Self-observation is often a first step in spiritual practices. In Insight Meditation, for instance, practitioners start with learning to take stock of what is influencing their mind in the moment. In 12-Step Spirituality, people start by acknowledging the limits of their own power. In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the devout pave their days with positive intentions born of noticing their growing edges. And the list goes on, with a counterpart of self-reflection occurring in almost all spiritual traditions.
In the following passage from How Long Till My Soul Gets It Right? 100 Doorways on the Journey to Happiness, Robert Alter recalls his mindful observations on a day when he was waiting at Harvard Square in Boston, Massachusetts, for his wife Jane to join him for lunch. He enjoys noticing what tricks his mind is up to, as it churns out a continuous succession of thoughts.
"Here are the ten things my mind was doing in Harvard Square that day:
"It was desiring. I was experiencing attachment — and therefore frustration and sadness. A forest-green Jaguar stops at the light. I love forest-green Jaguars. I want a forest-green Jaguar. I want that forest-green Jaguar. I'm frustrated and sad because I can't have that forest-green Jaguar.
"It was disliking. I was experiencing aversion. An old woman with white flakes of spittle caked on her lips is limping across the street toward me, pushing a shopping cart, looking my way. I look another way.
"It was judging. A young woman is standing on the corner. She is dressed all in black, has spiked green and orange hair, jet-black lipstick, and a nose ring in each nostril. This is not the flower of femininity. This is not the rose of Sharon. I don't know what this is. I think this woman shouldn't be what she is. She's certainly not my idea of what a woman is. I'm judging her.
"It was being anxious. A burly-looking drunken man is reeling down the sidewalk toward me. Will he engage me? Will he talk crazy to me? Will he ask me for money? Will he hurt me? I am anxious about him and the moment he might be bringing with him and inside I contract away from him.
"It was being impatient. Where is Jane? I thought. She's late. I hate it when she's late. When will the moment be here when Jane is here? I am waiting for that moment, and am not in this moment.
"It was thinking of the worst catastrophes. Where is Jane? She's never this late. Something terrible has happened to her. Something really terrible has happened to her. I should call the police to find out the really terrible thing that has happened to her.
"It was being angry. A cute little baby smiles at me from the arms of a man who is waiting at the corner for the light to change. I am enjoying my eye contact with the baby. Then a heavyset man gets in between us. I can't see the cute little baby smiling at me anymore. I am angry at the heavyset man.
"It was comparing and envying. A tanned young man wearing Tyrolean shorts and gargantuan hiking boots stands reading a magazine at the kiosk. He looks lithe, strong, handsome, bursting with testosterone. I am fifty-one years old, and I am none of those. I envy him, and feel lousy when I look at him.
"It was being intense about everything. As if all of this matters! As if it'simportant what's happening for a few minutes on a Saturday afternoon in Harvard Square! As if each of these little events, all of which together are an infinitesimal fraction of the total number of events happening in the world at the same time, have important meaning that I need to have thoughts and feelings about!
"It was creating problems. Whatever was happening, I somehow kept making it into a problem. There seemed to be an automatic mechanism in my mind that processed all experience into a problem, and it couldn't rest until it had done that. Even then it still couldn't rest; it did it again.
"Had it not been for my mind, I would have had a great time watching the continuous succession of discrete moments happening before me in Harvard Square. Instead, I was, as usual, making myself some version of mentally miserable in all those moments. But that didn't matter. I was also having an interesting time watching the continuous succession of discrete thought-moments happening in my mind. I actually ended up having a great time watching my thoughts go by and make me miserable in so many different and creative ways. As I say, I like to sit places and watch things go by."
To Practice: Stand on a corner where you are likely to see a variety of people. Then watch what your mind does with this opportunity.