The Conditioned Self and the Observer Self


Conditioned vs Observing

Living our lives consciously, beyond the domain of everyday thoughts, becoming more in touch with the true essence of our being (that is, pure awareness) involves a simple and practical way of observing our thoughts, feelings, and sensations. We often tend to ignore this deeper dimension known as awareness or the Unconditioned/Observing Self and we tend to identify with our mind and focus on our Conditioned/Personalised Self.

The extent of suffering in our lives depends a great deal on how aware we are, that is our ability to be in the present moment rather than being lost in our thoughts, feelings, in the past or future. The more you identify with your thinking, feeling, likes, dislikes, judgments, interpretations, etc. (your conditioned mind), the less aware you are and the more you suffer. Let’s look at two different senses of self that are important in terms of understanding the hidden trap of suffering: the conditioned self and the unconditioned observing self. These are like two centres of being simultaneously operating in us:

The Conditioned Self – False Self – Ego

The Observing Self – True Self – Pure Awareness

Our perceived identity – the story we identify with Pure awareness – the true essence of our being

The Conditioned Self

The conditioned self is built on a self-image, it identifies with conditioned patterns of thinking and emotional reactivity. Mostly we operate from, and identify with, the conditioned self that is mainly driven by beliefs developed through our experiences and through cultural and social influences. Our conditioned self is basically our perceived identity/self-image or the story we identify with. This story is based on statements that your mind makes about you as a person, that you implicitly believe and identify with: I am competent / I am hopeless, I am successful / I am a failure”, etc….”

Some of the most common identifications are possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and education, physical appearance, special abilities, relationships, personal / family history, belief systems, political/racial/religious and other collective identifications. None of these is you! Is it frightening or is it a relief to know this?

The goal of the conditioned self is often to defend, fix, find, avoid, increase esteem of self, maintain an image, etc. In terms of trapping you in suffering, identification with the conditioned mind is the most dangerous. For example if you see yourself as a victim, you keep ending up being victimised; if you see yourself worthless, you never stand up for yourself. When attachment to the conditioned self is dominant, self as a process of awareness is decreased. A diminished awareness of the present moment inevitably creates problems through unconscious and automatic actions and behaviours.

The Observer Self

In order to feel peace within you, you need to learn to recognise yourself as different from your perceived self-image. You need to recognise that you are not your roles, your appearance, your knowledge, education, your possessions, etc. The observing self is the source of who we really are, the true essence of our being. Strengthening the observer self has the potential to lessen suffering. It is important to cultivate this sense of self, as the more aware you are of your present moment (ongoing self-awareness – continuous knowledge of your experiences in the present moment), the more protected you will be against the traps of suffering (eg., self-criticism vs self-compassion, anger vs forgiveness).

The way out of pain (especially self-created pain) is to become more conscious. Become the witnessing presence, pay attention to your patterns of thinking and feeling, without judging or condemning them. Just become intensely conscious of the present moment. As you deepen your awareness you begin to be in touch with more of yourself. You are more free to enjoy life as you don’t get stuck in states of anxiety, worry, anger, guilt, shame, grief, etc. Rather you are able to simply acknowledge your reaction, allow the thoughts and feelings to move through your experience and let them go. While these thoughts and feelings still occur, your relationship to them is different.

The Conditioned Self

The Observing Self

acquired through experience (cultural, social) exists prior to learned patterns of thinking/feeling
driven by beliefs lies beyond thinking
outcome oriented process oriented
wondering:“is this right or wrong?” “what’s in it for me?” wondering: “how can I help?”
often hurt and in pain notices hurt yet feels no pain
lives through self-image free of self-image
identifies with – thinking/feelings, false self-image notices but does not identify with -thinking/feelings, false self-image
maintaining/defending/comparing self-image free of self-image, no need to defend/compare
trapping you in suffering (self-criticism, anger) protecting you against the trap of suffering (self-compassion, forgiveness)
diminished awareness increased awareness
creates problems through unconscious and automatic actions and reactions freedom from getting stuck in states of anxiety, worry, anger, guilt, shame
resisting “what is” accepting / open to “what is”
source of more suffering source of peace and contentment


Nurturing the Observer Self

We can nurture the observing self through the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness originally comes from an ancient Buddhist practice, however it does not conflict with any beliefs or tradition. Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention to our experiences, thoughts and feelings on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally. Mindfulness is about experiencing the world in the “here and now” and it offers a way of freeing yourself from automatic and unhelpful ways of thinking and reacting. Most of all, mindfulness is about being in touch with our being through a systematic process of self-observation, self-enquiry and mindful action. This is well summarised in the following quote:

“By being yourself … by watching yourself in your daily life with alert interest, with the intention to understand rather than to judge, in full acceptance of whatever may emerge, because it is there, you encourage the deep to come to the surface and enrich your life and consciousness with its captive energies. This is the great work of awareness; it removes obstacles and releases energies by understanding the nature of life and mind. Intelligence is the door to freedom and alert attention is the mother of intelligence. – Nisargadatta Maharaj, I Am That

Mindfulness Exercise (Ed., Germer, Siegel, & Fulton, 2005; pg. 79-80).

1 Find a comfortable posture. Close your eyes. Allow your body to be held, supported by the chair. Notice directly the sensation of your body in contact with the chair.
2 Allow whatever arises in your field of experience – visual images, sounds, physical sensations, feelings, thought formations – to come and go, to move freely.
3 Next, bring attention to whatever becomes predominant in the field of experience. Mentally notice and give a word label to the type of thoughts that may arise, such as analysing, planning, remembering, hearing, and so on.
4 Take a few more breaths before slowly opening your eyes.

Other Helpful Exercises

• In everyday life, you can practice focusing your attention intentionally by giving any activity your fullest attention (e.g., breathing, eating, drinking tea, walking washing your hands, listening to music, etc. )

• Practice ongoing de-fusion: list usual themes – e.g., worry, feeling like a victim / failure, anger, frustration, etc., – and become aware whenever these themes are activated.

• Draw a pie chart of the different senses of yourself (daily, weekly, monthly, longer periods of insight).

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