Mindfulness and the Existential Angst of Our Being Both Observer and Observed

The Scottish-born Australian philosopher John Anderson, whose Australian realism (aka Sydney realism) has greatly impacted on my overall philosophy and thinking, taught that a single logic applies to all things and how they are related, and that there are three---yes, three---‘entities’ to any relation such as seeing, having, knowing, etc, namely, the -er, the -ed, and the -ing. First, there is the person who sees, has or knows. Secondly, there is the thing seen, had or known. Thirdly, and most importantly, there is the act of seeing, having or knowing.

Now, here is the really important part---nothing, absolutely nothing, is constituted either wholly or partly by, or is dependent upon, nor can it be defined or explained by reference to, the relation(s) it has to other things. For that reason the Biblical statement ‘God is love’ [cf 1 Jn 4:8] is logically untenable as a definition of God. Thus, Anderson firmly repudiated the so-called ‘doctrine of intrinsic relations’ (or fallacy of constitutive relations), which treats relations as if they were terms, and which says that everything is intrinsically related to everything else or, at the very least, is constituted by its relations to everything else.

So, when it comes to the practice of mindfulness, we see that it is a relation involving the following three entities: first, the person who is mindfully aware of what is occurring from moment to moment; second, the thing or things of which the person is mindfully aware from one moment to the next, each such thing being an occurrence in space and time; and third, the act, or rather process, of being mindfully aware from one moment to the next, which includes the ever-so-important acts of mindfully remembering what is present, mindfully remembering from moment to moment to stay present in the action of the present moment from moment to moment, and mindfully remembering in the present moment what has already happened. Three separate and distinct things---each one of which is a fact---and none of which is constituted by its relations to any of the others nor dependent on any of the others. Such is the nature of reality, according to John Anderson, and such is the nature of the practice of mindfulness which is simply the practice of being fully present in the present moment from one moment to the next.

Well, that much at least is fine---not that I expect all people to agree with that way of looking at reality---but I have come to see that, when it comes to cognitive processes, the situation is even more complicated than what I have set out above. You see, there is the person who observes, as well as the other two entities referred to above, but there is invariably something else as well, namely, the presence of a purported entity sometimes referred to as the ‘observing self’ that is regularly at work in our mind. Not only do we observe but we are aware of a ‘self’ in us that is busily … yes, observing. But there’s more. We are self-conscious beings, and not only is there this ‘observing self’ in our mind---along with many other mind-invented selves---there is also an ‘observed self,’ in that the observing self (a subject) is able to ‘split,’ so to speak, and become an ‘observed self’ (an object). So, we have the ‘I’ subject and the ‘I’ object. The latter is arguably a self-knowing ‘I’ subject, but there is considerable disputation among philosophers and psychologists about that matter. As I see it, the whole thing is a matter of consciousness---a constant stream of consciousness or thought. All these ‘selves’ are generated by the process of thinking itself. They are nothing but thoughts that ‘harden,’ so to speak,’ into selves of various kinds. No one of these selves is more real or permanent than any others. In fact, none of them is the real ‘I.’

Of course, as I’ve pointed out on so many occasions, this ‘observing self,’ along with all other such selves (eg ‘transcendental self,’ ‘immanent self,’ ‘analytical self,’ ‘judging self,’ etc), has no separate, discrete, or independent existence apart from the person each one of us is. In that sense the ‘observing self’ is false and illusory. The problem is that most of us are acutely aware of its presence and ongoing activities in our mind.

The French existentialist philosopher, novelist, and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about another interesting phenomenon, and it is this. The very presence, and even the potential presence, of other people tends to result in our seeing ourselves (that is, the actual persons that we are) as mere objects in other people’s consciousness. This is not the same thing as the ‘observed self’ referred to above---that is, where a person is aware of himself or herself thought of as an object. No, this is said to be a phenomenon in the world. In other words, we see ourselves as observer---further complicated and amplified by that pesky invention of a thing called the ‘observing self’---and as someone actually observed by others, and not merely as an object external to ourselves, the latter being an object which, as Sartre pointed out, exists as ‘in-itself.’ Sartre sees the latter---the object ‘in-itself, that is---as existing in both an independent and non-relational way. I prefer the Andersonian view of situationality, namely, that all things exist in situations, that is, in relationship with other things. Independent, yes. Non-relational, no.

Anyway, when it comes to our seeing ourselves as someone who is actually observed by others, some say that what we are talking about is another damn self which, like all other selves, is created in and by our mind or consciousness---some sort of ‘self-conscious observed self’ once (or is it twice?) removed. I think the phenomenon is just another manifestation of our seemingly inherent and intractable self-consciousness and, in particular, the self-knowingness of the self coupled with the mind’s ability to generate and project countless numbers of self-aware selves including ‘selves upon selves,’ so to speak, ad infinitum. Anyway, whatever it be, it is something that, in Sartre’s ontology, exists as ‘for-itself’ as it is always in relation to something else. Personally, I don’t find that distinction or classification helpful. As I see it, the self that observes is in truth the exact same self that is observed. Ditto all other selves.

The nature of self is to be conscious of itself. All consciousness in a sense is self-consciousness, for it is the nature of consciousness to 'see' itself. Life is consciousness in a very fundamental sense (cf the findings of quantum physics), although I reject Sartre's assertion that things-in-themselves exist only as objectivized by consciousness. Life, as I see it, consists of living things living out their livingness (actually, self-livingness) from one moment to the next, so it necessarily follows that life---that is, consciousness or be-ing-ness---is a state or rather process of self-knowingness, that is, a more-or-less constant stream of thought and consciousness, the latter consisting of observations about and reflections upon the self (or selves, to be more exact) as well as awareness of other people and the world around us, but even the latter is ‘editorialized,’ so to speak, in terms of what it external events supposedly mean for us. Everything gets filtered through, and distorted by, our collection of internally generated selves, or at least through the most dominant of them.

Now, the phenomenon of our seeing ourselves (that is, the actual persons that we are) as mere objects in other people’s consciousness is known in existentialist circles as ‘the Look.’ It is an ontological problem of no mean importance, and it tends to result in the formation of a number of interesting psychological phenomena such as an almost schizoid self-consciousness, acute or generalized anxiety, and, yes, a certain existential angst (especially when you start to ponder upon this whole damn thing). In his famous existentialist play No Exit (Huis Clos) Sartre has one of the three deceased characters in Hell, the lesbian Inèz, taunt Garcin, one of the others, declaring that she is nothing but the look that sees him---‘a mere breath on the air, a gaze observing you, a formless thought that thinks you.’

So, in Sartre’s ontology, which I don’t totally accept, each one of us is nothing but the look or gaze that sees the other.’ But, whatever we are, we are terribly self-conscious of being both the observer and the observed. Oh, the existential angst of it all! Can the observed self escape the eye of its own observer? Is there no escape, no exit, from all this? Death, perhaps? Well, not even death, according to Sartre. Read Huis Clos. There's an even greater existential problem---the inherent instability and essentially illusory nature of the self, together with the elusiveness of the human personality itself, over time. If you doubt the truth of that, read or watch the absurdist play Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett. As the failed writer Krapp listens to a 30-year-old tape recording of his own voice, a self at one moment in time is confronted with the self (or at least one of the selves) of 30 years earlier. The two selves are totally different and completely unknown, even unintelligible, to each other, so to speak. It all seems so depressing, so futile, and so hopeless. Indeed, in a very real and profound sense, it is.

The good news, as I see it, is that it is indeed impossible for there to be, at the psychological level, observation without the annoying, interfering presence and consciousness (including self-consciousness) of both the observing self and the observed self, not to mention that ‘self-conscious observed self’ phenomenon discussed above The Indian spiritual philosopher and anti-guru J. Krishnamurti wrote:

‘When you look at a flower, when you just see it, at that moment is there an entity who sees? Or is there only seeing? Seeing the flower makes you say [i.e. think], “How nice it is! I want it.” So the “I” comes into being through desire, fear, ambition [all thought], which follow in the wake of seeing. It is these that create the “I” and the “I” is non-existent without them.’

Now, Krishnamurti did indeed expressly acknowledge on several occasions that there certainly is an entity, in a physical sense, who observes---namely, the person who observes. However, what Krishnamurti strongly disputed was the idea that there was, at the psychological level, a separate, independent, permanent, stand-alone entity called the ‘observing [or witnessing, or perceiving] self’ … or any of the other ‘selves’ for that matter. Yes, we do indeed tend to operate as if there was such an entity, and to a very large extent our misbelief in the separate and independent existence of such an entity only helps to bring it into psychological being and keep it alive. Worse, as Sartre pointed out, we also tend to perpetually see ourselves as an actual object in other people’s consciousness.

True meditation, said Krishnamurti, is:

‘… the understanding of the whole activity of thought which brings into being the “me”, the self, the ego, as a fact. Then thought tries to understand the image which it has created, as though that self were something permanent. This self again divides itself into the higher and the lower and this division in turn brings conflict, misery and confusion. The knowing of the self is one thing and the understanding of how the self comes into being, is another. One presupposes the existence of the self as a permanent entity.’

Krishnamurti went on to say that ‘if you consider the self a permanent entity, you are studying a self which is non-existent, for it is merely a bundle of memories, words and experiences.’ True meditation---Krishnamurti didn’t use the word ‘mindfulness’ but that it what he was talking about---is ‘to see the movement of every thought, to understand it, to be aware of it, is to come to that silence which is meditation, in which the “observer” never is.’

In truth, there is at the ontological level only you (that is, the person who you are), the person or other object observed, and a state of observation in your mind. Ideally, when you are mindfully ‘at one’ with the person or object observed, the observer and the observed become one, so to speak, and there then is at the psychological level nothing but pure observation and choiceless awareness of ‘what is.’ In true meditation, or mindfulness, the so-called ‘observing self,’ along with all other selves including the so-called ‘transcendental self,’ ‘analytical self,’ ‘judging self,’ and ‘observed self,’ disappears from consciousness. So, as Krishnamurti says, when you truly look---that is, just look and not judge, compare, analyze, interpret, name, etc---at a flower, you just see the flower, and at that moment---please note those words, ‘at that moment’--- there is no psychological entity that sees. Nor, for that matter, is there then any sense or consciousness of our seeing ourselves (that is, the actual persons that we are) as objects in other people’s consciousness.

Now, if we can but extent this choiceless and seamless seeing from one moment in time to the next, and then on to the next, and so on, there will then be nothing but observation. We will come to see things as they really are---in many cases, for the very first time. In time, we will become so engrossed in what we are doing that we will cease seeing ourselves (that is, the actual persons that we are) as objects in our own minds as well as objects in other people’s consciousness.

Gone will be the so-called ‘observing self,’ the ‘observed self,’ and the so-called ‘self-conscious observed self.’