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Refuse to Define Yourself by Your Illness

One of the things about ill health is that you can all too easily identify yourself with the disease. If you suffer from anxiety, which causes much physical and mental discomfort, you may say, ‘I’m anxious.’ Or for other conditions, you may say something along the lines of ‘I’m depressed’, ‘I’m stressed’ or ‘I’m sick.’

Without knowing it, by using the words ‘I am’ and what describes the state, you’re identifying with your illness. In effect, you’re saying that you are the illness.

Such identification has problems because thinking that you are an illness or disease can make you feel more helpless and down. For example, rather than saying you are ill or you have cancer, you can say your body in unwell or your body has cancer at the moment. To show an alternative mind-set, a helpful model is to think of yourself as having three selves:

  • Your physical self: Your physical body, with its arms and legs and head and all the other bits and pieces that make up the physical you.

    If you think that your physical body constitutes you, consider this: if you lose part of your body — for example, an arm or leg in an accident — do you cease to exist? Of course, your life changes and perhaps your attitude and outlook, but do you change as a person? Most people say ‘no’.

  • Your thinking self: Your mind, thoughts and emotions. When lost in a train of thought, you’re identifying with your thinking self. Whenever you engage your mind to consider something, you’re connecting with your thinking self. No doubt this part of yourself is very familiar to you.

    If you think that your thinking self is you, when your thoughts change do you change? Most people think not.

  • Your observing self: The part of you that watches your physical body, your thoughts and emotions, and the world around you. You are the observing self all the time. Another way to describe it is as pure awareness.

    You can’t directly experience your observing self, just like you can’t directly see your own eyes, but you know you have eyes because you can see the world around you. Similarly, you’d be unaware of your experiences without the observing self.

    Think of your observing self as clear sky and your experiences as clouds. The clouds come and go, just like thoughts, emotions, sensations and experiences in the world come and go, yet the sky (your observing self) remains the same.

    Understanding the observing self can be difficult because this witnessing aspect of you is beyond concepts, words or ideas. Instead, the observing self is what watches concepts and ideas as they arise. Reflect on this fact for a few minutes.

Here are a few useful hallmarks of the observer self. The observer self:

  • Is always present.

  • Is always watching your experience without getting involved or affected by the experience.

  • Stays the same throughout your life, right from yourself as a young child.

  • Is your essential, true self.

  • Isn’t your thinking self or feeling or physical self but the part of you that’s aware of thinking and feeling and everything else.

  • Gives you a sense of freedom and space, especially from difficult emotions, thoughts or sensations.

  • Isn’t something you have to believe or disbelieve. It’s just something you deduce though your observation.

You can get a sense of the observing self in the following meditation:

  1. Find a position that feels comfortable for you, in a place you won’t be disturbed.

    Switch off any potential distractions such as your phone and give yourself time for this exercise.

  2. Become aware of your breathing. Feel your in-breath and out-breath.

    Notice yourself watching the breath (the observer) and the breath itself — in some ways, totally separate from each other.

  3. Notice your physical sensations.

    Turn your attention to your body as a whole. And notice yourself observing your body. Again, be aware of you and your experience as two separate things.

  4. Become aware of sounds around you.

    Some may be loud, others quiet. You’re observing the sounds arising in awareness. You are the listener and the sounds are what are being listened to.

  5. Turn your attention to your thoughts and emotions.

    Notice the range of different thoughts. Be aware of how your attention often gets caught in a train of thought. Yet still, you have a sense of watching your thoughts arise, one after another.

  6. Let your awareness be fully open to any particular experience.

    Allow yourself to be aware of whatever is predominant in your awareness. Get a sense of being the observer self (awareness), with experiences arising within your awareness.

  7. Notice in all these experiences how you were watching, observing, looking or listening to the experience.

    You are the observer.

After the meditation, answer the following questions:

  • How did you find this experience?

  • What did you notice?

  • Did you get a sense of what it means to discover the observing self?

Quite often, if you’ve suffered from a prolonged physical or emotional illness, you feel broken. You may think that something about you is permanently damaged and can’t be fixed. But when you begin to identify with the observing self from time to time, you may not feel quite the same.

You can acknowledge an aspect of your being that’s untouched by your illness, difficult thoughts and emotions. You can then see this aspect of you as being always pure, perfect, complete and whole (remember that healing means to make whole).

One of the most effective ways to step back into your observer self is to practice mindfulness meditation as often as possible. Even a few minutes, several times a day, is helpful.

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