About a year or so ago, I came across a particularly neat-sounding exercise for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT. It’s called “The Observer Exercise,” and it consists of a script for a therapist to read out loud to a client.
The bare bones are pretty simple: the client sits in a relaxed, meditative pose with eyes closed, while the therapist leads him or her through revisiting brief memories from earlier in life—last summer, as a teenager, and lastly as a young child. There’s actually more to it than that, but that gives you the start of it. It’s drawn in part from a book by Roberto Assagioli, a pioneering Italian psychiatrist interested in spiritual development.
Here’s the twist on what you might have expected: The goal isn’t to analyze the memories themselves, but to evoke the intuitive realization that there is some part of us which sees all, yet judges nothing; which has always been and always will be with us—but which has no history, no opinions, no words; which in a way is nothing at all, and yet in another way is our deepest and most continuous form of identity.
ACT calls this the “contextual self” or more simply the “observer self.” The idea isn’t new—just ask the next Zen master you bump into on the street—but ACT has something different to say about where it comes from & what we can use it for. ACT founder Steven Hayes talked about it in a book chapter he wrote some years back, when the therapy he was developing was so new it wasn’t even called ACT yet. Here’s some of what he had to say:
We have lots of socially established rules about self-worth. People want to be acceptable to themselves and others. Unfortunately, because of verbal evaluation, at the level of content no one is truly acceptable. I sometimes ask my clients to name one thing in the physical universe that they can’t find fault with. Usually they can’t. Then I ask, “So why should you be an exception?”
If the “you” one takes oneself to be is this observer “you,” these rules of self-worth are handled fairly easily. . . . Only things can be evaluated, and at the deepest level one cannot experience onself in the sense of “you as perspective” to be a thing.
The observer self is referred to in just about every ACT book there is, including the ACT self-help workbook, Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life. And there are lots of metaphors and mindfulness exercises aimed at evoking a sense of it. But what if you’re doing ACT without the help of a therapist? ACT therapists are still relatively few & hard to find; many of us are working only from books, with occasional help from the ACT mailing list on Yahoo Groups. So we’ve never had a chance to do this particular excercise the way it was originally designed.
The solution is obvious: read it aloud & record it, then play it back to yourself! I realized last week how easy this would be to do, and tried it out. Despite the momentary awkwardness of hearing my own voice, and despite lots of practice with mindfulness in other contexts, I found the exercise still had something to offer.
I’ve recorded a more professional-sounding version, with all the background noise (trucks, planes, our cat) cleaned up. Here it is as an MP3 file you can download and play back on iTunes or however you like. Although a left click will get it to play in most browsers, I recommend right-clicking and downloading for later playback when you can find some private time to really do the exercise the way it’s intended. (Please note that the file is rather large at 33 MB, so you will need both patience and a good broadband connection for downloading.)