On the Aids to Observation


In thinking about what I was going to write for today’s post, it hit me: this mental and emotional terrain is all too-familiar. Here I am, standing yet again at the edge of the abyss, about to throw myself off the precipice for the same tired old reasons.

It was enough to pull me up abruptly. It’s a principle of quantum mechanics to say that reporting (nay, just observing) an event alters the event itself in unanticipated ways. It took Werner Heisenberg to justify what Socrates advocated more than two millennia ago: examine your life because doing so will change it.

Or perhaps “examine” is too agressive a word. Buddhists tend to prefer the gentler and more neutral “watch,” “observe” and “be aware.” Meditation can be described as this process of gentle, neutral observation—a light-hearted spectatorship of our chaotic stream of consciousness. The challenge, of course, lies in not being borne away by the current; in not being snagged by the flotsam and jetsam; in staying rooted on the shores of an ever-eroding bank.

Autobiographical writing (in its idealized sense) can then be described as the chronicling of what one has seen and observed. This “congealment” of what once was present (to use Martin Heidegger’s vocabulary) has dangers of its own, but these are dangers more acute in slightly distant contexts. In relation to self-observation, writing reduces the fallacies of memory, allows the expansion of perspective, and permits, precisely, the recognition that one has strayed into all too-familiar terrain. Yes, karma means that we are fated to live our lives in ruts, but it’s possible through observation to fill in the more persistent furrows and to thereby obtain the possibility of exploring entirely new ground.

Of course, therein, precisely, lies our resistance to self-observation: our fear of change, our fear of otherness, our fear of entirely new ground. But this fear itself is also just a rut.

So stay by the bank and just watch everything erode.

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