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Learn to Unhook: Become the Observer

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Imagine you are at your favorite pizza place. You get a nice, hot, slice of pizza brought over to your table. The intoxicating smell of the crust, sauce, and cheese is wafting into your nose. As you pick up the slice to take your first bite, you can feel the nice crisp of the crust, the warm cheese, and the fresh herbs in the sauce, combining into a melodious fusion of deliciousness. Now, in that moment, what exactly are you doing? What is your mind aware of? You'd likely be letting your taste buds do its job tasting and your olfactory system do its job smelling, and you're just along for the ride noticing the whole thing. This, in short if your observing mind. The part of your mind that just observes, just notices, your experiences.

Our minds are composed of two distinct processes; the "thinking mind" and the "observing mind". Thinking mind is responsible for thinking, analyzing, problem solving, logic, impulse control, language processing, and more. Observing mind does just that--observing. Thinking mind is essential. It's critical. Without thinking mind, we would be completely incapable of functioning. Thinking mind can be a wonderful thing. Thinking about a loved one, plans for a vacation, and working through a tough project at work, are all things that thinking mind is responsible for, and all things you might consider to be important. However, thinking mind is also where we get hooked into thoughts, memories, and emotions. We can get hooked or fused into our thoughts. We can get caught in the struggle against painful emotions. We can relive painful or traumatic memories. All of this takes place in the "thinking mind".

So how exactly does the observing mind help with that? How does being an "observer" help us "unhook" from pain? This is where the concept of the "self-as-context" comes into the equation. The "self-as-context" effectively refers to using our "selves" as the context in which all of our other experiences take place. Um...what!? What in the world does that mean? I'm going to explain this concept with a well-known ACT metaphor called the "chessboard metaphor".

Imagine for a moment that sitting in front of you is a chessboard. But this is unlike any chessboard you've ever seen. Instead of the standard 8x8 chessboard you'd normally see, this chessboard goes in infinity in every direction. North, south, east, and west, the chessboard goes on forever. There are also an infinite number of chess pieces. An infinite number of pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, kings, and queens, with each of these pieces representing different parts of your experience. Each thought, memory, emotion, sensation, urge, impulse, etc. is all captured with a distinct piece. Now, because the chessboard is infinitely large, there is no way to remove any chess pieces from the board. They can just move around to different spots. Sometimes, some pieces may be so far away, you may not even be able to see them, but they continue to exist. Sometimes the strongest pieces are directly in front of you. Much like your consciousness, the pieces never really stop moving. If I were to ask you how the board is affected by the movement of the pieces, you'd likely say that the board in unaffected by the pieces themselves. The board is just the platform on which the pieces move. The board is just the context for the chess pieces, but is a distinct entity from the chess pieces.

When you are playing this metaphorical game of chess, you can take the perspective of the pieces or you can take the perspective of the board. To relate this back to our internal experiences, do you live through the perspective of the emotion or thought, or do you take the perspective of the observer, the you, who is noticing these thoughts and emotions? This is the "self-as-context". You can use your "self" as the context, the platform, on which all of our experiences take place. As you might notice, your "you" is a constant while your experiences come and go. I'll demonstrate this with a little thought exercise.

I'd like you to take a moment to notice yourself as you sit here reading this blog. Notice what thoughts you have, what emotions you feel, even what your body looks like. Now I'd like you to rewind the clock to a time last week. Can you remember some thoughts or emotions you felt then? Perhaps what your body looked like then? How about if you rewind the clock to 10 years ago. Can you remember any thoughts or emotions from then? Or how your body has changed since then? What if we rewind all the way back to your childhood? Can you think of any thought or emotions from then? Or how significantly your body has changed since you were a child? Through all of this, there is a "you" that is noticing all of this. There was a "you" last week, 10 years ago, and as a child, that is somehow the same "you" that sits here today, despite the fact that much in your life has changed over the course of that time. The only real constant here is your "you". While we can definitively state that your thoughts, memories, emotions, and physical body will be different in the future, we can also definitively state that there will still be a "you" there.

What exactly does this concept accomplish here? Well, through stepping into the "observing mind" we can allow ourselves to notice the experience we are having while acknowledging that this is a temporary state and also only a part of your experience. For example, imagine there was a book written of your entire life. There are countless chapters composed of countless stories, written on countless pages. Any single experience you have, as great or as painful as it may be, is only one page, in one story, in one chapter of this book. This "observing mind" allows us to step out of our experiences and notice the "I" who is holding the book. This affords us the ability to "unhook" from pain when it shows up by becoming the observer of the experience, not the experience itself. Much like there is no amount of bad weather that alters or changes the sky, there are no internal experience you have that alters of changes your "you".

But how, you might ask, is the self-as-context different than mindfulness? Aren't we just noticing our experiences in both? Like what I wrote about here? What's the difference between being mindful and observing? Mindfulness is the non-judgemental contact with the present. The self-as-context relates to our ability to notice our experiences as the observer of the experience rather than from the experience itself. So, for example, mindful breathing would be non-judgmentally noticing your breath. The self-as-context would be observing the "you" who is doing the noticing. This concept of the self-as-context, also referred to as "flexible perspective taking", is a core underlying process of acceptance, defusion, and mindfulness in that effective navigation of our painful internal experiences requires that we anchor ourselves to our "I" to observe the painful experience as an observer rather than through the experience itself.

The four unhooking tools I've discussed here are "acceptance", "mindfulness", "cognitive defusion", and the "self-as-context". None of these processes are intended to alter, change, control, avoid, or fix any of our painful internal experiences. Rather, they afford us the ability to promote psychological flexibility in response to our experiences of pain and to allow us to step into the "choice point" and move towards what matters most to us. This is the core function of what acceptance and commitment therapy, or ACT, is intended to accomplish.


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