The clouds metaphor explains this best. Imagine your thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations as clouds floating through the sky. Sometimes they’re dark and angry. Sometimes they’re light and calm. But ‘you’ are not the clouds. You are the blue sky who observes the clouds, without engaging. You simply observe them until they pass.
Self-observation not only improves self-awareness — it provides you with a sense of detachment in challenging situations. Instead of being controlled by your thoughts and feelings, an ability to observe them will arise instead.
Although brain research in this area is only just emerging, some promising studies have targeted an area known as the default mode network (DMN), also known as the ‘wandering mind. The DMN is active when our minds are directionless, aimlessly drifting from thought to thought. This has been linked to rumination and overthinking, which can have a detrimental impact on our personal well-being.
Mindful self-observation has been found to decrease activation of the DMN, which in effect, quietens our busy minds. In one study, regions of the DMN showed reduced activation in meditators compared to non-meditators, which has been interpreted as a diminished reference to self.
I have a wonderful relationship with anxiety today. I still get anxious in challenging situations — it’s natural after all — but with the help of self-observation, I watch it pass by, without engaging.
2. Seek questions, not answers
We all feel stuck from time to time. But instead of looking for answers, I’ve found that questions are better for unraveling the complexities of life.
Here are 7 questions that I ask myself regularly:
- What part of this situation is under my control? This is a powerful question because very little is under our control. Many people see this as a problem, but if you focus on what you can control, you’ll realize that this is not a weakness — it’s a strength.
- What are you constantly avoiding? It’s easier to put these things on the long finger, but they always come back to bite you in the ass. More times than not, you know what to do, but you constantly avoid it, despite the evidence.
- What would my mentors think about this? This question allows you to take the perspective of others. And better still, the perspective of someone you greatly admire. Sidenote: You don’t have to personally know your mentor. Many of mine are dead hundreds of years, and most of them come from books.
- What would tomorrow-me think? Everything happens in a context, and our decisions are often reflected by that context. That’s why this question is so valuable. Just like taking the perspective of a mentor, you can take the perspective of your future self, or your former self, whatever serves you best.