The man and the youth sat at the empty picnic table in the small town park. The sound of distant lawn mowers, laughing children, and twittering birds filled the pause in conversation. I was probably all of sixteen years old when a friend’s father and I had been discussing the serious illness of that pal. The father was light-hearted and had a philosophical mindset.
He understood that I was just then, embarking on my life’s journey and made it clear that many people in the world will try to recruit me to their ways of thinking. There will be advertisers aiming to create brand-name loyalty in my head. The same will happen in the field of politics. They will wish to instill brand-name loyalty to the Republican, the Democratic, the Libertarian, or some other party. The man said that I probably had already established brand-name loyalty to my family’s religion. If I ponder the why and the how of brand-name loyalty and then come to an understanding of this phenomenon, I’ll be able to better understand society.
As he turned to the topic of individual understanding, the father asked me, “Is the observer the observed?” He admonished me not to quickly answer the question. He explained that the question is one that I will encounter frequently during the quiet times of my life. My friend’s father said that he first saw the question in print while reading an article about the philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti. Krishnamurti implied that if you can understand this question, you can begin to understand yourself.
I don’t remember much else about that conversation from many decades ago, but those points have stuck in my mind. The man was correct, about the question, “Is the observer the observed?” Some form of that query still shows up from time to time in my readings and my meditations.
Krishnamurti’s statement that “The observer is the observed” is one of the most profound propositions ever made by anyone on Earth. The assertion is not easily understood if you only use the intellect or analysis. Conventional thinking is largely dualistic and hampered by traditional concepts.
Superficially, the statement, “The observer is the observed” seems absurd and a bit nutty. Seemingly crazy statements and questions are special tools that jolt the mind out of mundane, conventional life. If we ponder them, we can take advantage of the opportunity to think, not merely parrot what we’ve been taught.
The observer statement is similar to the questions, “What was your name before you were conceived?” or “How would you describe yourself if you couldn’t use conventional labels?” That is, you couldn’t use your name, your race, nationality, your profession, your religion, belief system, educational attainment, favorite foods, and so forth.
There is something that is not a concept, or faith, or belief, or intellectual theory. There is something that is best framed by saying what it is not. This something is not rational. This knowledge is not spiritual. We can only mentally and physically dance around it. It is unsettling for both the scientist and the religionist. It is this uncomfortable aspect that makes it especially valuable.
After my friend’s father asked me if the observer is the observed, I couldn’t help but think about it. I wondered how I might see the world if I had been born somewhere else. What if I had been born in Hungary? Would I feel the same as I do now? The Hungarian language and culture would shape my beliefs in different ways, but would I still feel like me? Would the beliefs and culture alter the concept of myself? Is there really a “me”?
To find out if the observer is the observed, a person needs to know oneself. The awareness of oneself does not require scholarly or theological knowledge. There does not exist any book or document that will give us a full understanding of ourselves. In fact, books can impede our journey along the path of self-awareness.
This path can be difficult, but in its difficulty, comes a feeling of fulfillment and inner joy. When we start to question and examine life, we discover extraordinary depths of awareness. If one allows the freedom of thought to open our minds, the inner view is breathtaking. The observer is someone who asks questions in order to find understanding.
Contemplation and meditation are like the grammatical concept, the question. If we are not interested in the mere solution of a question, we can more closely examine the problem, itself. If we examine a question, we understand that the question contains the seed of its own answer. It is during the examination of the question, that the mind becomes focused, clear, and effective.
The key is that we not greedily pursue the solution to the question; we only scrutinize the question itself.
When we dare to set aside the social-economic-religious belief system for awhile, we wipe away the cobwebs of the mind. When we don’t look to established systems and concepts, we become less mechanical and more fully human. When we begin to see how little we know ourselves, we begin to see how little we know our families, our lovers, and life itself.
As we understand ourselves more and more, we see how interconnected everything and everyone is. As we observe ourselves we start to understand the unnameable. Then, as we let go of observation, itself, we begin to understand the observed.