The Observer and Observed
To be inwardly silent when outwardly things are in turmoil is one of the hardest Yogas
Examining the observer and the observed is one of the essential questions of Yoga, ancient philosophies, and modern science. Each discipline has a unique viewpoint, with Yoga adding that there is not just the observer and the observed but also, perhaps most importantly, the process of observing. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi called this the seer, the process of seeing, and the scenery. Quantum physics has a well-known model, familiar to all scientists and most spiritual seekers, that shows that observation changes the behavior of the observed. The explanation is from the famous Uncertainty Principle of Werner Heisenberg, who explained that it was impossible to observe light as a wave and a particle simultaneously and that it was impossible to know the exact location and exact velocity at the same time.1 Light behaves like a wave until you observe it, then behaves like a particle. This observation didn’t consider human consciousness; the Uncertainty Principle focused on things like atoms and photons, normally unseen by the human eye, and the tools that were measuring their behavior.
In 2016, Jonathan Tinsley (et al.)2 showed that a human could perceive one photon of light in a controlled study of 30,373 trials. Before this experiment, most scientists believed that a human eye could not see one photon of light, that one photon would be too small for a retina to capture and for the brain to perceive. Now we know that not to be true; the human potential is indeed extraordinary. So after the perception of the infinitesimal has been achieved, such as seeing one photon, why not move on to other things with no perceptible form, things we use to survive daily, like emotions? If someone is upset, for example, and you listen to them and allow them space to express themselves, they might have the space to move out from their upset. But, if allowed to ruminate, to keep it all inside, then the upset bubbles, circulates, and explodes out in the wrong ways, at the wrong people. So listening to someone is a way of observing them, or at least a way that a person can feel heard, which is also a way of being seen.
It might not be correlative with the double-slit-experiment, but nevertheless, both experiments are true. Observation has an effect on what is observed.
The question that arises in meditation is, “What happens if you attempt to observe something without changing it?” If you’ve ever meditated on your breath, you may have noticed that as soon as you start paying attention to your breath, it changes. The challenge of watching your breath and not changing it, not influencing it, is essentially the challenge of breath meditation or of repeating a mantra and observing the repetition.
Observing without influencing the observed
On the surface, it makes perfect sense. Of course, it will change; the observer always influences the observed. The Yoga system of Patanjali is based on a principle that, in fact, there is an observer, called Purusha, that, when involved with nature, called Prakriti, influences the behavior of nature. However, there is one particular state where Purusha does not influence Prakriti, called Kaivalya, aloneness, independence, or liberation (though liberation is a terrible word for what Kaivalya signifies, for Purusha is always free and never bound—just momentarily mixed up in change.)
When consciousness is not in a state of utter independence, unencumbered and free, it becomes in close proximity with movement in the field that we have that reflects consciousness, called the mind, which is nothing but thoughts, ideas, desires, narratives, needs, obsession with things, and as far as we know, in this unique combination, is decidedly human. Consciousness, awareness, and observing slowly mix with those things like colored dye and water, or the dirt from the bottom of a lake getting stirred up, clouding the lake, until the water settles down, and the dirt rests back on the bottom of the lake, the water clear again—but until then, they seemingly become one.
The process of Yoga is the settling of the lake. It is the quiet settling of the perturbations of the field of the mind. It is the unmixing of the observer, consciousness, from the activities that are contained and influenced by the mind—such as the breath, for example, which is under the influence of the mind—so that the observer is no longer influencing the observed, and the observed in no longer influenced by being watched. The two become unencumbered by each other and continue to exist for an eternity doing their own thing. That is described by Patanjali as Kaivalya.
Yoga is fundamentally a way of doing something to your mind so that it becomes completely still, unmoving. Then, something wonderful is said to happen in that stillness, described in the texts as uncaused happiness, a sense of being without limitations that result in bliss, deep peace, and a sense of unity with all things. It all starts with making a decision to do something with all of the stuff happening in our minds all through the day—indeed, all through our lives—and that is to bring it stillness.
When you do something to bring stillness to your mind with your body, it’s called practicing asanas.
When you do something to bring stillness to your mind with your breath, it’s called practicing pranayama.
When you do something to bring stillness to your mind with your mind, it’s called practicing meditation.
Tinsley, J., Molodtsov, M., Prevedel, R. et al. Direct detection of a single photon by humans. Nat Commun 7, 12172 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms12172