Experiencing Without the Experiencer

by Brian Brittain on January 4, 2024


There are two approaches to developing leaders.  The typical one, horizontal development, is to help them add tools to their toolkit.  Developing new skills, to contribute to better delegation, running more effective meetings, or confronting a performance issue.  The other approach is vertical development which requires helping a leader fundamentally change their minds about how to best make meaning in their world, relate to others and the situation they find themselves in.  This requires deeper personal work to uncover old habits and limiting beliefs that today operate unconsciously to undermine effective leadership.  Horizontal development is more additive, and vertical development more subtractive.  Vertical development is more about awakening, as much as it is about personal growth.

I will often say to a prospective client, “I will help you develop the skills to delegate effectively, and we will also explore, even if you had those skills, why you wouldn’t act on them”.

As coaches in vertical development, we help our clients create time and distance between a live experience and their response to that experience.  Creating space between stimulus and response allows them the freedom to respond creatively and usefully to what is happening.  Without that pause, without that space, the experience can be unconsciously and automatically perceived as a threat to their identity, including conditioned expectations for how life should or shouldn’t be.  The experience can trigger an automatic self-protective behaviour, lodged in memory, developed in early childhood.  This can elicit a habitual, knee-jerk reaction to self-protect from what is happening, perhaps needlessly and inappropriately, in the present situation.

To present our best selves in situations we must develop the capability to pause, witness our internal reactive impulses bubbling up, without unconsciously acting on them, and rest quietly in the space of open awareness or our true nature.   From a quiet mind, body and ego, we let a wise and rational response arise from our deeper self.

The above maturing requires looking into the nature of our relationship to an experience.  We habitually say, “I had an experience.”  That way of framing experience as an object, with us being the subject is an illusion.  An experience isn’t an object we hold “out there” that I as a subject am having. There is only the experiencing.  No separate experiencer or subject, except in our story-telling minds.

When we experience, we have a habit of labelling what is self and what is not-self.  Amid experiencing, do we really know the line between self and not-self?  What is this “self”?  Am I my mind? Does self include my body?  The air I am breathing?  Or am I the complete continuum between my awareness and the experience?  Is that who I am?

In my opinion, all we know for sure, is the bodily sensation of experiencing in the moment.  Experiences don’t exist in the past or the future, other than in the form of an idea. There is only the body sensation of experiencing in the moment.   In truth, our identity is constantly morphing through experience.  However, our fearful faux-self attempts to fix our identity as constant.  Something concrete to hold on to.  This version of “self” is only an idea, a fantasy to protect a made-up me, who isn’t real, who I am trying to make real, in order to feel safe and secure.  Trying to make real in the sense of creating a boundary between inner me and outer world.  Like any other fantasy, this “selfing” is a project designed to take a break from the intimacy and intensity of reality.

Interesting things happen when we just look at experience without constructing boundaries or concepts.  We are left with just the feeling of experiencing, a body sensation, without the need to explain or a desire to push away or cling to that experience.

If I can stick with the sensory experiencing without migrating my awareness to my chattering, concept-crazy mind, there are no bad or good experiences.  Nothing to scare me or seduce me. Just the experience of experiencing, to rest into, and then to wisely respond from a quiet untriggered depth.

When a potentially challenging event occurs, a surprising change, or potential disappointment, we can experience it without judging it as a threat to our identity, or our made-up sense of what should or shouldn’t happen.  We can stay with the body sensation and emotional affect without moving to our internal stories.  The sensation will pass, and we can respond quietly and wisely, rather than react noisily and defensively.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” –Victor Frankl (Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor)

A happy and successful life is one where we are constantly accepting and adapting to new experiences.   We come to know those experiences as integral to our evolving and maturing identity.   We no longer have the self-protective need to maintain the status quo of a fixed historical idea of who we are and how things should be.

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