The Attitude of the Observer: Reflecting on the Undercurrent

The Attitude of the Observer: Reflecting on the Undercurrent
Image by James Wheeler

In all likelihood we want to have happy thoughts and for the mind to be calm and peaceful. We don’t want to have unhappy thoughts and we don’t want the mind to be distracted, agitated or bored. However, we are constantly judging, evaluating and assessing the content of the undercurrent: the involuntary arising of thoughts, images and emotions. We attach a lot of importance to the undercurrent and believe that the content of the undercurrent is real and significant.

But, the undercurrent is autonomous: it arises by itself and if we leave it alone it will liberate itself. It is an echo of the past that we cannot change by direct intervention. So most of the time our efforts to manipulate and control it are a complete waste of time. Once we have seen this clearly, we shift the focus of our practice to the attitude with which we observe the undercurrent.

In other words, we shift our focus to the observer. This is the part of the mind that can be trained, and this is where real change can occur. At this point it might be useful to introduce a metaphor to get a sense of how we view the observer and begin to train it.

Sitting on a Riverbank

The Observer and Undercurrent model is well illustrated by the metaphor of sitting on a riverbank and watching the river flow by. The observer is part of us sitting on the riverbank and the undercurrent is the river. We train the observer to sit on the bank and simply be aware of this thought-stream, noticing and accepting whatever floats by, but hopefully not sliding down the bank and into the river itself; not becoming involved with the content of our thoughts. This is the heart of Mindfulness practice.

But how often do we just sit and watch the river flow by?

Floating Downstream

Most of the time we find ourselves floating downstream before we even realise we have slid off the bank.

This is a metaphor for engaging with a thought that arises in the mind and getting caught up in thinking. Once we are in the river we are caught in the flow of the undercurrent, immersed in distraction, very soon to be buffeted by the waves and dragged under the water.


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The undercurrent can take us anywhere: we might be carried into clear pools with beautiful fish and the very next moment thrown headlong over a turbulent waterfall, and then marooned in a murky backwater. Where we go depends upon the force of the habitual tendencies which have been triggered within us.

The Birth of Freedom

Through Mindfulness practice we notice how we have been caught in the undercurrent and dragged along. We become acquainted with the power of distraction. At this point we have a choice: to continue to be dragged along by the river, or to climb back on to the riverbank.

Becoming aware of this choice and learning to exercise it is the birth of freedom. So we might well choose to sit back on the bank and impartially watch the river flow by, until a powerful movement within the river draws us back into the water – and so it goes on! This is the nature of Mindfulness practice. This is how awareness grows and wisdom is born – through falling back into the river and climbing back on to the riverbank again and again.

In this way we begin to see that through our practice so far we have been training the observer – training to sit on the riverbank and to focus on a Mindfulness support, while at the same time being aware of how the river flows by; to recognise when we fall into the river and become caught in the undercurrent; and finally to climb out of the river and to sit once more on the riverbank.

More importantly we have been training the observer to be OK about this whole process; to be allowing, kind and curious about falling in and climbing out; to accept this process and appreciate that nothing is wrong.

Thus far in our training we have been paying attention to the undercurrent and how the observer engages with the undercurrent. Now we turn our attention to the observer itself and learn to observe the observer. This involves a 180-degree shift in focus and it brings us to the next exercise.

Noticing Our Attitude

Follow the exercise written out below or follow the guided audio.

Do this exercise for about 20 minutes.

Start with an intention to stay present and notice the attitude of the observer. Then spend a few moments reflecting on your motivation for doing this. Then move on to settling, grounding, resting, and either breath or sound support.

Now focus on your Mindfulness support in a very relaxed way and be careful not to obstruct thoughts. In fact, develop an interest in the fact that thoughts keep arising in your mind. Learn to watch them so that gradually the existence of the undercurrent becomes clear to you. Each time you notice that you have become caught up in thinking, notice where the mind has wandered to and then kindly but firmly bring your attention back to the Mindfulness support.

Once you are settled again on the support, notice the arising of thoughts within the mind and gently inquire how you feel about how you are feeling right now – physically, mentally or emotionally. Maybe you are agitated or tense, maybe lots of thoughts are spinning through your mind, perhaps you are feeling light and open, or maybe low or despondent – how do you feel about this? Do you have an expectation that Mindfulness practice should make you feel in a particular way? If you don’t feel the way you want, what is your reaction to this?

As you come to the end of your session rest without any focus for a while and let go of the effort to ‘meditate’. Then finish your session and make some notes in your journal of what came up for you when you inquired into the attitude of your observer.

This exercise will familiarise us with the attitude our observer has towards what is arising in the undercurrent. For many of us it is very common to have a judgmental or critical attitude to what arises in our experience. Noticing this is an important first step. We are then in a position to work with this attitude and to begin to cultivate an attitude of allowing and acceptance.

The Undercurrent of the Past

We need to address an important question that comes out of the last exercise: why can we not leave the undercurrent alone? When we explored the undercurrent in the last chapter, it became clear that it is an echo of the past, and if we leave it alone it will arise by itself, display itself and liberate itself. But how often do we find ourselves doing this? And why is this so hard to do? These questions go to the root of the inquiry we have engaged in with the observer and undercurrent model.

What becomes clear when we pay attention to the observer is that it observes with preference. In other words, we have strong habits of like and dislike when it comes to our inner world – and indeed the outer world. If unpleasant feelings arise there is a movement in the mind towards avoidance, pushing away and trying to manipulate or change the feelings. Whereas if pleasant feelings arise there is a movement towards prolonging or holding on to the feelings.

We all know how it feels to have a ‘good practice session’ when we feel spacious, open and at peace. At a subtle level we tend to try to prolong this experience; and if anxious feelings arise there is a subtle, barely seen movement of the mind to avoid and suppress. This is what we mean by preference, and this is thrown up by the inquiry we just did in the last exercise of ‘how do you feel about what you feel’.

Noticing Our Preferences

When we pay attention to our preferences what we then see is that there is a sense of ‘me’ that lies behind these preferences – like an unseen puppeteer moving the puppets in different ways. We see that this sense of self resides in the observer and it has a strong vested interest in what arises within our mind. It is as if this sense of self says: “This is me, I am here, I am thinking...” This sense of self is ruled by preference: “Is this a nice thought that has popped up? Do I like the emotion that has arisen? Does this mind state make me feel good? ...”

We all have similar voices running through our minds. Furthermore, when we move about our daily lives this inner voice is always active, checking whether external reality meets our preferences: “Do I like this restaurant, does this menu have what I need? And do I like the people sitting around me at the tables...” It is as if we are constantly scanning our inner and outer worlds to see if reality meets with our preferences.

Rob Nairn has coined a wonderful term for this sense of self that resides in the observer. He calls it the “egocentric preference system”, generally known by the catchy acronym: EPS. Each of us has a unique EPS lodged within the observer.

There is a sense of self embedded in the observer. Seldom do we observe in a neutral way. We observe with preference ruled by a strong sense of self. Simply acknowledging this fact is a big step in Mindfulness training, because we come face-to-face with the main architect of our suffering, and in so doing we have the opportunity to cultivate a different kind of observer: one that is more compassionate and accepting. This is a key theme of the Compassion Training offered by the Mindfulness Association.

Trying to Change The Echo of the Past?

The EPS is the main architect of our suffering because it insists of doing the impossible: fixing, sanitising, manipulating or changing the undercurrent. So many people walk around immersed in the undercurrent, with an overactive EPS that is constantly trying to do something about it!

Difficult feelings or issues arise and then we dwell on them and unwittingly try to twist them into a different set of feelings or squeeze out some resolution – none of which works. In fact all that happens is that the undercurrent gets more churned up, we get battered about on its inner reefs, and the EPS gets into a frenzy of agitation trying to do the impossible! This might sound funny, but it is very painful and describes the inner reality of so many people.

When we see clearly that the undercurrent is simply an echo of the past that arises by itself and liberates itself, and when we see clearly that the EPS is a victim of its own preferences, we can then gradually begin to separate out these two processes within the mind. Simply put, this involves noticing what arises in the undercurrent, noticing the preferences that arise in reaction to this, and beginning to accept both and not feed either. This is the key to freedom.

©2017 by Choden and Heather Regan-Addis.
Publisher: O Books, imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd.
All Rights Reserved.  www.o-books.comwww.o-books.com

Article Source

Mindfulness Based Living Course: A self-help version of the popular Mindfulness eight-week course, emphasising kindness and self-compassion, including guided meditations
by Choden and Heather Regan-Addis.

Mindfulness Based Living CourseMindfulness is an innate capacity of the mind that can be trained to alleviate stress and low mood, to reduce the power of rumination and self criticism, and to evoke emotional well being and proactivity. The Mindfulness Based Living Course is a practical guide to the development of a mindful approach to living in the modern world. Its distinctive feature is a compassionate approach to mindfulness that is based on many years of experience in the practice and delivery of mindfulness training by two of its leading exponents - the former Buddhist monk Choden and Heather Regan-Addis, both directors of the Mindfulness Association. (Also available in Kindle format)

For more info and/or to order this book, click here.

About the Authors

Choden (aka Sean McGovern) Formerly a monk within the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, Choden (aka Sean McGovern) completed a three-year, three-month retreat in 1997 and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1985. He co-wrote the bestselling Mindful Compassion with Prof. Paul Gilbert in 2013.

Heather Regan-AddisHeather began training in Mindfulness with Rob Nairn in 2004. She is a British Wheel of Yoga trained yoga teacher, has a PGDip in Mindfulness Based Approaches from the University of Bangor, Wales and a Masters Degree in Studies in Mindfulness from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.

Related Books

Video: Choden on training in self compassion

Video: Heather Regan Addis on Cultivating and Sharing Joy

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