Is indeed whatever you observe cannot be you?

angel76's picture

Average: 4.7 (24 votes)

One of the core premises of spiritual inquiry and awareness is that whatever you observe cannot be you.

This is the basic idea behind the important process of peeling from your inflated "I" all the mental objects you identify with. It is tightly related to the formless nature of the "I", to the meaning of the minimized subject / center that observes.

Yet, although this claim is such a basic foundation block in spirituality, it is usually taken for granted, hardly ever questioned or reasoned.

Mooji addresses this claim in very nice allegories to a knife that cannot cut itself and a scale that cannot weight itself:

You are total unicity beyond duality. That you are. You are so one with yourself that you cannot perceive yourself. You can only imagine that you are other than that. It is like a knife that can cut so many vegetables but cannot cut itself because it is one with itself, or the scale which can weigh so many objects but cannot weigh itself. It is the same with the one supreme Self- the sole Reality, being ever One with itself, it cannot perceive that which it Is; it can only perceive what it is not.

For those who look for some intuitive or logical proof for this claim, I don't think you will be able to come up with a such (and if you can, please post it here in the comments). This claim is the rock bottom of spirituality. You will not be able to find a logical explanation and reasoning for this claim as it involves the observing subject while the mind can deal only with objects.

But still you are not asked to believe in it blindly. You can validate it by personal experience. The claim that whatever you observe cannot be you is clearly validated in personal practice when you meditate and observe mental objects - at some point you find yourself mentally separate from the object you observe.

For example, observe your body, observe the sensations, the hair that grows, by its own volition, on your skin, the movements, the pulsations. At some point a clear (sometimes fleeting) feeling will dawn on you: this body is not me. It is not an intellectual understanding, it is some clear mental understanding. Don't push it, don't expect it to happen, it will happen by itself, you just do the observing.

Lastly and interestingly, "whatever you perceive cannot be you" is one of the things that differentiate spirituality from science. According to the basic axioms of science, an entity can perceive itself as part of a relation called "reflexivity" of an element and itself.

Phroggy's picture

Intuition is beyond mind

Yes indeedy. It's true that reason won't reveal this obvious truth, but intuition is a different matter. Intuition is not a function of logic or reason, or the thinking mind. It may be called clarity or apperception or direct perception, and is no doubt what shows up in your meditation when you see this clearly. (Likely just a matter of definitions)

The difficulty is that we begin with the assumption that we are humans and since we can clearly see our body, thoughts, feelings, we never challenge the notion that we can see ourselves. Of course, we are not those things we can see, and it can be noticed that nothing could ever observe itself as an object of it's perception. There has to be something standing apart from this thing observed, in order to be able to observe it. It's critical that this be seen. It's the end of the unquestioned belief in the person. It's most definitely not and ego friendly realization, but it's the truth of the matter.


Phroggy | Thu, 08/07/2008 - 18:22
leo's picture

You can either maximize or minimize your "I"

There is an intuitive reasoning for "why whatever you observe cannot be you".

You can either maximize or minimize your "I", you cannot stop in the middle at some biased arbitrary point, saying: this I choose to incorporate to my "I" while that I do not. You cannot stop in the middle because the same rules apply to all objects.

As a result you can either minimize your "I" to nothing or maximize your "I" to everything - nothing and everything are the same.

Sounds confusing? let me demonstrate it with an example:

Let's say a pace maker was transplanted in your heart. This pace maker will be with you from now on at all times; it is constantly attached to other organs of your body; if it is removed, you most probably die. Yet, you do not regard this pace maker as part of your "I".

On the other hand, you regard your heart, your brain, your ear and the "whole" of your body as part of your "I". If you inspect the above conditions of the pace maker against each of these organs, you will notice that the same rules apply and sometimes they are even weaker (e.g. your ear can be removed and you will certainly remain alive).

So either you regard the pace maker as part of your "I" the same way you do with your organs and your "whole" body or you realize that your body and organs cannot be part of your "I" the same way you do with your pace maker. You cannot stop in the middle and have an arbitrary bias against the pace maker.

Some will argue: yes, but I was naturally born with my original body organs while the pace maker was artificially transplanted. So what? You were also naturally born with your past hair, and past nails, and past body cells and they are all gone now, ever changing.

Actually "heart", "ear", "body" are names that we use to relate to "things" that are physically ever changing with no residues of "their" past content - like referring to a "same" river which is actually different at any moment - this is why the Buddhists say that no thing really exists.

Lastly, you better choose the practice of minimizing rather than of maximizing your "I". The unenlightened mind cannot grasp the unity of all, that all is one, while it can follow the process of minimization towards the subject, the center which is not an object.

leo | Sun, 08/10/2008 - 14:32
Phroggy's picture

I AM that I AM my toenail

Well, to me, "intuitive reasoning" is an oxymoron. What you seem to have is a purely rational argument, but it's not uncommon for folks to say things like "It's like I lost a part of myself" or "I'm no longer whole" after losing a body part, same as when they lose a loved one. If one is identified with the body, that's exactly the feeling it produces, rather than the perception "Oh, I've lost an arm and I'm still here, so I can't be my body." Reason will say you can be a mangled or deformed body.


Phroggy | Mon, 08/11/2008 - 19:39
Omkaradatta's picture

"Unenlightened mind"

"The unenlightened mind cannot grasp the unity of all, that all is one,"

This is true - as Unity is neither a concept nor graspable ;-). When the mind goes on the search you mentioned above, it has already split things into "duality vs. nonduality", "truth vs. illusion", "ignorance vs. enlightenment", etc.

Much of the so-called search consists of simplification: Multiplicity to duality. When the final split is gone, things simply are as they are. One cannot really search for "what is", for obvious reasons - so the search itself is "what is". It is already an enlightened search ;-).

Omkaradatta | Wed, 08/13/2008 - 01:19
david's picture

An intuitive explanation

When you observe something, you see that your state becomes different than the state of the observed object. When you started to observe, you shared the same state as you were identified with that object. Now, they are different.

The observed object may be a a pain in your leg. Before you were painful, identified with the pain in the leg. You and the leg and the pain were one.

Now, after observing the painful sensation in your leg, there is the pain in the leg and there is you and you are not painful anymore. You may wish the pain to go away but you are not painful anymore.

At this point the crucial question arises: How can you claim to be something while there is no complete identity in your state and the state of this something, be it a mental state, a feeling, a mood, a state of mind?

Under whatever true and serious option for the definition of "being the same thing", the above difference in state can not hold.

In spite of the above clear observation of the difference in state, you prefer to deceive yourself and equate yourself with external objects due to your desire to enlarge your "I", to conquer, to have more, not be insignificant...

david | Sun, 08/17/2008 - 13:34
abra's picture

A matter of trust

There is probably no solid reasoning process that "proves" that what you perceive is not you because it is beyond the mind's logic.

Instead of trying to prove it, it should be assumed as such out of trust in those who state it. For the time being, one should simply believe that it is so. With time, you realize this by insight.

I don't remember where exactly, but in an answer to someone who asks him precisely about this, Nisargadatta Maharaj simply tells the questionnaire to trust him for now when he states that the perceived cannot be the perceiver.

In whatever spiritual path, be it the most analytical one, it appears that there is no escape from some belief and trust.

abra | Sat, 03/21/2009 - 19:58
divine intervention's picture

Another explanation

I once encountered an explanation for this fact:

You can be one thing: a nucleus.

You can even be a few things: a nucleus wrapped with attached identifications.

But you cannot be a few SEPARATE things: when you, a subject, observe something, an object, the observation inherently brings separation. This is the nature of observation, feel it when you actually observe.

divine intervention | Wed, 05/20/2009 - 08:02
Equilibs's picture


Sorry to break the consensus
but don't you feel a sense of separation in an axiom(?) that differs the viewer and the object?

I would say that if you can't see the viewer, you're probably looking though your mind (which is the separating mechanism).

in unity...all you see is yourself. (the viewer includes)

waking the moment when the backstage's viewer, all of the sudden take a step forward to the front, and is flooded with the light of consciousness which is aware (sees) of itself.

Good question
i'd keep asking it, while doubting the conclusions and answers

Equilibs | Tue, 06/23/2009 - 16:36
seeker's picture

Swich from reasoning to experience

No, simply because if you are viewing the viewer then who is it that views the viewer. Go and check and see yourself if it feels as the same.

Unity is something that the mind cannot comprehend, like infinity and non-dualism so there is no point in basing logical conclusions on it.

Be careful also not to base your view on logical arguments and reasoning because reality does not necessarily adhere to your logic just because you have it and all analytical acrobatics just yield more questions.

Instead just test it in practice. View your "I" and then see who is viewing etc.

seeker | Wed, 06/24/2009 - 07:36
dora's picture

Central in spiritual psychology

This question is the central question in spiritual psychology, especially the eastern psychology.

All the witnessing and detachment principles are based on that assumption.

Logical reasoning can hardly validate this assumption.

It is only in action when you actually observe, you realize the truth in this and it turns from an assumption to a working fact.

Also, it touches another similar problematic issue (problematic to the mind, of course): the extent of the boundaries of the subject, is the natural momentum is minimizing the "I" or maximizing the "I" and especially with regard to the body, what is the "I", is "part" of something which if cut off and the thing is still the same can be regarded as an integral part of this thing, what does it mean "part of" and so on. These issues should not be taken for granted, they are more deep than they seem at first glance and therefore should be inquired.

dora | Thu, 10/01/2009 - 20:11
kulchnaui's picture

Must read

If I was allowed one post to read - I think I would choose this one. This is a fundamental building block.

kulchnaui | Mon, 11/09/2009 - 12:54
Elijah_NatureBoy's picture

The Knife's Cuting Itself!

When we have metamorphosed after entering our last incarnation we realize we have been every type of being on earth prior to becoming man and as man we are in our last incarnation. Therefore, to say we are everything is to say I have now manifested as everything therefore if I denounce anything I am denouncing that aspect of my own experiences. I've been there before is the realization meaning we are cutting ourselves by cutting down another lifeforce manifesting as someone we have manifested as.

Once our metamorphosis is completed, meaning we are new adults of the Christian concept of new birth, we will be able to shape change into everyone and everything we have experienced being prior to becoming man or we can shape change into a combination of such beings.

--Elijah "NatureBoy"-- Presenting SEEDS OF LIFE @

Elijah_NatureBoy | Fri, 12/23/2011 - 15:03