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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

To Know Oneself

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Thoreau said in Walden; Or, Life in the Woods, “Direct your eye sight inward, and you’ll find, A thousand regions in your mind, Yet undiscovered. Travel them, and be expert in home-cosmography”.

Becoming a naturalist of the mind is challenging because we rarely take the time to observe ourselves, to see how we ‘think, feel, and react or act in situations’, without labeling or judging ourselves in the process. But a naturalist does just that – he or she observes, notes, in a very neutral way, without passing judgment or labeling, just seeing what is and noting it ‘in neutral’. (Try watching ants for a moment, just observing and seeing where they go and what they do).

Why is it valuable to note in neutral one’s own thoughts, feelings, and actions? It is the ultimate discovery tool – a tool to discover one’s own way of thinking – the unique biological blueprint (encoded in part through genes) for the brain and body’s way of responding to the environment. Rather than reacting, however, and being swept away by thoughts or feelings, when one treats the mind/brain/body as an experiment itself and becomes an observer of the thoughts, feelings, and actions as they occur, one becomes aware of the space in which they arise. If you stare at a blue sky without a cloud or tree or bird in it, it is just a spacious opening, infinite space and hard to discern. But with a cloud or tree or bird present, the sky is discernable as sky. Similarly, becoming aware from a naturalist’s perspective of thoughts, feelings, and actions in the mind, one becomes aware of the space in which such thoughts arise. With practice in detecting the arising of thoughts, feelings, and actions, comes an increasing awareness of the spaciousness in the mind.

One of the hardest things to do in the world today is to be a naturalist of the mind, to observe oneself, without judging or labeling. We fill our lives with distractions (Blackberries, cell phones, rushing, appointments, etc.) that keep us so busy there is no time for such observation. Yet, in such observation, the most peculiar thing occurs; time expands and what felt like a fully packed schedule without space for even breathing, becomes an open awareness, an open-mindedness, equanimity, and a mind full of curiosity and creativity. So, even if you can’t escape to Walden like Thoreau and spend two years honing the role of naturalist of the mind, take a walk around the block – leave your Blackberry behind – take 5 minutes to begin to know yourself. Look at the sky, notice the clouds as you notice your own thoughts, feelings, and actions; note them in neutral, let them come and go, see them from the neutral perspective of a naturalist and in that moment you will discover infinite time.

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