Musings and Introspection

The Not So Easy Art of Observation

The art of observation is tough, and as stated in one of my last posts about getting out of your head which was about being more present in your own life, this topic of observation goes hand in hand. How often are you able to sit back and observe what’s happening around you or what might be happening directly to you and just watch – without reaction. As I sit here sipping my coffee with my house still asleep and quiet, I am pondering the same thing. I’ve been working a lot during my daily 10 minute meditation to focus on being present and not instantly reacting but Geez Louise that’s really freaking hard. We are wired to react, to take action, to “figure it out”, and to jump in and take charge. But why? My oldest son who is now 20, when he was just a toddler loved to ask the question, “But why?” and it would come out all as one word – like this “butwhyyyy?” So I argue that you ask yourself the same question, in a little toddler drawn out high pitched voice. Ready? “BUTWHYYYY??” Exactly. Why? Why do we need to react instead of just being in the moment, observing, noticing, totally present, and simply looking at what the situation is rather than solving it, stressing over it, or tackling it?

All the best advice I’ve ever been given always includes NOT to make any spur of the moment decisions and I think this should hold true during our day to day moments, conflicts, and situations that suddenly arise. I’m practicing this notion of mindfulness in the form of simple observation and although it sounds super stinking silly to just sit around and observe your life – it’s really actually working to keep my nerves a bit calmer, my anxiety a bit more at bay, and my day a bit happier. I know what you are asking, “What does observing your life rather than reacting look like?” I’ll explain now, but let me remind you, I’m still a student myself – so I get this wrong all the time, and honestly, I think being aware of my reactionary tendencies is the biggie here and I believe that for you as well, this simple awareness will help.

Here’s a snippet of my life and what I’m doing to practice “just observing”. Let me set the scene – it’s 8am and I’m happily making breakfast – until – my dogs start barking at nothing, probably just they neighbors cat in the front yard – but it’s like all hell has broke lose. My old senile Jack Russell is throwing himself against the glass panel next to my front door, the border collie is practically doing back flips, and the Chihuahua is barking like she’s on fire. Simultaneously Rowan (the 8 year old) starts screaming that Jaden (the 12 year old) is being a jerk and he flings himself on the floor in the kitchen in front of the stove crying, and that’s when I notice the smell of burnt bacon wafting from my oven. All in this exact moment my phone starts to ring and I see that this is a call I’ve been waiting for regarding an important project I’m collaborating on and I really really really need to talk to this person. Also a text pops up while my phone is ringing from my husband wondering if there’s any food ready and if I could run it down to the office for him. Oh, and then my doorbell rings with a package delivery and that sets the dogs into an even louder, more frenetic frenzy.  Trust me, this is not an exaggeration. This is the real deal crap that we all deal with – and my life is not any less messy than yours, I promise!

Old me? REACT as I feel the panic rising, my chest gets tighter with anger and frustration, and I immediately jump in and take massive and totally unhelpful action. I try to answer my phone because it feels like if I don’t the world will end while simultaneously dragging all three insane dogs out the back door while I’m turning off the burning bacon oven with my foot and my phone is jammed awkwardly between my shoulder and my ear as I’m mouthing to my wailing son to please quiet down while I give him the “cut it out” signal with my other hand that’s not holding a barking Chihuahua – you know the signal, the crazed mother waving her hand in front of her throat like she’s going to slice it while mouthing “please stop, stop it, Rowan, please, not now, it’s ok, STOP IT!” Yeah, totally works every single time – this scenario – works like gold, everything just falls into place, right? NOT!

Now let’s look at the new me – well I should say – what I’m working on when it comes to the art of observation. Same scenario, different game plan. I start by just taking a deep inhale in and then letting it out. I look at the situation rather than diving in head first with the notion to fix it. What’s really important here? My sanity. That’s what’s really important here. I’m looking at my life like I’m a bird perched on a wire rather than diving out of the airplane without a parachute. I observe. All of this takes just a few seconds but it gives me time to think rather than react and it gives me time to process rather than panic. I take another deep breath and than I tell myself, in my head, what is happening. My internal dialogue goes something like this. “Rowan is upset and the dogs are freaking out and my phone is ringing and this call is important.” Just telling myself what is happening, like I’m watching a movie instead of acting in one, helps me sort out the chaos rather than being a part of it. I feel more at peace, more in control, and less like a pawn in the game called life where I’m tossed into the battle with no idea of how to win the war. In this space, I’m able to assess and then address. Now I can prioritize.

Here’s the good news with phones these days. You can use them to call people back and the stuff that seems so important in the moment can always wait, and when I observe instead of react, usually the wait time to get to the important issues are less and the end result is way more productive. The next step – I’m still not reacting, but instead I share my observations. I let Rowan know what I’m observing instead of trying to make it all stop. I kneel down next to him and tell him know what I’m seeing. “You’re angry with Jaden, he made you super mad, take a deep breath with me and tell me what happened but first let’s get the dogs outside so I can really hear you.” Next, dogs go outside but without me wanting to kill them one by one. At this point, the call has gone to voicemail and once my life is back in order and the burnt bacon is out of the oven and the noise has diminished I can move on to the next thing – with a lot more peace and lot more focus. Observe first, and instead of reacting, take the appropriate action.

Does it always work this beautifully? No way – that would be me just making stuff up if I told you that. However, it helps me stay calm, more focused, and less crazy. Not reacting feels really really good. It gives me a sense of awareness that I didn’t have before and I can talk myself through the situation rather than being in the eye of the storm because no one can make a smart decision in the middle of a tornado, but when you are observing one, you usually have time to figure out how to get out of the way.

Now it’s your turn. Give it a try, see how the art of observation might give you more peace and clarity and holy guacamole, it might even make you a healthier person because you’ll ratchet down that stress level a TON. Let me know what you think? Have you tried this tactic? How’s your meditation practice going? Have you noticed other changes in your own life because of it?

Sarah Fragoso

Sarah Fragoso is an international best selling author of 6 books, co-owner of the Chico, CA based gym JS Strength and Conditioning, and founder of the Everyday Paleo franchise. Sarah is the co-host of the popular Sarah and Dr. Brooke Show podcast and she also conducts workshops and retreats on the subjects of nutrition, lifestyle and fitness.

Her message is from the heart and she carries a genuine desire to help other families looking for guidance. These attributes have contributed to her successes and provide the drive to keep the discoveries coming.

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  1. As always, love what your putting out there, this could totally be my life too. I’ve definitely observed that with my 4 year old taking a super calm, more observation stance works wonders. The trick though is to actually be calm. It’s funny how our phones can be the boss of us right!?

    1. Thanks so much Melanie! Totally hear you with the whole phone being boss thing – I have to remind myself all the time that I don’t NEED to always be available!!! It helps to set rules for myself about when it’s ok for me to answer it/use it – but always sticking to those rules are the hardest part.

      1. Melanie Carpenter says:

        True that Sister!

  2. Roy Williams says:

    This is extremely sound advice. As one with chronic depression due to in part PTSD I have struggled with high levels of stress leading to high levels of cortisol which have contributed to my obesity, hypertension and diabetes. Meditation has helped immensely but so has exercising regularly. I also think it has helped to read and talk to others about their successes in stress reduction. Interaction with others promotes mindfulness.

    1. Hi Roy, I totally agree that interaction with others promotes mindfulness – especially when you can share your experiences, challenges, and triumphs with one another! Thank you so much for sharing your story and I’m so glad to hear that meditation and exercise has helped so much – both totally positive outlets with only awesome side effects.

  3. I LOVE everything about this post! I’m 41 , with 3 boys that I homeschool! I have and am learning on a daily basis, moment to moment sometimes. I have let the voicemail pick up rather than answering, which is still such a challenge for me! I have learned to walk into my boys bedroom, breathe turn around close the door…then later call and t as l4l to them calmly about cleaning their rooms, lol. Rather than ranting like a mad lunatic! I appreciate your transparency and vulnerability. I have 2 of your cook books and the one where u share your story is the reason I started eating Paleo.

    1. Hi Melissa! We are all learning on a daily basis – that’s for sure! I love it – the alternative to “ranting like a mad lunatic” which I still find myself doing sometimes but is ultimately so much less productive than the alternative. All we can do is strive to do the best we can and take from our “everyday learning” what works for us and apply it to our lives and hope for the best!

  4. MaryBeth says:

    Hi Sarah,
    First time responder. I read your last two posts and feel like I’ve known you my whole life!
    This last one about observing is great and one that I will definitely practice.
    My son has aspergers and he has taught me an awful lot about breathing, mindfulness, processing , and simplifying during chaos.
    I especially like how you prioritized Rowan and worked your way down the list.
    Kids need to know they matter and feel like you have their back.
    Any decision that is made in the best interest of children is key.
    Meditation is hard for me but I have started yoga and love the meditating at the end of class.
    I have already seen a huge difference in just a few weeks.
    Have a great Memorial Day weekend!

    1. I love yoga for that reason – it kind of tricks you into a little bit of meditation! I think whatever works for you is what works and if yoga keeps you calm and centered than PERFECT! I hope you have a great Memorial Day Weekend also! 🙂

  5. I was so happy to see a post from you again. I have been on this “path” to mindfulness for a while now and it is such a more pleasant place to be – for everyone involved, INCLUDING our 1 year old german short hair!!

    There are many aspects that have changed my life, but the most recent significant change I have made is not reacting when my girls are fighting with each other. One day I realized no matter how mad they are at each other, within 10 minutes they are best friends again while I am still boiling from their fight. (I also homeschool so they are together ALL THE TIME!) I vocalized this to them (they are 8 and 11) and told them I would no longer get involved in their arguments. The stress reduction for me has been tremendous and they have figured out better solutions to their disagreements than just “getting mom!” Sometimes the most simple answers are actually the ones that work!! I started this about 6 weeks ago and the effect is just as strong today as when I first started!

    Thanks for writing!

    1. Hi Jenny! You are so freaking right about the arguing thing – I think I get more upset than my boys ever do when they fight but if I can just stay calm and let them work it out – it’s always SOOOOO much better than when I try to get too involved – and like you said, they are over it in minutes!! Love it!

  6. ClaraT says:

    Ah Sarah, this will be the third time in my over stressed space that this same sort of information has been presented. I am one of the people, who in my overactive fight or flight instinct, does not climb up the ladder, I start off on the top rung. Immediately seeing the worst case scenario as the reality. My feelings get in the way of reality. I appreciate what you shared as it is such a real picture of life. Your recipes got me started on my Paleo journey, now I get to join you in strolling into mindfulness. Enjoy your journey!!

    1. Thanks so much Clara – we all are inclined to start off on the top rung – it’s totally about getting out of our own heads which is super hard but with practice, like anything else, it becomes easier over time. 🙂

  7. Debra says:

    Thank you so much for the encouraging article today! I needed this sooo much, right now. I plan on putting this into practice the next time ‘the eruption happens’! I shouldn’t have long to wait I’m sure 🙂

    1. Thank you Debra!! Let me know how the tactic goes, I hope it helps! 🙂

  8. Rick says:

    Thanks for this article Sarah. I am experiencing some demanding people at work lately that are impatient and want answers Now!. But observing instead of reacting has helped me also. Taking a deep breath then calmly taking care of the requests one by one. I recently started meditating again, and I think it’s helping in dealing with this situation.

    Also wanted to mention best of luck on your new Podcast. Looking forward to hearing it!

    1. This is great Rick! Just remembering to breath is so important, most of us live in a chronic state of holding our breath and not doing that full inhale/exhale which that alone helps tremendously with stress and how we handle difficult situations. Thanks for the good luck wishes for the new podcast, hopefully will be hitting iTunes soon! I’ll keep you all posted!

  9. Stacy says:

    Great advice! I definitely need to incorporate more observing rather than reacting to stressful situations. Thanks so much!

    1. You are so very welcome Stacy! 🙂

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