Watching yourself–and your mind–without judgment

by Scott Crabtree

Watching yourself on video can be a very strange experience. You are rarely watching yourself. Depending on your personality and self-esteem, you may immediately cringe, or be very proud of yourself.

I recently managed to get a few short videos of me presenting up on YouTube, including this one.

I find it quite difficult to just watch myself, without judgment. Yet I try to practice just that on a regular basis, with meditation.

Meditation sounds strange to some that haven’t done it; it may conjure up images of particular religions or even martial arts. But in fact meditation can be as simple as watching yourself without judgment. Meditation takes various forms, but many kinds of meditation boil down to focusing your attention on something such as your breathing. Your job while meditating is to notice when your attention has drifted, and without being judgmental, return your attention to your object of focus.

I’ve been thinking about why so many meditation traditions teach focusing your attention without judgment. Based on the science I’ve been reading, I believe it may be because of the circuits of the brain involved. A study by Norman A. S. Farb and others helped show that we all have two primary circuits we use to interact with the world. Our default circuit is our “narrative” circuit. We relate to the world over time and build stories. When we are using our default narrative circuit, we interpret the world and relate it to what we know. This includes making judgments.

Your other circuit, referred to as your direct or sensory circuit, is focused on the present moment. When you are using this circuit, you are focused on how you feel. You are noticing the sensations you are experiencing.

It’s this direct sensory circuit that you use while watching your own breathing. It can be quite difficult to stay in this direct sensory circuit. Many of us find ourselves drifting into the narrative circuit. If you are trying to focus on your breathing and find yourself thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner tonight, you have moved from your sensory circuit into your narrative circuit.

This is the crucial moment. If you can notice that your attention has drifted from the sensations of your breathing and without judgment return your attention to your breathing, you will be coming back to your direct sensory circuit. If you judge yourself for failing to maintain attention, you’ll continue to activate your narrative circuit, without focusing on your sensations.

As difficult as it may be to watch yourself without judgment, it’s an important skill. Doing so results in you becoming more aware of the world as it actually is, with less bias based on the narratives you use to interpret the world.

Using your direct sensory circuit may make you happier, as well. A study by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard has found that mind-wandering using your narrative circuit is very common, and tends to make us unhappy. As Killingsworth says in a sidebar of this Harvard Business Review article, “One major finding is that people’s minds wander nearly half the time, and this appears to lower their mood…no matter what people are doing, they are much less happy when their minds are wandering than when their minds are focused.”

Numerous other studies including several led by Richard Davidson find a strong link between meditation and happiness.

Whether you are watching a video of yourself or watching your own breathing, I suggest  you practice doing so without judgment. Staying focused on your sensations in the current moment can be one path to happiness.

What is your experience of watching yourself? I’d love to get your comments and feedback.