THE BLOG

The Watcher Within You

04/07/2009 01:18 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

In ground-breaking research earlier this century, Nobel laureate Dr. Wilder Penfield, attempted to "map" the connections between specific parts of the body and particular areas of the brain. He wanted to see, for example, where the "wires" from the hand led to, and where the connections to the feet ended up. To produce his map, Penfield had to be able to talk to his subjects while working on them. A needle stuck in a particular part of the brain might make a patient feel hungry or make him feel as if his hand were on fire, but Penfield could only know this if the patient was awake and talking. Fortunately, while the skull has sensory nerves in it, the brain does not, so Penfield could numb the skull and go ahead and poke away without causing the patient pain. This process of poking and talking gave him the information he was after.

But another, unexpected result mystified Penfield: the patient was able to announce what he was experiencing. Rather than simply saying, "Yum, mustard," the patient was able to say, "When you use the first needle, I taste salt, but when you used the second I taste mustard on my tongue." Penfield got to wondering who was the "I" relating the experience, and who was the other "I" he was talking about? Put another way, what person was it who was watching the experiment from afar and reporting on the effects of his needle? He realized that in order to phrase things that way, the patient had to be both able to directly experience the needle and to be aware of the experiment from some place deep within, or high above.

There's more. When Penfield stimulated a place in the brain that made the patient clench his fist, he used such language as "Look, I'm going to do that again, this time try to resist the clenching". Guess what happened? The fist didn't clench so tight! Again this suggested that the person whose hand was moving and the person who was trying to stop the hand from moving were not one and the same! Penfield called the person he was talking to the "watcher".

In Taoist and Buddhist meditation, and indeed in other metaphysical traditions as well, the phenomenon of the watcher is well known. Some systems of inner development go so far as to name a particular watcher as the "real" you. It might be the fifth one, for example, the I watching the I watching the I watching the I watching the I. This may sound like no more than an amusing game, but if you spend a little time at it you'll discover that you can go up a few levels without any special training at all. You could try it right now if you like. Just sit quietly in a peaceful place with your eyes closed. The second I will immediately appear and you will be able to see yourself, in your mind's eye, sitting quietly. Next, see if you can see the I that just saw the I sitting quietly. If you manage that--not typical for someone without meditation training but certainly possible--then keep going until you can no longer ad any further watchers.

For those of us who don't want to take esoteric practice to a high level, Pennfield's study, and concept of multiple levels of consciousness or multiple identities within a single mind provide an instantly useful tool. At any time we can find multiple emotional states within us, and with a little practice we can scale the ladder of watchers until we find one who is cool, calm, collected, not freaking out, not in the throes of passion or despair, the one who has perspective, the watcher who is the highest, best, truest expression of our self.

With a little practice you will be able to distinguish the I who receives information from the optic nerve from the one who notices that the sky is blue from the one who interprets blue sky as a happy, pretty thing, to the one who finds that a blue sky lifts mood. Formal training in meditation makes it easier still, but that level of time and effort and commitment is not necessary in order to simply use our watcher to ground or calm us.

Try the watcher game when you feel stressed, anxious, fearful or angry. See if you can click up a notch and see yourself acting out, then perhaps another notch to see yourself watching yourself. Don't worry about what to do with this ability, understanding or knowledge. The mere act of watching has an amazing ability to defuse the bombs within us, to help calm us and to dispel negative emotions.

New abilities may arise for you in practicing this sort of meditation. The ability was there all along, you simply never asked that part of your brain, that level of your consciouness, that you to take control. With the hygiene of distance, keeping your equilibrium becomes much, much easier. You almost surely will develop better control of your moods not by dint of effort but by dint of transcendence, the ability to see beyond fear or regret or sadness. More immediate and gritty changes to your perception may also occur as dangerous and stressful events have less immediacy. You may find that time slows down when your life is threatened, such as in a car accident, and that you suddenly have more than enough opportunity to react and avoid the crash. Learning to find, ask and use your watchers really can help you handle life's challenges, lead you to deeper understanding, and help you grow.

I put ideas like this into my fiction, as I believe story is the best way to learn and understand the world. Please find all my books at here and my latest novel here.

You can discover more about me at my website and contact me at aero@aya.yale.edu. You can also follow me on Twitter, user name Machobuddha, or on Facebook.

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