red headed finchMany meditation disciplines are meant to help the practitioner develop awareness by cultivating The Observer.  The observer is a part of the self, but stands a little apart, noticing everything, judging nothing, only seeing, paying attention.  It is the observer self that notices you are unhappy with a person and eventually helps you to see that’s why you’re a grouch when you come home.  The observer stands apart from family arguments and traffic accidents and weddings and swimming, noticing noticing noticing.

Everything.  In the traditional practices, one hopes to achieve peace or spiritual enlightenment.

For writers, cultivating The Observer serves a different purpose, that of enriching and enlivening and deepening our work in a thousand different ways.  The Observer collects everything and tucks it away for us, making sure there is plenty of material for our work at every moment.

This works in large and small ways.

In January, we traveled to New Zealand to see family and explore the country. It was a long trip and it’s hard to stay completely awake to everything that’s happening when you’re on the road for a while, but I tried to let The Observer gather everything all the time. Not just the beauties, but everything.  That unpleasantly blustery day on a beach in Nelson, when sand peppered my neck and face and arms, driving us back inside.  The grim reality of shattered Christchurch.  The astonishment of a school of dolphins swimming and dancing and leaping in the sea.  The color of the sea, for that matter.  Water, water, water, everywhere.  So right for me.

One afternoon was quite ordinary.  We were resting, just CR and I, in Rotorua, a town of mud vents and sulphur springs.  He needed to get a swim in because he was in training for an open ocean race a few days down the road.  There was an old touristy pool a couple of blocks away, and we headed over there in spite of the rain that kept showing up.   I didn’t see how we’d manage to swim in all that rain, but the girl at the desk waved us in—and I realized that the lightning that closes pools in Colorado was nowhere in sight.

So we swam.  In the hard-falling rain, in a turquoise pool with only two local women also doing laps.  I felt like a dolphin myself, swirling and lapping, opening my arms up to the rain, diving down back under the water.  It was utterly magical, and while I was immersed in pleasure, The Observer was taking notes.  Tiles, bricks, hot springs, rusted leaking shower, very shallow shallow end.  Girl in red suit looks like an actor. Friend is fit and lean and gray haired, swimming with purpose.  The sound of the rain pounding like a thousand drums on the roof and the water and the concrete. The color of the sky. The color of the water.

A trip to a far away land is bound to net a few magical moments.  But here is an ordinary one.

We hung a bird feeder outside our front window in November.  I can’t really remember why.  In part, it was to offer the cats something to do through the long cold winter months, their very own version of cat tv.

It has turned out to be a very popular bird gathering place.  There are bushes all around the tree, and a nice open flight path.  Mostly it’s finches and wrens, tiny little things with their mostly ordinary feathers.  I’d hoped to attract blue jays, and they do come to the tree, but they scare themselves when they land on the lip of the feeder and it starts to sway.   There’s a squirrel who eats so much he’s going to turn into the Santa Claus of all squirrels, and once in a while, a raven sits in the tree and scares everybody off.

I have opinions on all of this, lots of emotions tangled up in this new thing.  It’s a little mean to give the cats the view of birds with no way to get to them, maybe. It’s also funny  to see three cats lined up on the sill, tails swishing, mouths letting loose that creaky cat-hunting noise.  Ma-a-a-a.  It’s sometimes creepy to come out and startle a flock into flight, their small wings nonetheless making a lot of noise as they take off as a group, twenty or thirty (or more!).  Beautiful to notice the differences in feathers and patterns of eating.  I am not thrilled with that fat, greedy squirrel.  He hangs upside down, his tail fluffed in a circle around the top.  The finches give him wide berth, so he must be mean.  Everyone gives the raven a wide berth, though the jays will yell at him.  I yell at the raven, too.  I once saw a raven steal a baby blue jay from a nest and fly away with him, the mother jay screaming behind in despair. I have issues with ravens.

The Observer, however, doesn’t make judgements. She just gathers all of it.  The silky sleekness of raven feathers, and the tiny brown feathers and the red head of a finch, the bleating noise of the jay, and the  sibilant rustling of all those wings lifting from the bushes.  The marks of bird poo on the ground, the cat creeping on to the roof to see if he can hunt them from that direction, the spill of emptied black sunflower seed shells on the ground.  The pert turns of heads, listening.  The clasp of a sharp beak on a small seed. The Observer collects the details and the colors and the sounds and the interactions, saving them for later.

The goal, of course, is to keep The Observer on at all times.  Right now, as I type, on the most mundane of winter afternoons.  I’m writing with a camera at my elbow and my coffee on the other side.  The washer is tumbling in the hallway, and sunshine is melting the latest snow.  I’m wearing truly horrible sweats with a hole in the knee and socks that never come clean because I don’t wear shoes in the house.  I have a cut on my finger but the band-aid was annoying.  Any minute now, my little black cat will be back trying to get me to engage.

Now, now, now. The Observer can capture it all if you cultivate him. (Her?)

How do you cultivate the observer? Can you take fifteen minutes a day to become very present with whatever is going on around you?  Do you have any tricks to share with us? 



About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.