The observer effect

The “observer effect” is a law of nature recognizing that you can’t observe something without affecting the thing you are observing. Some version of this effect became painfully obvious to me when I once tried to weigh our skittish cat Jupiter on the cold, stainless steel scale at the vet. He was due for a precise dose of some medicine which the vet wouldn’t prescribe without an accurate weighing. The more I tried to subdue his wild will with a tight grip on the scruff of the neck, the more wildly did the scale oscillate. When I let go, Jupiter snarled, slashed and leapt to the examining room floor unweighed. It was only by stepping onto a larger scale with him gently in my arms, that I could do the math. By this time he had lost a bit of fur, and I had lost a bit of skin. The whole ordeal was such a trial that he may already have lost weight before we got the accuracy the vet had demanded. I questioned the purpose of the whole exercise. He never again let me take him to the vet. I didn’t push it. Despite the incident, we remained the best of companions. We certainly had more respect and understanding of each other. What we have in every real life situation, when measured, is something that has become different than it was before it was measured.

By the act of observing something, we are disturbing its original condition, even if ever-so-slightly. By the same token, now that we know something more about our subject, we too, are changed. In other words, we can’t observe something without entering into relationship with it. As in a relationship, all those involved are changed by the simple experience of observing and being observed.

To me, the down side of the observer effect is not at all what is bemoaned in the pursuit of scientific truth. Here, the observer effect is blamed for inaccuracy, uncertainty. Accuracy is not a concern of mine when I am trying to know something better. The problem is this: When I enter into a relationship with something by observing it through my five organic senses, I am somewhat distracted by the very thing I am observing. The difficulty arises not because I alter the subject, but because I, the observer, am too greatly changed by observing. I find myself staring, shifted off my center. I get lost in, or absorbed by the things I observe. I would lose consciousness completely, if I didn’t take it a step beyond simple observation. It is only by reflecting quietly on my observations, that I get to know what I have been observing. This is what builds the relationship, and helps me get to know the essence of my subject.

The essence of something is only imperfectly revealed by the senses. The leaf is not the maple, the debris is not the Caddisfly. The struggling drop is not the sphere it emulates. Jupiter is not his weight, color or purr alone. Something happens in reflecting, that steps beyond the senses, toward the very being itself.

My tendency to get lost in the subject I observe, prompted me, many years ago, to find my way to meditation.

Meditative practices continuously fight the natural tendency to have our consciousness changed by the distractions around us. Our active pursuit of an inner meditative space isolates us from the mundane relationships we develop with the world through our senses. What comes in their place, is the potential for a deeper connection. It is this potential that we take away from the meditative moment as a growing faculty of soul.

If I enter into the hum of the refrigerator, and let my consciousness be taken over by it while I am trying to meditate, I will not find a place of inner solitude. If I do find a place in my soul that has enough self-possession to tune out the hum, it has far-reaching consequences. That place is the tender kernel of selfhood from which I can enter into more profound relationships.

Whereas my bias is to lose myself and my consciousness in absorption, I also see the potential for putting too much of myself into the interpretation of phenomena. On seeing a “dreary” morning sky, I may immediately reflect that it won’t be a good day for haying. In my self absorbed mind, the sky takes on the colors of my soul. If I can step back from my own thoughts and emotions, I again find that same meditative place of self-possession.

From this self-centered place, a cloudy sky is no longer predominantly a disappointment. I can see it as a part of a larger weather pattern that holds a clue to what is in store for tomorrow. From this place of selfhood where ‘I am’, I can more easily know what ‘It is’. I remove my overly involved self from the observation and honor the phenomena as an expression of a deeper secret. I may change it, and it will invariably change me, but the relationship that grows is deeper.

After a time of diligent meditative practice, I can see this strengthened selfhood emerge in my daily life. A critical remark ceases to sting, even in the moment, but instead, helps me know the frustration that lies in the heart of the critic. I am grateful to see past my own immediate impression to the heart of the matter, to the heart of the other. I begin to see the other from the place of my higher self.

By gradually weening myself of the sense-dependent connection I instinctively have, or the visceral response I habitually make, and lovingly taking in the world around me, I enter into a new kind of relationship. This connection is with the deeper levels of the beings in the world around me. I don’t have to weigh Jupiter to know the more important elements of his character. Holding him gets me closer.

I see that a move toward self-hood is a move away from a nameless and unconscious oneness with the universe. It is an advance toward another, more conscious relationship with the universe. This is where we learn the true names of things. We sacrifice of the lesser connection to which we naturally cling, for the greater, for which we long. It takes effort and can bring about a temporary loneliness. But loneliness is the intermediate stage. This superficial isolation is the portal through which we have to pass. If I firmly hold on to my intention to deepen my relationship with the world, the isolation of meditation is healthy. Pride and the notion of superiority could easily crop up when I spend time developing my ego for myself. But these are the things which suspend me in my isolation. Striking a balance between humility and self-possession, having good will, a loving heart and clear thinking lead me forward to a new marriage with the world.

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