The Observing Mind versus the Thinking Mind


Learning Objectives

  • Understand the concept of the observing mind and the thinking mind.
  • Identify the importance and process of cognitive defusion in mindfulness practice.
  • Interpret metaphors used to describe the observing mind.

To understand mindfulness, we first need to understand the distinction between the observing mind and the thinking mind. In the West, we rarely take time to observe our thoughts and feelings systematically. We mostly assume that our experience is real—a state of “cognitive fusion”—not the product of stories that we tell ourselves. The “I’m too fat” story, the “I’m ugly” story, the “I’m a failure” story, the “Nobody likes me” story, all are products of the thinking mind. The thinking mind evaluates the current situation, judges whether it is good or bad, and predicts what might come next. If what comes next is predicted to be bad, then our experience is painful. In a sense, the thinking mind constitutes an interpretive layer between you and your sensory experience of the world, one that attempts to tell you what happened and it’s meaning. When you are in the grips of anxiety and stress, the thinking mind is constantly attempting the forecast and judge the implications of current events in your life. This puts you in a perpetual state of future-orientation, which prevents you from enjoying life simply as it is.

The Detachment of Cognitive Defusion

Opposed to the fusion of the thinking mind is the detachment of cognitive defusion. This detachment involves the awareness that the interpretive layer exists, and the willingness to seek a deeper truth beyond the “surface phenomena” of its stories. When you have an awareness of the thinking mind as an interpretive layer, you recognize that your waking life, with all its judgments, is more like a dream than it is the final truth of your life, or even a statement about the world. To cultivate this awareness, we drawn upon the observing mind, the part that notices and monitors. Because it is removed from evaluations, judgments, and forecasts, the observing mind is also removed from experiences both pleasant and painful. What you quickly learn from this is that you are not your thoughts, you are not your emotions, and you are not your behaviors.

Some Helpful Metaphors

A number of metaphors have been used to help describe the observing mind.

The Metaphor of the Eagle

In one metaphor, an eagle soars overhead, looking down at the animals below. These surface-dwelling creatures graze, reproduce, fight for territory, and sometimes kill and feast on each other. The animals below are so involved with each other that they never notice the eagle, who views their goings from a secure position above. The eagle represents the observing mind. The eagle soars overhead and watches events unfold, without becoming involved in the lives of the animals. In contrast, the animals are completely entangled in a struggle for survival, in their thoughts. Be the eagle.

The Metaphor of the Sky and Weather

Another metaphor features the sky and the weather. Your symptoms are the weather. They come and go. Some days are better, others are worse. No matter how bad the storm, however, the sky always remains. The weather rages, but it cannot harm the sky. The sky is simply a container for the weather, ever-present and eternal. In this metaphor, the sky represents the observing mind. The weather represents your entanglement with your symptoms, a product of the evaluations, judgments, and forecasts of the thinking mind. Cognitive defusion allows you to discover that the sky exists. Before you understand defusion, your life is all about the weather. After you understand defusion, you become the sky and observe the weather.

At this point, you cannot simply will yourself to become the eagle or the sky. But you do understand the concept of creating an observer inside you, and that alone is a profoundly positive step in your recovery. You can now distinguish between noticing your symptoms versus reacting strongly to, and becoming entangled with them. Harris (2009) suggests the distinction of looking at thoughts instead of looking from thoughts, noticing thoughts instead of getting caught up with them, and letting go of thoughts instead of holding onto them and reprocessing them. Whatever the phraseology, the point is to detach from and observe the symptoms. Like the sky, the observing mind is calm and secure.


Reading Comprehension Questions

1. What is cognitive fusion?

  • A. The combination of the observing and thinking mind.
  • B. The state of assuming our experiences are real, not products of our stories.
  • C. The union of thoughts and emotions in the mind.
  • D. The act of creating an observer within ourselves.

2. What are some metaphors used to describe the observing mind?

  • A. The eagle and the animals.
  • B. The sky and the weather.
  • C. Both A and B.
  • D. None of the above.

3. What does cognitive defusion represent?

  • A. The joining of thoughts and feelings.
  • B. The detachment of the thinking mind from its narratives.
  • C. The fusion of observing mind with the thinking mind.
  • D. The negative reactions towards one’s own thoughts and feelings.

4. How does the observing mind differ from the thinking mind?

  • A. The observing mind creates stories, the thinking mind does not.
  • B. The observing mind is part of cognitive fusion, the thinking mind is not.
  • C. The observing mind evaluates situations, the thinking mind simply observes.
  • D. The observing mind notices and monitors without judgement, the thinking mind evaluates and predicts.

5. What is the importance of creating an observer within oneself?

  • A. It encourages one to react strongly to their symptoms.
  • B. It helps one to differentiate between noticing symptoms versus reacting to them.
  • C. It promotes entanglement with symptoms.
  • D. It facilitates cognitive fusion.

Answers

1. B – The state of assuming our experiences are real, not products of our stories.

2. C – Both A and B.

3. B – The detachment of the thinking mind from its narratives.

4. D – The observing mind notices and monitors without judgement, the thinking mind evaluates and predicts.

5. B – It helps one to differentiate between noticing symptoms versus reacting to them.

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