The unity of observer and observed – various perspectives

To my surprise my previous post gave rise to a comment claiming to be Advaitin, yet expressing an opinion that I could hardly see as such. So let’s start with that.

For the purpose of this post it should be enough to say that according to Advaita Vedanta philosophy (the most prominent school of Hindu philosophy) the self we experience is an illusion. What’s real is that Atma, which is the constant witness to all states of consciousness, inhabits a body. The classic statement ‘Tat tvam asi’ is interpreted in this context to mean that ultimately each of us is ‘That’ (tat), one with the Absolute. (*)

To theosophists the phrase ‘unity of observer and observed’ is reminiscent of Jiddu Krishnamurti who once had an experience in which he felt himself one with the farmer in the field, the field itself, the grass, the sun, the sky etc. This mystical experience is what many people are looking for when meditating.

In Buddhism – all forms of Buddhism, as I understand it – there is one way in which there is a union of the observer and the observed: it’s simply that our experienced reality is only there in our consciousness. As I explained last time: Chittamatrins go one step further and say that what’s observed is ONLY there as a product of our consciousness. It’s my karmic seeds that produce the keyboard I’m typing this on, the laptop that records the key-strokes and the table the whole arrangement is sitting on.

But let’s go back to the more simple and realistic basic statement: in what way is the table a product of my consciousness? Well, yes, I experience the table in my consciousness and can never be completely sure that when you come to my house you’ll see the same table. The table is also the product of my karma in the simple sense that it’s dependent on causes and conditions that brought it there. My uncle bought it for my grandmother when she first went into a nursing home. She didn’t need it when she moved out of there and I thought I could use it, so I got it. I choose to use it in it’s present condition after I had a short but severe bout of sciatica last year. The result is a more ergonomic working arrangement.

In other words: the table and all the stuff in my apartment depend on my buying them, getting them, arranging them, not throwing them out. In that very simple but important sense they’re not as independent on me as they seem at first sight. (#)

I used the phrase ‘experienced reality’ above. Think about it for a moment: can you see the stuff about you in any way that escapes your experienced reality? There is probably a table in this room that you’ll see if you visit. In that sense the table is real and independent on my consciousness. However, the table as you see it, is the table as it appears to your consciousness. It may be based on the same table that I see, but precisely what we see is unique to each of us. You may see the dust I overlook, for instance. Or you may be colorblind and see the table in a different hue than I do.

From the perspective of Buddhist philosophy the experience is more important than what we’d call the ‘objective’ reality. After all, what we’re talking about in Buddhism, Hindu philosophy and with Jiddu Krishnamurti as well is how to grow so that we can be happier with ourselves and with others. There’s a ton of good quotes about the observer and the observed in Jiddu Krishnamurti’s teachings in this article, but I’ll quote only the following as having some relationship with our themes for today.

Can I look at a tree without the image of the tree? Which means, can I look without the observer, without the censor? Then what takes place? You are not the tree. That’s a trick of the mind so say, I identify myself with the tree, with you, with god, with this, with that. When there is no movement of identification on the part of the observer, then what takes place? Who creates the space between the tree and you? There is actual space, you understand, there is a distance, it may be a foot, it may be ten feet – the physical distance. We are not talking about the physical distance, but the psychological distance between you and the tree, who has brought this about?
Brockwood Park, 2nd Public Dialogue, September 10, 1970

Since the tree we observe is in our consciousness it’s a good question: what has caused us to feel separate from the tree (as we experience it)?

Sources and notes

(*) Encyclopedia of Asian Philosophy, edited by Oliver Leaman
(#) These paragraphs are an introduction into the Buddhist doctrine of Sunyata or Emptiness.

8 thoughts on “The unity of observer and observed – various perspectives”

  1. Separation is illusion. Direct experience speaks for itself. To stop thinking is to feel present. Questions answer themselves. Nothing remains. Nothing exists in spite of believing or not believing.

  2. The answer to ‘what’ has caused us to feel separate from the tree should go hand in hand with ‘why’. The journey starts truly when the ‘purpose’ is questioned simultaneously …… that would lead to that entity ‘whose’ purpose is being sought to be known.

    By the way, just like the relativity of ‘dust on table’ and the ‘color of the table’, the relativity of the existence of the ‘table’, the ‘room’, the ‘perception of seeing’, ‘yourself’ is equally valid – remember “It manifests Itself in forms which It pretends to try to comprehend through Itself”. Again, therefore, let’s ask, “Why does It do so ?”…..Embark ! Embark on the journey Katinka ! Do NOT ignore the sign – the coordinates are correct now ….. maybe the time has come ! Again, Happy journey….!

  3. Your blog is beautiful and thought provoking. I myself am not a writer nor blogger. However, I have someone in my life who is. This individual has spiritual views much like yours however blogs more generally. She is in the need of a spiritual and emotional lift, so if you have a chance could you stop by her blog to let her know she is not alone? Peace and love.

  4. i follow your bog.feel like a mental companion.when identification of the ego does not remain .what left?that only .being in gurgieff words,atma in vedanta,emptiness in buddhism.ramkrishna lapses in that state more often.even saint of that level ego rather ‘I’ still shows its presence .remaining in that state seems matter of degree as per our spiritual progress.

  5. Firstly, thank you Katinka for your wonderful website.
    I wish to add a few words on the unity of observer and observed from a differing perspective. The notion of unity of observer and observed is the heart and core of the Perennial philosophy. By the perennial philosophy we refer to the idea that there are universal truths that have been expressed in every religion and culture throughout history relating to reality and human consciousness. This fundamental truth can be summed up in the ancient Vedantic sentence ‘Tat Tvam Asi’, (or Thou Art That). A key tenet of the perennial philosophy is that any individual can transcend their individual self and merge into the ground of being. The Perennial philosophy is far more than an acceptance of the words of a number of Hindu and Buddhist teachers in the distant past and also of more recent teachers such as Krishnamurti. The Perennial philosophy has found expression in some form in every major religion that has emerged on our planet.
    I personally have a worldview that is entirely accepting of the scientific/evolutionary explanations of the world as it is. But I also embrace the Perennial philosophy. The question I asked myself sometime ago was if the scientific/evolutionary worldview could sit comfortably with the Perennial philosophy. I have concluded in my recent book, ‘The ONE and the ALL: An Evolutionary Approach to God, Self and Transcendence’ that they could not only sit comfortably together, they are so to speak, different sides of the same coin. Many differing disciplines are traversed in The One and the ALL. These disciplines include the Philosophy of Science, Psychology, Linguistics, Evolutionary theory, Anthropology, History of Religion, Philosophy of Mind, Sociology, The Nature of Perception and Consciousness as well as Ethics and Morality.
    I wrote this book because I passionately believe that in our postmodernism times with the relativity all truth that we need to return to our unity. We need a story that embraces both the scientific/evolutionary worldview and the Perennial philosophy. A story that we can really believe in, rather than simply have faith in.

    Dr Bernard Bollen

    1. Casting aside the notion that universal truths have been “expressed” in every religion and culture, can it be said that every religion is true?

      In the sense that each is an external reality as the believer believes?

      That as a Christian I will end up in heaven or hell. That as a Muslim I will end up in paradise with 72 virgins or jahannam. That as an atheist I will end up nowhere.

      This is opposed to postmodernism which says all truth is relative and each is in error. My postpostmodernism say all truth is relative and each is true and real.

  6. Hi, William Wallace here,

    A feeling may arise that the sense of being separate, including a sense of personal separation, is just another phenomenon like the tree and the sky and the notion and so on, and these are all made of the same stuff, if you will, and so there really is no separation between things—–but this feeling itself is just another phenomenon. The feeling is great but I think the more fundamental thing is to realize that if all this phenomena is of a piece, of the same stuff and not in fact different, despite the appearance, then in fact there is no individual at all separate from anything else; the individual is just a variation of the one same stuff.
    Deeply getting this is the liberation from phenomena: it is not that there is a realization that there is an individual who transcends phenomena–who somehow rises above. Rather it is the understanding that the personal belongs to phenomena alone.
    Who or what one is then is completely unknown and completely absent and that what one is —is not a thing–but prior to all thingness.
    This is the liberation–in the world but not of it–the entire world transcended. If it is spoken of it cannot be said what one is at all because anything said is of phenomena and one is prior to phenomena. It may be said, neti neti–not this , not that, is what one is. Or “what I am is that I have no idea what I am”===and yet isness remains, but no specific isness at all. Or, it may be said instead that the whole of creation is what one is.
    It may be said that whatever we are is unknown–we are the fundament prior to all known and knowing—-and that the world is our mirror—and it is known what we are only by the mirror that is the whole world.
    First a life is presented wherein a person and personhood is the center. Then it is realized that this person and the personal is of a piece with all the rest of phenomena, the sky, the ocean–no separation.
    And then one disappears–that’s how it its.
    And it cannot be said where one has gone–but one is definitely absent.
    And this is the liberation–gone, just gone. And consequently, the entire world becomes the mirror that enables us to have an image of ourselves. Or alternately it may be said that one becomes the whole world and yet at the same time is gone from that world–entirely unmixed- it is most peculiar.
    Language requires the use of articles, but my point is that the person, the article, no longer exists. The personal, while it serves a function in the world, has ceased to be any sort of center of existence–is entirely transparent. Existence is, but it is no longer a personal existence. Or it could be said that the whole world is the personal existence.
    Yet, at the same time one is not that in the least. But beyond this it can’t be said what one is. Gone. It is the mirror of the world and thought that give us an image. Beyond this there is no image. The metaphor of the mirror is apt for, in this life, if we have no mirror we have, in effect, no face.
    We are finally what there is when the entire universe departs. For we are the fundament that births it and thence all knowing. We are what is prior. Without the world there is existence but we conjur no image of what we are.

  7. I would like to respond to Katinka’s first post on this thread. Katinka ends by posing a question, “Since the tree we observe is in our consciousness it’s a good question: what has caused us to feel separate from the tree (as we experience it)?”.

    The most simple and immediate answer to this question is that the tree is over there, I am over here, so naturally we feel separate. But Katinka doesn’t only locate the tree over there, she also locates it in our consciousness. The whole discussion pivots on a number of subtle, powerful and all pervading assumptions about consciousness. These assumptions are that consciousness is a capacity located in our heads and that the outside world is represented symbolically in our heads. Thus the internal symbolic representation of the tree is understood to be our consciousness of the tree. Further, inside of my head is a centre (perhaps my inner self), that experiences the symbol of the tree. And since both my inner self and symbol of the tree are located in my head, the question is asked, why do we feel separate from the tree. In the following discussion I will argue that (a), we should not view consciousness solely as a capacity located in the head, and (b), that there is no inner self that experiences the tree or indeed any symbol of a tree. The discussion will place the notion of the unity of the observer and the observed in an entirely different perspective, an evolutionary perspective.

    Human consciousness has an evolutionary history that begins when life first emerged on our planet some four billion years ago. This evolutionary history begins with complex molecules that could replicate. They then evolved into single-celled organisms, simple multi-celled organisms, plants, worms, fish, reptiles, birds, horses, monkeys and finally humans. All lifeforms are deeply enmeshed with their immediate environment, they evolved capacities and forms of perception (or consciousness) that allowed them to survive. The form of consciousness that a lifeform evolved is determined by the affordances of surrounding environment. A lifeform and its environment are co-coupled and co-evolve. They are a dynamically interacting unity.

    Clearly, the form of consciousness of a lizard and the form of consciousness of a primate such as a chimpanzee are very different. Let us adopt a definition of consciousness that includes the whole spectrum of conscious behavior found in the biosphere.

    Consciousness: the capacity of a life-form to respond to events in the environment.

    This is a very wide definition of consciousness that includes virtually every meaning usually applied to the word consciousness and sometimes more. By this definition a plant can be conscious, since it is aware of its environment to the extent that it can, for example, sense sources of water in the ground and extend its root system to gain easier access to those sources. Consciousness is a necessary property of life itself, and consciousness of the environment defines, in part, what it means to be part of the biosphere. This definition of consciousness foregrounds the notion of being-in-the-world, that a life-form and its environment are a tightly coupled, interdependent whole. Clearly consciousness comes in many forms and works at a number of levels. These levels range from the photo/physio/chemical forms of consciousness of a plant to highly abstract conceptual/symbolic forms of thought that humans are capable of. The definition includes forms of consciousness found in reptiles where behavior is genetically determined and automatic (that is, instinctual behavior). It also includes the behavior of many mammals that can make complex assessments, evaluations and judgments of the environment before behaving. The world enters a lifeform through the conscious capacities that a lifeform has evolved and a lifeform enters the world in its dynamic engagement with the world. Consciousness is not located solely in the head of a lifeform, it expresses itself as a dynamic engagement of a lifeform with the world.

    Humans have an additional highly developed form of consciousness which will be referred to as symbolic-consciousness. Symbolic-consciousness includes those things normally associated with human consciousness, thinking being the most obvious example. In symbolic-consciousness one thing (a word, a visual image) can represent another thing. Mammals and non-human primates probably have the capacity for some rudimentary forms of symbolic-consciousness, but it is in the human world underpinned by language use that symbolic-consciousness is most highly developed. It is the capacity for language use and complex forms of abstract verbal and written communication that underpins the complex social, technological and economic systems within which humans live. But human consciousness is not solely symbolic, it includes all of the other forms of consciousness found in the biosphere. For example, humans see objects in the environment just as all other mammals do. Seeing (or seeing-consciousness) is not a symbolic form of consciousness. Rather it is a direct, unmediated resonance of a lifeform with light waves hitting our eyeballs. When we see a tree we do not experience a symbol of the tree, we immediately and directly experience the light waves from the tree.

    Thus human consciousness comes in two forms. The first is our immediate, pre-conceptual, pre-linguistic immediate engagement with the world which is referred to as pure-consciousness. The second is our symbolic representation of the world primarily through language which we have referred to as symbolic consciousness. Our sense-of-self, our I-ness is located in symbolic-consciousness and not in pure-consciousness. I shall refer to this self as the I-self. We believe our I-self to be our inner core. We believe the I-self to be the knower, witness or experiencer of the world. The I-self is beyond any social classification (such as a person’s age, gender, appearance, personality or social status). Nor is the I-self a thought or an emotion, for the I-self is aware of thoughts and emotions. The I-self persists over time. It is our centre. And as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) proposed, the I-self is a fiction, an illusion formed by our linguistic practices. This takes us very close to the Buddhist doctrine of annata (or no-self). We use words like “I want this”, “I did this” or “I felt this” but there is no “I” that wants, does or feels. The word “I” is a noun that refers to nothing. Rather humans engage in the process of I-selfing (a verb) which refers to the ongoing process of owning experience with language.

    This is the grand illusion, the belief that we have an inner core that experiences the world. It is a denial of our unity with the world. It is the source of our separateness with the world. The word “I” carves up the word into an observer and that which is observed, an experiencer and that which is experienced, a doer and that which is done. The disunity between the observer and the observed is structured in the human capacity for language with the use of the word “I”. This illusion of separateness is all-pervading and deeply ingrained simply because we are language using humans. There are however throughout human history those great teachers (and many who have not become teachers) who have transcended the chains of language and the identification with an illusionary self. But that is a story for another time.

    Dr Bernard Bollen (

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