A well-known principle at the quantum level in physics is that an object being observed is affected by the very act of observing it. It’s called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and it has tremendous psychological implications.
Though the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is expressed in the language of mathematics, it basically says that attempting to accurately measure an elementary particle’s position leads an increasing degree of uncertainty with respect to measuring its momentum.
Though this seeming paradox has vexed physicists for decades, the problem of observation of sub-atomic particles probably stems from the interconnectedness of all masses, including electrons, with the rest of the universe. The act of observation and experimentation in science necessitates separation, which at the quantum level begins to break down.
Take a completely calm mountain lake without a whisper of a wind. No matter how carefully you insert a thermometer into it, you’re going to generate a tiny wave. That’s analogous to trying to measure both position and momentum of an atomic particle.
It’s not simply that the instruments we use are too crude; it’s that ultimately they’re inextricable part of the field of energy and matter that we are observing. There’s an inherent limitation to science in this sense, although that limitation doesn’t apply to the extension of discovery and knowledge, which is as limitless as the universe.
At the psychological level, things are even more ‘fuzzy,’ which scientists, being scientists, don’t like. As a philosopher I don’t like fuzziness either, but we have to differentiate between the kind of fuzziness we can make clear, and the kind of fuzziness that’s in the nature of things.
Having a predilection for introspection, I started to take sittings in my later teens. I noticed that there was always an observer that seemed to be separate from the thoughts and emotions, memories and associations being observed within oneself. It didn’t make logical sense to me. What was this observer that was observing one’s own thoughts and feelings?
For some weeks I kept asking the question when thinking and observing in the backyard. (This was long before meditation became a buzzword and an industry, and years before I even used the word. I watched the movement of thought in the mirror of nature because I was curious, and wanted to understand the workings of my mind.)
The question must have taken root in my subconscious mind, because one day, having forgotten it while watching a robin bouncing around on the grass looking for worms, there was an explosive insight out of the blue.
There is no actual observer, separate from what is being observed–it’s a trick of the mind, separating itself from its own movement! At that moment separation ceased, thought fell silent, and one truly saw a bird for the first time. I recall that the color and vibrancy of the familiar creature, heretofore a thing, a ‘robin,’ detonated within me like an atom bomb. Everything is connected; only man, using ‘higher thought,’ separates.
That insight and experience changed the course of my life. Ever since, whether I called it meditation or not, the touchstone of awareness each day has been the spontaneous shift, during passively watching the outer and inner movement, from the observer to simply observing.
The reader may ask: Is there really observing without an observer? Yes, thought is a unitary movement continually dividing itself from itself. But no argument, however well constructed and based in the latest neuroscientific evidence, matters nearly as much as directly experiencing the ending of this primary and primitive division in our mental and inner lives.
At the quantum level, the observer and observed are inseparable, just as they are within us psychologically. One has to end division in one’s observation, which means ending the observer, in order for attention to gather and burn away the accretions of thought. Work at it and play with it, without having a goal or exerting will.
Observing the observer reveals its infinite regress, gathers attention, and initiates the movement of negation. Attention, acting alone and without effort, quiets thought. The mind/brain is cleansed of the detritus of the past, one’s hurts and psychological memories.
Then one sees the earth and life and the world anew. And that’s just the beginning of a higher order of consciousness within one. The quality and intensity of observation determines the quietness and insight of the mind.