Dr. Charles T. Tart on June 29th, 2011

One aspect of psychotherapy has always interested me.  Most (all?) spiritual systems say we humans are in a bad condition.  We are “fallen” (Christian) or “asleep” (Gurdjieff) or in “samsara” (Buddhist) or “maya” (Hindu yoga).  An important aspect of that is we are not fully aware of who we really are, including our spiritual side, and so we perceive and act in partial ignorance, and consequently do a lot of things that cause suffering to us and others.  We also so have attenuated and distorted perceptions of what is going on around us.

Systems that teach mindfulness are ones that let you become at least partially aware of the fuller range of yourself, and so decrease suffering because you stop doing things that you can now see are obviously maladaptive.  An example I like to use, e.g., is hunching up your shoulders, or other unnecessary muscle  tensions.  People can do this all day long without being particularly aware of it.  If you do something like this consciously, though, you immediately relax.  “This hurts and is on no use, why do it?”  Similarly with mental and emotional habits.
On the way to learning to be more mindful yourself, having a therapist who tells you about what it looks like you’re doing, thinking and feeling, is like being more mindful yourself.  That “auxiliary mindfulness” function is, I believe, one of the reasons psychotherapy can help us.  You still need to learn to become more mindful from your own efforts and skills, but meanwhile having this outside help makes things much better.  “You seem to have an attitude, a chip on your shoulder, about such-and-such.”  Oh?  Let me look – yes, you’re right, let me relax…..When a therapist or counselor further helps you uncover reasons behind such behaviors that’s even better, but you start by becoming more mindful of what you’re actually doing – which may be quite different from what you think you’re doing. One of the ways I teach mindfulness to students at ITP is to have them work in pairs, with one person being the observer while the other actively does some specified exercise.  The observer is enjoined to give no responses at all, but pay attention, hopefully while being mindful themselves.  The active person can do something as simple as describe ongoing body sensations or as complex as talking about something of great value to them.  Students routinely report they are much more mindful than usual when there is an observer, an “auxiliary mind,” as it were.Having the observer give no responses at all is crucial to this method of training, as it keeps the observer in an auxiliary mindfulness role, rather than having the active person get involved in interpersonal games with the observer.  And yes, it’s very difficult for the observer not to nod, smile, laugh, or otherwise respond, but that’s good training too…..

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2 Responses to “Self-Observation Training and Auxiliary Minds”

  1. MindyBlock says:

    This may not totally fit the drift of your post, but I wanted to learn how to be more qualitative in my observations about a shirt in consciousness between morning awareness and evening awareness. I am more tired at night, and I believe more in spiritual things – like ghosts, etc. During the day it seems I focus too much on the five senses. I’d like to be able to qualify this with specific observations as to distinguish these two modes of consciousness. How do I begin? Thanks, Mindy

    • It’s interesting that you notice this. I suspect it happens to all of us, we’re more energetic in the mornings, have more real world things we have to attend to, so naturally are turned toward the outside world. Then we get tired, most of the more pressing things are taken care of.
      You speak of it as a qualitative shift, but I wonder if it’s more of a quantitative shift, movement along a continuum?
      I would think that if you observed this change in yourself systematically – keeping notes on what’s different, perhaps – you would eventually find some things that you could accentuate or inhibit which would make you shift faster…..

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