The Observer In an Infinite Regress

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    Featured Columnist – Meditations
    Martin LeFerve

    Is the brain capable of observing without an observer? What is the observer? What part does it play in the division, conflict, and fragmentation of the world?

    These are crucial questions, not only for awakening the meditative state, or even for psychological health and healing, but also for ending the division between people.

    The observer is the first division of the human mind. From its mechanism all other division originates, including ‘my country and your country;’ ‘my religion and your religion;’ ‘my family and your family.’ Thought operates in dualism, and as long as thought dominates the brain and human life, there will be war, poverty, and ecological destruction.

    What is the observer? At the most basic level, it is the machinery of psychological separation made by ‘higher thought.’ The observer is comprised of prior experience; it is the filter of memory, born of the prevailing illusion of a separate, permanent self.

    If one seriously, alertly, and playfully asks oneself, ‘what is the observer?’ one will see that at bottom it is actually nothing but thought continually separating itself from itself. The observer is inextricably part of the entire movement of thought, though it is experienced as separate from that which it is observing, in oneself and the world.

    Wikipedia gives this popular definition of observation: “observation in philosophical terms is the process of filtering sensory information through the thought process.” That’s a good definition of the observer, not of observation. It assumes that the observer and observation are one and the same thing, when in fact they are completely distinct phenomena.

    Indeed, true observation only exists when the observer ends. The operation of the separating mechanism within us —the observer–is the primary impediment to direct perception.

    In actuality, the observer is an infinite regress. It never sees itself because it is always removing itself from the field of observation. Thought cannot see itself separating itself from itself, which is what allows the observer to be continuously experienced as an entity apart.

    But with passive observation, awareness can grow quicker than thought, and catch the observer in the act of infinite regress. In doing so one has the explosive and transformative insight that the observer is inextricably part of thought. At that moment the separative trick ends, and one’s basic perceptual process radically changes. The effect is like holding a mirror up to a mirror. Keeping it there, the watcher and the watched suddenly dissolve.

    In this process of attention, the ‘I’ doesn’t do anything. The ‘I’ is the observer, and any action of effort or will from the observer/I is divisive, contributing to the fragmentation of the Earth and humanity. Inclusive, undirected attention to the entire movement of thought, along with gently questioning the workings of one’s mind, ends the habit of divisiveness in the mind.

    However the brain is so accustomed to looking through the observer (having done so for thousands of years) that it falls back into the habit whenever there is inattention. That’s why being mindful, aware of what one is doing, thinking, and feeling in the present, is so important.

    Passive observation produces an intense, effortless attention. The fires of attention in turn burn away the extraneous material of memory and emotion, releasing energy. It takes energy to release energy, but once released, latent capacities for awareness are liberated in brain.

    When one ends the mechanism of the illusory, separate observer in the action of passive observation, there is nothing to sustain the noise of thought, and the mind grows deeply quiet. The brain then shares in the silence that pervades the universe.

    Instead of scaring up a couple of ducks as I ride the bike down the dirt path to the creek, I surprise a man standing in the middle of the stream. He is foraging for something in the hip deep water, but I don’t ask what. We say hello and I sit a little way upstream to watch the sunset.

    Swallows are playing on the air and skimming the surface of the water. Quail cavort in the bushes along the stream, and I hear pheasant squawking in the fields. Though the sun is near the horizon, it’s still shining with brightness and warmth.

    Passive observation goes on along with insistent questions in the mind. But after a while even the questions, which produce some new insights, give way to silence and deep reverence. Standing up after an hour, one feels something beyond words and all description. One is empty; there is (though I’m hesitant to use the word) love.

    Life is exploding around and within one. There is no division, outside or inside; indeed the artificial duality of ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ has evaporated.

    Looking beyond the fields to the canyon and foothills, one sees them as if for the first time. A mother merganser with her brood of 7 new chicks swims upstream. She spots the person standing on the bank and hurries them along.

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