Cultivating The Observer

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.


  1. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    Love this, because it’s those details that make the big picture complete. One of my favorite memories is sitting at the window with the blinds slanted just so, and the last remnants of light from a fading afternoon hitting the side of a cobalt blue glass and reflecting on the flesh of my fingertip. It was one of those moments I suppose the Observer recorded, because I’ve never forgotten it, and a part of me believes I experienced a sliver of eternity.

  2. says

    One of the challenges for me is I’m not detail-oriented at all. I just don’t notice them. I could go out for fifteen minutes and stare at something and come back without experiencing many details. I might get one significant one, like the whir of a bird’s wings or a color and lose all the rest.

    My workaround has been do it sort of backwards. The scene is set in the woods. So I get the big picture first, which is easy for me. Then in another layer of story, I add all the details. Okay, what kind of birds are in these woods? What color are they? What do they sound like? I’ll go online and grab a photo of the place. I’ll look at it, and grab a detail, bounce back to the story, look at the picture for another one, bounce back to the story to add it … all the while keeping my fingers crossed that I’m 1) Adding details other people will like, 2) That I don’t dump too many in, or too little, because I can’t tell when to stop either.
    Linda Adams – Soldier, Storyteller´s last blog post ..Accessibility for Writing Websites and Why It Helps You as a Writer

  3. says

    No tips, really, I think I’m just one of those people who pretty much always has part of me observing. But I think an important part of cultivating your Observer is to process things later. Maybe it’s the influence of too much Seinfeld, but I have a tendency to have a lot of those, “Do you ever notice…?” moments, where something I’ve observed earlier in the day comes out in an odd way. It probably makes me a little annoying.
    jeffo´s last blog post ..Musical Monday: Bell Boy

  4. says

    Barbara, What a wonderful post! I love your prompt to see if we can observe for fifteen minutes a day. If I had any tips, I would say check in and see how a situation makes you feel. Why is the sky making you remember something from your past? And that aroma, is it a direct link to another memory. Sensory details are what I tend to remember. And I admit I am a bit like Linda, adding in details once I know the big picture of a scene, and what the impact and resonance of it is supposed to be. Driving towards that with the telling details is a trick, uh, skill, that I am still learning. Darn, if we have a Santa Claus squirrel too! Merci, Barbara!
    Dorette Snover´s last blog post ..The Writing Life: The Shadows of Past Manuscripts

    • says

      Love that as a secondary layer–why is the sky making me remember that day? What about this smell is bringing back my Aunt Lisa? Why do I feel an ache over that tree?

      We’re all miners of memory.
      Barbara O’Neal´s last blog post ..VOICE CLASS

  5. says

    Thank you for this piece. I’m trying to focus on what you said about cultivating the Observer, more than my jealousy over your trip to NZ :-)

    I’ve always looked around me and tried to see what there was to see, which feels very unusual these days, when I’m one of the few I see not on a phone in some way. I particularly tap into the Observer when I’m waiting in a line. So many different kinds of people go to the Post Office; it’s great for character snapshots. But I find that I have to write things down shortly after I see them, or the observations get lost in all the other things in my mind.

    I get distracted by the competition at our bird feeder, too. We bought one with a weight-sensitive bar so the holes close up as soon as a squirrel presses it down, but they still try — hanging on to the top with their back legs and stretching down , but they can’t quite get their head in position at the holes without putting a paw on the bar to stabilize themselves, and then the holes close and they tumble down to the ground. And then they get right back up. Which reminds me, I need to refill the feeder. Have a wonderful Spring, Barbara!
    Natalieahart´s last blog post ..Why I Do What I Do

    • says

      Yeah, the New Zealand trip rocked. It’s okay to be envious.

      And I notice that, too, that everyone is on the phone in every public place now. It’s crazy! But I notice that I have to be very disciplined myself to avoid pulling it out when I’m bored in line, rather than just giving the observer some time and space to gather material.

      Thanks for the pressure sensitive tip. I’m going to look around.
      Barbara O’Neal´s last blog post ..VOICE CLASS

  6. says

    So very true, Barbara. I was sitting in our favorite dive Mexican restaurant last Friday, trying to explain observing to my engineer-type husband by pointing out interesting tidbits of what I saw.

    He didn’t get it.

    But this has always been one of my delights about life – even when I didn’t use the observations in a book!

    I think all writers are observers FIRST. Then at some point they’re so filled with wondrous ideas and images, it overflows onto a page.

    What do you think?

    • says

      Very good point, Laura. We are observers first, staring as little children at something that fascinates, then learning to be a little less obvious as time goes by (or not!) until it all spills to the page.

      Great insight.
      Barbara O’Neal´s last blog post ..VOICE CLASS

  7. says

    I love this post! Such beautiful images! The details are what grab me in a story, and keep me buzzing inside my own. I’m one of those people who probably shouldn’t drive because my eyes tend to wander off looking at the shape and color of houses, wondering about people I see, their pets, the birds flying by. This is why I prefer walking places especially without music, drinking in every sensory detail and knowing I can pause and listen and wonder in the scene without getting into an accident or wasting time.

    Observing and stopping to smell the roses is NEVER wasting time!
    Jillian Boston´s last blog post ..Insular

  8. Judith Coopy says

    My Observer has a name and it is Journal, currently #110! She sits open in a place that I cannot miss as I go about my day–very small apartment! I always begin my day with this first as my prayer space, then turn it into my writing space and lastly it rests there as my Observer.
    It has become quite easy to stop for as little as 10 seconds and jot something down. I have often wondered if I have too much detail, but then, I do illustrate some things metaphorically or actually print a tiny photo on plain paper and give it to my Observer.
    Last year I was invited to participate in a poetry exhibit entitled Words and Images: A Moment in Time in which we had to use illustrations with our poems. Since then I have added notes about illustrating some of my poems and entrusted them to Observer!
    Judith Coopy

    • says

      What a terrific idea, Judith. I bet most of us could find a place like that around the house, to stop for ten seconds and scribble the moment. I’m going to try it.
      Barbara O’Neal´s last blog post ..VOICE CLASS

  9. says

    I love how this post illustrates your point so well! I definitely need to cultivate The Observer more. I’m going to start with people watching now that I’ll be out in the world around people more. Thanks for the prompt!

  10. says

    You make such a good point that we need to cultivate our observer. So much of the day can slide by in a time-crunched rush, leaving blurry impressions instead of crisp pictures.

    This year I’ve been teaching a lot of cognitive-behavioral/brain based groups at school. Combined with a renewed yoga practice, I’ve just started to get in touch with my observer again. It’s a relief to get back to the quiet inside. Thanks for the reminder to keep walking that path. :)
    Lara Schiffbauer´s last blog post ..Fraction of Stone and Kelley Lynn!

    • says

      Ah, yoga! Most forms of the practice do encourage that presence of mind. Good one.

      The Cognitive/Behavior practices are also excellent for this. I first really grasped the idea while working with domestic violence offenders. The therapists were teaching that idea of noticing what you feel, trying to teach impulse control.
      Barbara O’Neal´s last blog post ..VOICE CLASS

  11. says

    My Observer cultivates me. Maybe it’s because I meditate, I’m not sure. I will sit down to write and the smallest details will show up and ask to be written. BUT…I find that if I stop the practices that keep me in the moment (meditating, walking, writing) my Observer tends to switch off. So I cultivate my awareness and in turn it cultivates the Observer in me. :)
    Maryse´s last blog post ..A LIFE WISH

  12. says

    I love this post, especially since there is more than a hint of lyricism present. Writers today are encouraged, even commanded, to forget about including beautifully descriptive passages that are so memorable in many of the classics. We are told readers don’t have the time or patience for such. Maybe, but it is the details that give life to the story, that differentiate it from others with a similar premise. And I would be willing to bet that most writers’ details come from their own observations of the world around them.

    In my experience, writers are detailed oriented, but for folks having difficulty focusing on the details, perhaps the following practice might help. I will apologize now, because it is very simple. In fact, it is what science teachers do in K-3rd grade science labs, but it requires the observer to focus on the details and to describe them. It is a matter of training oneself to be aware of one’s own five senses in any given situation. How does it look, sound, smell, feel, and/or taste? I would add to this list, what emotions does it elicit in the observer?

    Our challenge from the modern reader is to incorporate these details so deftly and organically that no lines of demarcation can be seen or felt.

    • says

      Linda, there is some encouragement for writers to be more fast paced, but we still take pleasure in lyricism and poetry and descriptions.

      That is a very simple, clean exercise, which is exactly what we need. Thanks for sharing it.
      Barbara O’Neal´s last blog post ..VOICE CLASS

  13. Connie says

    Pretty as their coloring is, I once saw a Blue Jay rob a baby sparrow out of its nest with a dozen sparrows clamoring and chasing it through the sky.

    It’s not the sort of thing I like to dwell on, but that sort of thing does stick with you for quite a while.

  14. says

    Nature is cruel, it’s true. I have a thing for blue jays and their feathers. Not sure why.

    Actually, the observer says, you know exactly why. Do you remember that family nested in the trees along the driveway? And the pleasure of the children watching the babies learn to fly?

    I should give ravens another chance. They’re nature, too.
    Barbara O’Neal´s last blog post ..VOICE CLASS

  15. says

    My observer is on most of the time, because of self preservation. When I was young we use to play a game of observation. We had to walk in a room, scan the area, leave the room, and write down everything you can remember. If you play it long enough it becomes second nature to scan an area. At my job increased awareness is emphasized, and again scanning comes into play. Practicing widening the peripheral vision helps too. Pick a point or object and stare at it while observing everything else. Overtime capturing visual background noise becomes habit. Neither method sounds fun, but they work.

    I’m trying to learn how to keep my observer on when I’m emotionally traumatized, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet.

    My observer doesn’t work very well when I’m scanning for grammatical errors though
    Brian B. King´s last blog post ..Happiness Sucks!

  16. `Peggy Foster says

    I love this post. For me being an observer is listening. I am totally blind so I observe by listening. I listen to birds as they sing, or as they flutter there wings, I listen to the animals when they make a sound, I listen to cars and trucks as they pass by or honk there horns. When people are talking to another person on there cell phone I listen to that person. I listen to see if that person is a man or a woman, if they are wearing boots or tennis shoes or if the person is a woman is she wearing heels? About a conversation I listen to see whether the person is happy, sad, angry, or mutual. Or maybe it is a business conversation. When I am in the store and several people in groups pass by I listen to them and try to figure out what they are wearing, what they are talking about, and get a feel for there emotions. Then I reflect on them and think about what I have learned from my observations. There are so many things to reflect on by listening if you get in the habbit of doing so.

  17. Kelly W. says

    You always leave me wanting more, Barbara. Your writing is beautiful, and expressive. I loved this.

    I believe my Observer is very lackadaisical, yet just when I think its not around it surprises me with interesting tidbits. There are times of the day that I am more present with my environment than others. I can’t explain why.

    Although Blue Jays are beautiful on the outside I find them to be too mean to their cohorts. I guess not even birds are perfect, huh? Ravens aren’t the nicest either, but they are so smart. When I see one and it cocks it head and looks at me I believe it can read my thoughts. :)

  18. Kathleen says

    I love everything about that post! I have been a people watcher my whole life. The quiet simplicity of watching others go about their business helps bring a real emphasis to the many differences we all have. It very much helps when trying to really get into a characters head. And it is true that so many people spend so much time avoiding looking each other in the eye, instead they automaticaly pull out their phone for company. It is funny, we writers are often thought of as such solitary people and maybe we are but the observer in me really does help keep me connected with the world around me. You will never hear me tell my children it is impolite to stare…….I say get off your phone, stare away and soak it all in!

  19. says

    Thank you for this article, Barbara. I think taking fifteen minutes a day to observe will not only make me a better writer but it will also make me more aware of and more appreciative of my life.

  20. Ni says

    Mm….I suppose the best advice I can come up with is to look at everything like a child would. They’re so excited by everything they see, and they remember hyper-specific details. It’s still all new to them. It’s important to let your Observer suspend the disbelief that s/he’s as old as you are, and to let ’em at it. Trying to record everything in minute details doesn’t feel quite so silly when you think it’s your first time.
    It also lets you notice strange ticks about things, like snow-shadows being dark blue and not black. It’s little sparks that make the world more magical and a lot more fun to pay attention to.

  21. says

    Love this post, Barbara. I agree that “being present” is key. While walking my dog recently, at least seven flocks of Sandhill Cranes flew over. Pretty amazing sound, with their trilling call. A gift!

  22. says

    All I’ll need is one more instance of someone writing or talking about observation and I’ll figure that the universe is trying to tell me something. Today, has a piece on the art of observation:

    I liked this from French physiologist Claude Bernard:

    “Effective spontaneous observation involves firstly noticing some object or event. The thing noticed will only become significant if the mind of the observer either consciously or unconsciously relates it to some relevant knowledge or past experience, or if in pondering on it subsequently he arrives at some hypothesis. In the last section attention was called to the fact that the mind is particularly sensitive to changes or differences. This is of use in scientific observation, but what is more important and more difficult is to observe (in this instance mainly a mental process) resemblances or correlations between things that on the surface appeared quite unrelated.”