Observing not self
Updated: Feb 18, 2019
You can observe whatever you are conscious of, through the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. All the things you are conscious of are conditions - high-minded thoughts, low-minded desires, any subjective feeling you have. In meditation, we are acting as a witness to those conditions; we are being that which knows the conditions. And we recognize the limitations of conditions. We recognize that they are changing, that they are unsatisfactory, and that they are not self. You can ask yourself, "Who is it than can know?" As you meditate, you'll notice that when anger is there, you can know it. Now, if anger were your true nature, you wouldn't be able to observe it - you would be the anger. But anger comes and goes, is merely a changing condition; it is not you.
Hence we say the mind is like a mirror: it reflects everything. But the reflections are not the mirror. The ugliest thing can come up in front of a mirror without harming it. Maybe the reflection isn't nice to see, but it's only a reflection. Soon it goes, and everything is all right. This is why we have to be able to endure the sight of nasty reflections. We have to understand that they are only reflections, and not personal problems, not personality traits. They are just conditions, like the world itself.
Ajahn Sumedho, The Mind and the Way: Buddhist Reflections on Life
It seems to be a paradox that "I" could observe "myself" and somehow realize that what is being observed isn't "me."
When Ajahn Sumedho says, "we are being that which knows the conditions," he is teaching about connecting to awareness itself rather than to our sense of learned identity. We are tuning into something that was there before we had a face, a name, roles, relationships and a personality.
Watching thoughts arise and pass away in constant succession is a lesson in not self. If "I" am my thoughts, and they are constantly coming and going, which one of those thoughts that just came and went away was me? And which one wasn't? Were they all me? Even when one thought was the opposite of another?
The practice is teaching us to let go of this idea of "I, me, mine" as the ultimate sense of identity. It begins to undermine the concept of this personality, this ego, as something permanent, solid, and unchanging.
Instead, we begin to see that these thoughts, emotions and physical characteristics are all part of the conditioned realm, "that they are changing, that they are unsatisfactory, and that they are not self."
This isn't something you have to "believe" in. Just see for yourself how the mind works during your day. One emotion, followed by another; one opinion followed by another; one thought followed by another. Just notice that parade of conditions: arising, falling, arising, falling, arising, falling - like ever-changing images appearing on a mirror: ephemeral and not really "me".