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Martin LeFevre: Observing the Observer

Meditations - From Martin LeFevre in California

Observing the Observer

Instead of scaring up a couple of ducks as I ride down the dirt path to the creek, I surprise a man standing in the middle of the stream. He is foraging in the hip deep water, but I don’t ask why. We say hello and I sit a little way upstream to watch the sunset.

Swallows are playing on the air and skimming the surface of the water. Quail cavort in the bushes along the stream, and I hear pheasant squawking in the fields. Though near the horizon, the sun is still shining with brightness and warmth.

Life is exploding around and within one. There is no division, outside or inside, nor even as ‘outside’ and ‘inside.’ I look beyond the fields to the canyon and foothills, and see them as if for the first time. At my feet, a mother merganser with her brood of 7 new chicks swims upstream. She spots me and hurries them along.

Passive observation vies with insistent questions for pre-eminence in the mind, but after a while the questions give way to silence and a deep reverence and seriousness. Standing up after an hour, I feel something beyond words and all description. One is empty; there is (though I’m hesitant to use the word) love.

Is the brain capable of observing without an observer? What is the observer? What part does it play in the division, conflict, and fragmentation of the world? These are crucial questions, not only for awakening the meditative state, or even for psychological health and healing, but also for ending the division between people.

The observer is the first division of the human mind, and from that mechanism all other division originates. ‘My country and your country;’ ‘my religion and your religion;’ ‘my family and your family.’ Thought operates in dualism, and as long as thought rules, dominates the brain and human life, there will be war, poverty, and ecological destruction.

What is the observer? At the most basic level, it is the psychologically separative mechanism constructed by thought. The observer is comprised of prior experience as the filter of memory, and the illusion of a separate, permanent self.

If one seriously asks oneself, ‘what is the observer?’ one will see that at bottom it is actually nothing but thought constantly separating itself from itself. However the observer is inextricably part of the entire movement of thought; one only experiences it as separate from that which it is observing, in oneself and the world.

Wikipedia gives this definition: “observation in philosophical terms is the process of filtering sensory information through the thought process.” That's a good definition of the observer, not of observation. It assumes that the observer and observation are one and the same thing, when in fact they are completely distinct phenomena. Indeed, true observation only exists without the observer. Whether a living person is necessary is another question, but the separative mechanism within the person -–the observer —is an utter impediment to direct perception.

In actuality, the observer is an infinite regress. It never sees itself because it is always removing itself from the field of observation. Thought doesn’t see itself separating itself from itself, which is what allows the observer to be continuously experienced as an entity apart.

But can one observe the observer, and catch it in the act of infinite regress? Yes, and in doing so one gains the insight that the observer is really just part of thought. At that moment the separative trick ends, and one’s basic perceptual process changes. The effect is like holding a mirror up to a mirror, and both suddenly dissolving.

In this process of attention, the ‘I’ doesn’t do anything, since any action of effort or will is still from the observer. Attention to the entire movement of thought, along with gently questioning the workings of one’s mind, ends the habit of divisiveness in the mind, at least temporarily.

Even so, the brain is so accustomed to looking through the observer (having done so for tens of thousands of years) that it falls back into the habit whenever there is inattention. That’s why being mindful, aware of what one is doing, thinking, and feeling in the present, is so important.

Passive observation produces an intense, effortless attention. The fires of attention burn away the extraneous material of memory and emotion, releasing energy. It takes energy to release energy, but once released, the brain liberates capacities far beyond the paranormal.


- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: The author welcomes comments.

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