Photo Credit: Marty Correia Kate Sitting with Rothko
In the study of physics, the Observer Effect is the theory that the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon.
I am not a scientist and I will take the words above for face value while letting you know that scientists and mathematicians have observed, documented, and proven this concept to be true. The Observer Effect and a belief that our bodies know what they need in order to heal without input from our egos, ids, and superegos can help us find our way to our authentic selves over and over again.
The stories below are connected to the Observer Effect in some way. They are also connected to being able to trust that there is some knowledge beyond our thoughts that can guide us if we let it.
Searching for Peace Amidst the Tragedy of the Holocaust
I recently read a book by Ellen Korman Mains, Buried Rivers: A Spiritual Journey into the Holocaust. It is an excellent book in which Ellen recounts her journeys to Europe to connect with the residue of energies left over from the Holocaust, which she sensed while traveling on a train in Germany. She felt these as a combination of grief, revulsion, and much more. Ellen eventually made finding a way of relating to these energies her life’s work and has written this book to describe her journey.
What Ellen found when she came in contact with these unresolved energies or spirits, was that she eventually was able to hold space for them by dropping the habitual tendencies to judge them (thereby fearing or rejecting them) or to identify with them (thus feeling shame). As she learned to hold space for them in this neutral way, a natural state of compassion emerged.
As Ellen held space for them, they also held space for her own healing. The process that both she and the suffering spirits shared provided mutual benefit. Because of her capacity to observe and sense into energies that others might not be able to recognize, she was able to hold a space of compassionate presence for them. With her support, these spirits were able to experience their own capacity to heal. At the same time, her connection to the Holocaust, as the daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, also improved.
In doing this work, Ellen was supported in her lifelong quest to live deeply in the present. Her Buddhist practice and Focusing practice helped her find basic goodness even in the aftermath of the Holocaust by accepting exactly what was already there, and bringing to it an attitude of steady, quiet attention and open curiosity. In the end, she found she could heal herself while helping others through the practice of holding space for what was there, allowing the energies she encountered to be witnessed, and giving them the time and space they needed to heal.
Ellen continues this work by sharing her book with audiences around the world.
Kate and Mark Rothko Observing His Space Together
A friend, Kate, told me about an experience at the Whitney Museum in New York City. She was interested in having a more meditative experience in the museum rather than walking by one painting after another. She asked the staff to provide her with a small stool that some museums offer patrons so that one can take time to sit and be with a painting or art object.
As Kate walked around the museum, she found a painting that called to her. It was Mark Rothko’s Four Darks in Red. (https://whitney.org/collection/works/897 ) Kate put her stool down and sat in front of the painting. As she observed the painting, something occurred to her. The space between her and the painting was Rothko’s space—the area he used to produce this work of art. This is how she describes her experience.
Proximity. The space between me and the painting was his. As I sit, six or so feet from the fields of red, saturated reds to browns, I feel as if I share his gaze over time and distance. I feel his presence and wonder to him:
Is any of this paint your blood? You knew how to open a vein, it would take you, eventually. Did you do that for us? Is your blood crossing time to draw me to you today?
The painting’s fleshy pink and beige undertones are framed in red and layered over with fields of darker tones. From bottom to top the paint layers increase in saturation and deepen into hue. A cramped muddy band caps the composition; under it, the darkest and largest field rests heavily. This field seems emotionally deep, spiritually intense, and physically weighty to me; if it were a three-dimensional object, it would be as dense as lead or as deep as six feet under.
Is this an exploration of life to death? Your mother, Kate, had died ten years before this painting. Your daughter Kate is eight years old. Are you tracking stages of birth to burial? Could it be that the under painting tones are depicting the tenderness of a new born pink baby with layering into the dark tones of damp soil and decomposition? You are twelve years away from taking your life. Are the layers of paint rendering the depth and weight of your angst?
In this dis-temporal experience, did I catch a glimpse of you? Am I close enough to ask what were your joys? What felt like toil? Can I know you?
Was it exhilarating to release a finished work, or was it depleting, or something else? Did you know who you were going to be to us? Did you know you’d reach me today, 60-some years later? Do you see me here? My heart is full of love–of and for you—your work, they are one. I want to travel to your time and remove your pain and suffering. But, would that have killed your compulsion, calling, drive to create? Was painting your exercise or exorcism? As I sit at the foot of your offering I ask—are you free now? Or do you still suffer?
On the way back,in the school bus hired for the ride with the group of seniors I accompanied, I noticed something:
Photo Credit: Kate Conroy
A brown vinyl cushion installed over the bus door frame is patched with a strip of brown tape; its corners are lifted and the band has slipped, partially framing itself in a gummy adhesive. Striking me as visually connected, this image brought me back to the thin brown band at the top of the frame of Four Darks in Red.
Bouncing along in a humid, janky school bus, I feel your presence and wonder, could I find you anywhere, if I simply notice?
A Childhood Moment Observed is a Trauma Changed
I’ve written before about my childhood trauma that is mostly from an early part of my life and difficult to reach because of the non-verbal nature of the trauma—much of it happened before I could speak. I work mostly with movement without talking, asking questions, or creating labels for what I find. In a session with one of my Italian-speaking focusing partners, I sensed into my body and allowed whatever movement my body needed to come for me.
I found my hands moving around the edge of a large block in front of me. As my arms kept on finding, extending, defining the boundaries of this energy field and I waited for more to come. At some point, I found my arms moving in a circular motion at my sides. I noticed that, while moving in a circle, my left arm felt impeded at a certain point in its path.
My arms then stayed in the general area of the impediment as if it were finding a way to move through it. What came to me was an image of being a young child who wanted comfort from my mother. This younger self reached her arms up to my mother, and my mother shamed her for wanting to be held—a combination of not deserving that comfort and annoyance that this younger self thought she did deserve it. I connected to that feeling of wanting comfort, of hoping support would come from my mother and sensing shame that it did not. I wasn’t experiencing it in this moment; however, I was observing the felt sense of my younger self.
I continued moving in the same manner for a while, and something jolted my body—a fear that my mother would hit me if I didn’t leave her space. Now there was also fear of violence and the sadness that knew the needed comfort would surely never happen. This time it was a combination of the felt sense of my younger self and the felt sense of “Me Here Now” who knew how this all turned out. It was essential for me to observe all the aspects of the experience fully. (I like to think of my younger self in a different dimension rather than a part of me or something in me.)
My grounded self held space for my younger self and let it know that it was safe from harm. I observed its wanting, the shame, fear, and sadness and held these felt senses with compassion and love. I asked that universal love and energy be available to us now.
I always had a body sense of the rejection of my mother. This small gesture could have created a lifelong sense of confidence in my body. Instead, however, it created just the opposite. It may have been the moment this pattern originated. Its memory is also the moment that helped me connect to this lifelong experience of a lack of support/not deserving support and allowed me to be able to observe it and give it space and time to become aware of itself. This part showed up through movement and only required my observation of it to find its forward motion. I now spend time with this younger self, and it is pleasurable. It feels like I am making up for the lost time with someone I love but didn’t know was there.
The Observer Effect on our Well-being
What happened for all three of us was that we connected to our bodies’ sense of something we were experiencing. We observed what emerged and accepted it as it was, and we waited for more to come. We also allowed our bodies to guide us to the next moment rather than become entangled in the drama of the energies that we encountered.
When you read more about the Observer Effect, there are discussions, research, and mathematical equations that explain how much observation is needed to create a certain amount of change. Not surprisingly, the more observation there is, the more change occurs.
I strongly urge everyone to visit Addie van der Kooy’s work on this blog and to listen to Kevin McEvenue’s Intunements to learn more about how a daily Wholebody Focusing practice may help one increase one’s observational time of self, which may result in a higher capacity to heal. When we find and observe the doppelgänger of our trauma, we may find our healing.
For Ellen, the Observer Effect shifted her experience of the Holocaust when the spirits she encountered on her journeys to Poland and Germany met her energetic self’s holding of her family’s Holocaust tragedy. For Kate, her observation of the space in which Rothko worked led to an amazing connection to Mark Rothko that gave her an opportunity to deeply sense what his art means to her. For me, observing my younger self and experiencing the birth of my trauma allowed me to hold my younger self in the way it always wanted to be held.