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The Seven Characteristics of Self-Observation

I have been reading a book by C. Daly King recently called The States of Consciousness, published in 1963 immediately after the death of its author. King was a student of Gurdjieff's famous follower, A. R. Orage, and one of his significant contributions to the Work was his privately published book, The Oragean Version. In The Oragean Version King meticulously lays out the principles, both practical and theoretical, of Orage's interpretation of Gurdjieff's teaching. The States of Consciousness includes many of the same ideas as The Oragean Version but it is supplemented by King's own scientific work in psychology and neurobiology. He seeks to elucidate the various states of consciousness available to human beings.

King's take on Self-Observation is particularly interesting because it represents one of the clearest published descriptions of the practice that we have run across. King is uncommon in his recogntition of Self-Observation as not just a method or technique, but rather as a distinct state of consciousness. King calls this state Active Awareness. In fact he he felt the term Self-Observation was "a somewhat confusing terminology, since what is observed is not at all the self - the 'I'-entity can never observe the 'I'-entity."

He lays out the seven characteristics of Active Awareness as follows:

  1. It excludes any element of criticism
  2. It excludes any element of tutorialness
  3. It excludes any element of analysis or other mental process
  4. It involves a a complete non-identification from the organism
  5. It is directed only toward the prescribed area of objectivity
  6. It involves the mediation of all sensations appropriate to its objects
  7. It is not limited in its exercise to any special times or places

The first characteristic of Active Awareness means that it there is no process of judging taking place; what is observed is neither good nor bad. If judgment is happening, that is not Active Awareness (though one could in principle be actively aware of judging happening). The second characteristic means that active awareness does not seek to alter or improve what it is observing. The third characteristic emphasizes that Active Awareness is not a mental process. Mental and logical analysis are distinct from consciousness in this formulation.

The fourth characteristic represents for King one of the more challenging aspects of Active Awareness - that it requires non-identification with the organism. When we observe the manifestations of our organisms in Active Awareness, it is as though we are observing the manifestations of a stranger. The identification that "I am my body" must be released to cultivate Active Awareness. It is when we identify with the object of Active Awareness that the criticisms, agendas, mental processes, emotional reactivities, etc. flood into our field of awareness.

The fifth characteristic clarifies that the field of active awareness is the organism - that is what one has to work with. Things external to the organism are only "represented indirectly through the body's own receptor mechanisms." The raw energy of experience of the organism, internal and external, is the proper scope of Active Awareness.

King emphasizes that it is better to start a practice of Active Awareness with the sensations of the organism. King's emphasis here is grounded in the belief that it is easier for beginning practitioners to stay non-identified when the scope of their Active Awareness practice is confined to the sensations of the body. In Tayu practice we have found it productive to extend the early practice to include feelings and thoughts as well as sensations. As long as Active Awareness is practiced in the context of a Work-group with experienced guides, our experience has been that the scope can quickly include the functioning of the mental and feeling centers as well as the body center.

The sixth characteristic states that Active Awareness is not necessarily atomic but may involve a variety of sensations, etc. For instance, if one is actively aware of one's posture, one will be aware of a variety of sensations extending up and down the musculature of the body. Sometimes we observe small things, sometimes we observe more complex manifestations of our organism.

And finally, the seventh characteristic of Active Awareness emphasizes that this is a practice and a state of consciousness that is intended to be available at all times in all contexts. The cultivation of Active Awareness is not meant to be something we do 20 minutes every morning - it is intended to be something we do whenever we can remember to do it. Our practice is intended to shift the operating point of our consciousness from its habitual waking state of semi-hypnotism to the spacious freedom of Active Awareness - but this is no small task.

In King's description of Active Awareness, he is quick to point out that although the description above seems straightforward enough, the difficulties necessitate working with a guide or a group that has experience with this practice. It is extremely easy to become identified with the contents of our Active Awareness; it is extremely easy to start thinking about that which we observe. To achieve Active Awareness is an uncommon endeavor tha requires much more assistance than we may like to think.


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Thanks for this fascinating posting, Stuart. I want to comment on your report that King doesn't like the term "Self-Observation" because the "I"-entity can't observe itself. That's true if the "I"-entity is equivalent to the ego/android. In that case, we have the common experience of one internal voice commenting on a prior voice, or upon an experience. But if that which Observes is more than the android/ego, then King's assertion doesn't necessarily hold.

One of the advantages of the term "Self-Observation" is precisely that "Self" is not defined, and is thus problematized. In this sense, the term invites the practitioner to continually ask "Who Am I?" or "What is this Self?" Those can be very productive questions, as Tayu founder Robert Daniel Ennis (among many other spiritual teachers) has pointed out.

I have found the practice of being present to sensations in the body particularly useful lately. If I direct all of my attention to my body, there is not a lot left over for mental activity. By the time I realize I'm not in the body anymore, I've become hypnotized with some egoic narrative commenting on the experience I'm having. The content of the narrative invariably involves elements excluded by the first three characteristics you listed. So, in summary, the practice of observing sensations in the body has afforded me glimpses of the ways in which I become identified with some story about what I'm doing. For anyone who has never tried this practice, I claim that we are almost continuously hypnotized by mental activities. Even when we're being "in the now" we easily end up commenting on the experience we're having and become more interested in the implications of mental stuff than what is actually happening in that time and place.

I invite anyone to respond to what I've written.

Hey Danny, what exactly do you mean by egoic narrative commenting?

That's an important question, Jacob. I am trying to describe something that has been happening when I am making efforts to observe as described above, but something similar is happening for most of us most of the time even while not trying to meditate. To get a sense for what I'm talking about, try meditating on the flame of a candle. This is a nice way to quiet the mind. From there, notice how much your mind wanders. When you notice it has wandered, just come back to watching the flame. If you do this long enough you'll probably notice certain themes in your wandering thoughts. The themes will vary from person to person, but in general these thoughts are telling a story in which you are the main character. Something that has often happened for me is that I'll start imagining some future scenario in which I'm reporting to my teachers how wonderful my meditation experience was. All sorts of other things can happen too. The important thing is not that you read my words and understand what they say, but that you investigate for yourself what I'm talking about. You may find it interesting how difficult it really is to simply keep your attention focused on a candle, or whatever, without your thoughts stealing the show. It gets even more interesting when you start to notice patterns, or habits, of thought that you didn't even realize you were enacting. As another example, I was on a nature walk the other day making efforts to observe. Everything was very beautiful and I was very present, but before long my mind kept taking my attention away from the rocks, trees, water, my body. I started thinking about what I was doing, how beautiful it all is, how I would tell so-and-so about my great hike, how great I am for going on such a nice walk, etc. I found this interesting because it seems to me that thinking is not necessary to experience beauty, and yet the mind insists on it. Again, the claim is that rather than being present to what is happening in and around us, we are actually paying more attention to some story in our head about what is happening, which may or may not be accurate or relevant. But don't take my word for it!

Thanks, Daniel, for posting this clear description of the egoic narrative commenting process.

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