All of us who have been trained through the Tai Chi Foundation teacher’s program have at one time or another been encouraged to practice objective self-observation. But what does this mean and how can we get better at it?
If you Google the definition of self-observation you will find, 1: introspection, 2: observation of one’s own appearance or 3: examination of one’s own thoughts or emotions.
In psychology, the main definition of introspection says: “the process of introspection relies exclusively on observation of one’s mental state.” And within a spiritual context, introspection may refer to either the examination of one’s habit patterns or to becoming more aware of one’s true nature.
So, what is “objective” self-observation? First of all, as we are using the term in our school, it is important to recognize that objective self-observation is without commentary or judgement; it is empty of both self-criticism and self-congratulation. One is neither condemning what one sees as negative, nor praising what is seen as positive. Objective Self-Observation transcends the polarity of good/bad and looks with neutrality and detachment. Because we understand that our essential self is distinct from that which we are observing, we do not identify with the content that we are observing and can thus observe with more objectivity.
Practically speaking, we employ objective self-observation – witnessing our physical sensations, our emotions, our thoughts and our spiritual state – in order to become more conscious and to transcend our automatic subconscious patterns and beliefs.
This summer in Ireland, apprentices had the opportunity to view a video of themselves and practice “just looking and describing” what they saw as an exercise to help us let go of our judgments (whether good or bad). The goal was to increase our ability to observe without judgment and to work on self-reflection and being more compassionate.
The benefit of this class was captured well in the words of two participants:
Maria Gandler said, “When I observed myself in the video doing PH’s, I first found myself being quite critical and focused on all the details that I was not doing well… no beauteous hands, etc. The second time I watched the video, I began to see more of the big picture between my partner and myself. However it was with the third viewing – watching as if I was watching one of my students and thinking how I could help her to improve her Tai Chi – that something else happened. I became softer and wanted to say to (myself): “Try doing PH’s again while being aware of holding your space with your arms.” I felt better. I felt seen. I felt emotional and touched by getting helpful feedback. This experience showed me my tendency to be critical and that I can learn to feel more empathy and love for both myself and others. This is a very valuable experience for all apprentices.”
Mike Barkham said, “When you observe without judgment (good or bad) you get to see and understand more. On the video, I could see the underlying cause as well as the effect; i.e., not just ‘I’m leaning forward’ (judgment as bad), but ‘it’s when I lead with my arms that I lean forward’ (understanding). That gave me a new internal focus to bring into my practice.”
Other participants also shared how their perspective changed as they were led through the exercise of viewing the video multiple times, with a different focus each time. Most saw how judgment has become a reflexive habit and that cultivating objectivity is helpful in being able to develop other ways of perceiving.
Objective self-observation is a foundational skill in our School and we look forward to continuing to develop ways to help us practice, and develop, this skill. We have found it useful in improving one’s skill in the art of tai chi, becoming a more effective teacher and teammate, as well as in the art of living our daily lives.