What a simple question that leads to a very challenging answer. “Who is the observer if we are observing that there is no ‘I’?” In order to answer this question we must look at how our thoughts create ignorance, how the world really is, and how we create wisdom to the “I” dilemma.
As children our minds are ignorant. So we must make sense of the world we are observing. There are shapes, colors, smells, and sounds. They do not make sense to us at all and we are confused. As we acclimate to these experiences, we gain a sense of equilibrium and safety. Soon, we recognize that large shape as a safe caregiver who keeps making soothing sounds and holding us and identify her with a name, “mommy.”
In the Buddhist approach to seeing the universe, this falls to the very basic concept of how we interact with the universe. From contact (our senses) comes feeling (safety or danger), from feeling comes perception (or reaction), from perception comes formation (judgment or rationalization). Mommy contacts us, we feel safe, we enjoy safety and so judge mommy to be a good.
This happens with every sensory input we have billions of times an minutes, millions of minutes in a lifetime. So the brain starts to create short cuts. The brain says, “let’s not evaluate mom every time I see her. We will just label her good and move on to other issues.”
The brain also uses re-cognition to streamline processes, “That animal has four legs and spots on a farm. That data indicates a cow. Recall thoughts and feelings about cows.”
But what if that four-legged animal with spots was a pig? As adults we have more data to process to discern that information, but the example is the same. Our brain takes short cuts.
How many times have you left work and had to make a special trip to the store only to find that you ended up driving home because that is what you are used to doing?
THE “I” DILEMMA
So here is the problem with the “I” dilemma. In order for an object to observe another object, our brains have concluded logically that there must be two separate objects in the equation.
Returning back to a child’s mind, we are taught “No. This is daddy’s. No. This is mommy’s. Yes. This is yours, but share with others.” We are taught that there are separate objects: some belong to you, some belong to others, some belong to everyone. This brings us to the first ignorance of “I” the concept of “mine” or belonging.
From the concept of mine, we conclude that there must be something that can have possession, which is called “me.” If there is a “me” than there must be a definition of what “me” is. Who is this “me?” It must have an identity, which I will call “I.”
In itself, on a mundane universe level, this “I” is useful in navigating around the universe. How much easier it is to use your GPS when you can see where that little car is on the map.
But the mind is a tricky delusional process. We use tricks like body schema to maintain control. Body schema is the ability to see the body as it is now as the natural state of being. If we still thought of our bodies in the definitions of our childhood selves, then everything would be out of scale and confusing. So each moment the body updates its software to redefine our bodies and identities as true to this moment’s definition.
There are those who were right handed but loose their hand. That trauma may take some time to rewire the mind, but eventually he will become left handed and that new software will be updated that this is the new normal.
We update so often that while we intelligently know that we were once children, we no long associate with that identity and so discard it. We are now and always will be who we are today EVEN THOUGH we know it is not true. We are an ever-changing mental and physical creature.
But this continual updating of our mental software and discarding of our previous identities creates the delusion that “I” is real. Our childhood logic compliments this rationalization.
WHY THE “I” DELUSION IS FALSE
Standford Professor Shelley Kagan has a great example of a flawed Descartes-style argument— It would be logical for someone watching the sky to see the morning star and the evening star and say that there are two stars in the sky. However, they would be wrong. Both stars are not stars and are, in fact, both the planet Venus.
In the same manner, we look at the body and the mind and see them as two separate things, because we observe them from two separate perspectives. However, they are really the same. The mind is not a static separate creature in the shell of a body and a body is not a corporeal vehicle to carry about an identity. They are both the same ever-changing aggregated collection of energy-matter.
In other words, the mind is the software and the body is the hardware, but neither functions without the other.
SO HOW DOES THE OBSERVER ABLE TO OBSERVE ITSELF
The sun can only see the rest of the planets in it’s solar system by seeing the reflections of light bouncing off the celestial bodies around him. In much the same way, our universe is nothing but a mirror of ourselves. People and objects do not make us angry, we manifest anger within ourselves because of our contact, feeling and reaction to the world around us.
Honestly, how often have you gotten angry from stubbing your toe? Did the table DO that to you? Or did you hurt yourself and have a negative reaction that needed to be projected to something in the universe around you?
Seeing how the world around us is a reflection is much easier than seeing how we can see the reflection from within us. However it can be done. Our own minds are NOT us, and so in many ways also separate objects able to reflect our contact, feeling and reactions. Our thoughts may be internal creations versus the external universe but they are just as real.
But if our thoughts aren’t US then what are they?
“I” VERSUS THE OBSERVER
This is the crux of the conversation. If thoughts aren’t “I” what are they AND if “I” am not my thoughts than what is observing?
In Buddhism there are six senses: touch, smell, sight, sound, taste… and mind. The mind like every other sense organ has its own way of observing the world. Just as we can’t stop feeling a cat brush against your leg or seeing the clouds when your eyes are open—you cannot stop your mind from having thoughts. The mind is the brain’s sensory organ. It is the sense that continually works processing senses. It is the always working.
But the mind is not an identity, but an organ: the brain at work. It has been proven that other parts of the body have memory: muscles, stomach, etc. The person you are is the aggregation of the entire body. When you loose a finger, it changes YOU. When you get the flu, it changes YOU. When you learn something new it changes YOU.
With all that change, how can there be anything fixed and permanent about YOU? And thus is the argument that since we are always in flux, always in process, always in change—then there cannot be an identity that is permanent and so there is no “I.”
In addition, the concepts of “mine” are a delusion. Nothing is permanent. Certainly, ownership is not. So the concept of “mine” is a constructed illusion.
The universe does not live in a vacuum. Without water, food and oxygen our bodies do not exist. Everything that is around us, affects us, nourishes us and poisons us. So the concept of “me” being separate from everything else is an illusion.
So there is no “me”, no “mine”, no true identity of “I.” Then the question returns—who is the observer?
The observer is the total aggregated form that is continually fluctuating and changing. Through effort and mindfulness, this total impermanent form is able to become aware of the world outside and inside of it. It sees the universe and the mind as mirrors to reflect its self.
And as it develops, it changes and so the next meditation is a different observer. If it takes ill, it is a different observer. If it goes blind, it is a different observer. If it is in love, it is a different observer. As the mind and body changes so does the observer change. Because it is both the mind and the body forever changing as the mind and body changes, it is difficult for most people to comprehend.
It is only possible to see what is observing when you are willing let go of the delusion of “I.” If you believe in ghosts from childhood, then how can you open yourself to the possibility that there are no ghosts and see other reasons why your house scares you? If you hold to the concept of “I” from childhood, how can you let go and just observe the nature of being and see the other possibilities?
In Buddhism, consciousness is called “citta,” and there are many different types of citta because it is a quality of awareness of an impermanent being, not a “permanent being” with awareness. It is that nuance that removes the final delusional argument.
So if you want to see the observer and not the “I” when you meditate, stop investigating who is observing but investigate what and how these observations are perceived. This is where the transformation happens.