an upcoming exam or a bill that is due, you can then be comforting and encouraging to yourself. You will be in control and probably be able to return to feeling at ease.
3) Be patient! This is the hardest directive of all, to be patient. I am guilty of impatience and wanting what I want now! So, I realize that becoming an Observer of oneself is a process that is going to take time and practice.
Like any skill, becoming an Observer will take practice and repetition. But, you can start the process today and with each practice you will find it easier and easier to drop into this Objective stance. As you go through your day just take time to be self aware. Pay attention to the times you are feeling unwell and see if you can uncover some train of thought that is causing anxiety.
If you are having problems with chronically negative self talk, you can take steps to practice positive self talk on a regular basis. Perhaps posting positive Affirmations in places you frequent will help you with practicing positive, loving self talk. You can post something that is meaningful to you such as "All is well, all things come to me as they are needed". Or "You are enough just as you are". These are very powerful messages that, when repeated, become more and more believable. Eventually, these positive statements will crowd out the negative self talk that has been plaguing you.
You will find that the more regularly you practice being an Objective Observer of your life, that your life will start to look different to you, just as my sculpture took on new meaning over the period I spent in observation.
Any time you are able to learn more about yourself, the unique person that is you, you are taking a big step in the right direction to a balanced and content life.
I wish you success as you become active, objective Observers of your lives!