Impulse and Consciousness: The Interplay of Observer, Body, Mind and Spirit
Updated: Sep 8, 2020
Where do impulses come from? And what does a conscious person do with them?
I believe the truth of the matter is that they come from many things, including the subconscious, and physical need, among others. They can be the result of “this situation looks like the other one, and that one made me feel bad, so I had better do this…” The subconscious is where this particular dialogue plays out very frequently. This, by the way, is how unhealed traumas speak to us – usually in terms of fearful “what if” scenarios.
To further flesh out how unhealed traumas influence us, have you ever met someone that simply didn’t sit right with you, but you can’t put your finger on why that’s the case? It’s happened to me before. It’s strange when it does because I pretty much like everyone by default. It seldom happens now, but when it did occur, a contraction would appear in my body that I was unable to explain; a block or a hitch in my gut. It put me on edge with this new person for no discernible reason.
In the past 4-5 years, I’ve developed tools to track this contraction. I found that there was usually something about the new person that reminded me of a situation that brought me pain or fear in the past. They could be completely innocent – and of course they were if they were new to me. But in these instances, I hadn’t entirely processed the trauma that the new person was triggering, so my subconscious was still empowered to try to “protect me,” which is one of its jobs. In other words, until I process emotional hurts and do the work to heal, I give this part of my psyche unspoken permission to mess with my life - including making me suspicious of a new person for no good reason. The first step to taking control of this aspect of my life back has been to develop the ability to recognize triggers and stop giving their stories the importance they wish me to give them. This is one way that racism and bigotry are kept alive – through our own unhealed wounds. Someone “looks like that” and their tossed into the “they might hurt me” pile without doing anything to deserve it.
Geez, this is heavy so far. Let’s back it down a notch and take a look at something not so morally charged. How about simple hunger, for instance?
Hunger isn’t an impulse, though; it’s a condition. But with food available at every city street corner, we may move to satisfy it impulsively. This includes, “it’s only food in the sense that it’s possible to eat it,” category of food. The impulse to consume this kind of fare can be very strong, for reasons I’ll identify in a second. And impulse is what we want to talk about today.
For example, let’s say I’m in a checkout line at 1pm and the sight of a Snickers bar reminds me that I didn’t have breakfast and I’m late for lunch, so my blood sugar is low. I buy the candy and consume it entirely by about the time I hit the exit at the grocery store. Although eating it was almost entirely unconscious, it satisfies me temporarily.
Now, while the hunger may be abated, I know this is a temporary fix. Of course it is; as long as we’re alive we need to be fed. Any meal is a temporary fix. But this kind of food, I know, falls into that “it’s only food in the sense that it’s possible to eat it” category I mentioned a second ago. In other words, as “real” food it’s incomplete at best. It provides a sugar spike that will be processed by my body quickly, will provide little actual nourishment, and will leave me hungry for actual nourishment soon. But I also know it tastes good, it’s convenient, and it’s inexpensive. These characteristics remove easily identifiable, familiar barriers to the purchase and consumption of food in general. Namely that of taste (it’s good), convenience (very - it’s sitting there staring at me), and cost (cheap).
The question is, why were these the only factors in my decision?
Have I not committed like, a million times, to cutting sugar from my diet? To eating healthy? To planning my meals the day before so these kinds of situations are avoided? Am I really going to sacrifice a commitment to myself because of a mere impulse? Is the $1.29 I’m going to pay for the Snickers really a value? I mean, I can get a Costco dog and a Coke for $1.50, only 21 cents more. That’s better, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Sure, it’s more “food,” and it is more balanced, and it looks like something more akin to a meal – barely. But I’m sure we can agree that this isn’t exactly a good meal, either.
Neither of these “fixes”… Wait, here’s an interesting thought.
I just referred to the Snickers as giving my blood sugar level a “spike.” And then, just now, I included the Costco cuisine as a potential “fix.” Both these terms, “spike” and “fix” are terms drug addicts use. A spike is a needle (Neil Young sings “…motorcycle mama won’t you lay your big spike down”), and a fix is what an addict needs to start his day. Consider that it’s widely known that processed sugar is about as addictive as heroin, and that sugar is an unhealthy - if not unsafe - food to consume in nearly any quantity. Yet, both these wonderful meals contain sugar as a large component of their caloric makeup. This is true of many and maybe most foods in the Standard American Diet, also accurately known as the “SAD.” It’s no wonder we’re depressed, overweight, stressed, and spiritually hollow. It’s exactly what our food is, vibrationally speaking. And we’re all familiar with the term, “you are what you eat.”
As I was about to say above, with either of these fixes to my low blood sugar condition, Costco or Snickers, I sacrifice something. I understand and believe that what we put into our bodies and minds carries vibrational “signatures.” In general, the “physical” literally vibrates at lower frequencies than the purely “spiritual” (meaning “that which is unembodied”). Physical items, including food, vibrate differently from one another along a spectrum of possibilities, too. Just as crystal and gold vibrate at a higher resonance than sandstone, a handful of raw almonds and a glass of spring water vibrate higher than Snickers and a Coke.
Now, if I didn’t believe this to be true, my decision to chomp a Snickers to tide me over until I can get real food wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But belief carries energy, and the more specific it is, the more energy it carries. This is particularly true if it’s aligned with objective truth. Of course, I can’t argue with molecular science no matter what I believe, so this kind of food is going to have the effect on my cells that science says it will have. Specifically, it’s going to cause my human mechanism to stop signaling my brain that my blood sugar is low. But the snack is also going to send more low-vibe sugar than I can effectively burn into my body. If I spend the rest of the day in a sedentary way, driving around for instance, then part of that candy will turn into fat. Some fat will be processed out, some will lodge in my arteries, and some will surround my internal organs. All this happens automatically, and independent of my belief.
But worse than this is the fact that when I choose to eat like this, I’m choosing a path that’s incongruent with my higher understanding, which is this: if I wish for my body and mind to get or stay aligned with the higher, more ethereal vibration of my spirit (which, by the way, is how “spiritual” people live), then I need to not only pay attention to what I consume, but to align my actions with that understanding.
In other words, the “Snickers impulse” (sounds like a clinical term: “Maam, your son is suffering from Snickers Impulse…there’s little hope”) is at odds with my spiritual understanding and belief. The belief is saying, “choose this road,” while my actions are saying, “Naw, I think we’ll go over here.”
So, what happens when I choose a path like this; when I choose convenience, taste and cost over my own understanding? This is the first question. It has to do with what happens to the energy of the belief itself as well as the personal power that increases when our beliefs and actions align with truth. A second and more helpful question might be to ask, “What might empower me to more effectively, consistently, and with ease choose actions that align with my understanding and self-agreements, goals, and truth?”
Let’s take these two questions in turn.
First, at some level as I’m unwrapping that candy bar, I know that I’m not acting in accordance with my own desires. At least not the ones that align with Spirit. I’m talking about those desires that come when I’m in a meditative state, or maybe when I’m in front of my awesome altar, or conducting personal or public ceremony. In those instances, sometimes I feel so alive and connected to All That Is that I break into spontaneous laughter. This is actually so common an occurrence that it’s been named, “shamanic ecstasy.” But with this kind of sugary cuisine, there’s none of that. Instead, there’s something akin to confusion within myself.
The confusion sounds like this. “Yeah, but you said you weren’t going to eat sweets anymore. What gives?” In this instance, what I’ve said to myself in sacred moments are incongruent with my actions in the checkout line.
When this is the case, something within myself also happens. To illustrate it, let me ask if you’ve ever had a friend that you couldn’t count on to be on time? After a while, you can’t trust them to be where they say they’re going to be. They may say, “I’ll be there at 8, sharp” but you say to yourself, “Yeah, maybe you will and maybe you won’t.” Eventually, you may try to trick your friend by telling them to be there at 7 instead, because you know they’ll be late anyway. Or you may tell them to get there early because there’s going to be a crowd.
If you think about it, though, these are tricks you might try on a ten-year old. But it’s not just the tricks that are juvenile, it’s the behavior of the friend that I’m trying to manipulate in this situation. Now, I don’t like being in a position where I feel like I need to do that. In fact, I refuse to do it. Manipulation isn’t something I want to do or have done to me, at all. Instead, I’m more likely to stop counting on the friend if I feel I have to manipulate them into honoring basic commitments. That might mean less time together. Trust has definitely been damaged, at least regarding this situation. Worse yet, even simple respect might have taken hits. This last one can sink a relationship.
So it is with our relationships with ourselves when we act … well, I was going to say, “out of character.” But being disingenuous or out of integrity with ourselves can become a character trait, too, right? So, I’ll change my words to say, “So it is with us when we act out of alignment with ourselves.” “Ourselves” refers to the part of us that makes inspired goals that serve both the body and the Spirit. Note that I also call the Self, “the Observer” later on.
In the end, if we compromise ourselves in this way too often, our ability to trust ourselves takes a hit. If it goes on for too long, we may play games in order to trick ourselves into obeying our higher vibrational, spiritually-inspired goals. We may, in other words, find ourselves manipulating situations to make it easier on ourselves.
For example, if we have a soft spot for sweets and overwrought dramatic television, we might move the cookie jar to a higher shelf and give the tv remote to our roommate. Sure, we could get a step-ladder to access the cookies and we can ask our roomie for the remote. Either way, the idea is to put one more step between the impulse and the unconscious act that fulfills it.
When we behave this way, the hope is that within the interim between impulse and its habitual, unconscious or unfortunate fulfillment, we will come to our (deeper) senses and make a choice that aligns more with our higher-vibrational desires than our lower-vibrational ones. What we’re really looking for here is time.*
And it works for a while. Until the roommate leaves town, that is. So, she leaves the remote on the couch just like it was in “the good ol’ days.” Or another roommate leaves the cookie jar on the countertop. In these situations, the mind says, “there’s no space between impulse and action anymore! Woohoo!” And you end up spending the long weekend binge watching Game of Thrones and eating pink and white frosted animal cookies.
Of course, after that, self-respect and the relationship with the Self is called into question, just like it would be for a friend we can no longer trust. **
This is because, in these instances, responsibility to stay on track had been abdicated to physical fixes; the hiding of the remote and the inconvenience of the cookie jar on a high shelf. The problem is we’re talking about spiritual problems, not merely physical ones. Just as we are both physical and spiritual beings, our challenges are usually that, too. But in the instance of binge-watching-and-binge-eating addictions, this person attempted to treat both with physical barriers alone. The subconscious is too tricky for that, and so is the ego upon which it’s co-dependent. And both play a role when we acquiesce to impulse.
The question is, what can we do to strengthen our ability to walk by that candy bar in the checkout line at 1pm when we have low blood sugar? What power within ourselves can be increased so that we’re more apt to act in congruence with our soulful desires than we are our lower-vibrational ones?
Yes, to written goals. Yes, to telling someone our goals in order to provide accountability. But again, these are arguably both more examples of physical constraints. Not to say they’re not somewhat effective and desirable, but there’s more.
Ultimately, the best thing we can do is to see the impulse without becoming attached to it. To do this effectively, it helps to have a working relationship between the mind and the body, as well as the spirit that animates them both. The relationship between these three entities can with practice be overseen by what’s called, “the Observer.”
Before I get into that, in the case of the Snickers bar, the “hunger” is a physical condition that can originate from the subconscious, the autonomic nervous system, and unconscious habit – which are all separate things. Hunger happens without my permission aside from the fact that on some level, I give permission for it to occur when I choose to remain in a physical body. Physical bodies get hungry, that’s all there is to it.
This is a situation with spiritual connotations if I consider the fact that I believe that too much sugar impedes spiritual communication, and in sacred moments I have felt the call to decrease consumption of it. The mind is what will focus on either the benefit of clean eating and former commitments, or the discomfort of hunger. The body is what the spirit and mind inhabit, and what is providing this afternoon’s drama. The one who “sees” this whole drama taking place is the Observer. If I engage the Observer rather than relegate the decision to my body, mind, or even spirit, it’s this that will decide which will win out and – importantly - how to balance the three. When Observer engages in this way, a “conscious decision” can be made.
If my Observer, that which I call, “I,” is balanced, my self-conversation might look like this. For fun, here’s what it might look like if the conversation is both balanced, and Biblical:
Body: We have low blood sugar and look, here appeareth a Snickers bar!
Mind: We shall purchase it and repair this inconvenience without further consideration.
Spirit: Body and Mind, we have been commanded not to partake of this “food,” for it lowereth my ability to communicate spiritual truths to the human being called, “Marleyface.”
Mind: But consider that the Snickers is a mere 129 pennies! And they taste so good! (The Snickers, not the pennies.) And what about balance – don’t you teach that? Even so, I remember that the Observer hast already made this decision. Remembereth thou when we took Redtail’s class in 2014? We said no more sweets, except very rarely.
Body: But I hunger! I might perish! Me no like!
Spirit: Body, thou wilt surely not perish. Thou canst fast for days, remember? Mind, thou maketh true arguments, I must confess. Body would like something in order to repair his condition. Yet I do not wish to be compromised in my work, either. What shall we do?
Mind: I also feel compassion for the Body, especially since the chemicals in the bloodstream influence my own ability to reason. “The Hangry,” is real…eth. Moreover, there was the time when we went hungry as a little child and “this looks like that,” so we are triggered because this trauma has not been fully processed. I admit that I also am at a crossroads.
Observer (finally breaking in with a smile): We shall note the unfinished trauma business and immediately proceed to Laughing Planet where we shall purchase some organic vegetarian chili for a mere $5. That’s only about $3.50 more than a crummy candy bar. And we shall plan a fire ceremony to complete further work with the trauma. This evening we will make healthy snacks to take with us during the day on the morrow, and thereby free ourselves from this situation. In this way we will satisfy the body, allow the spirit to be effective, and free the mind to concentrate on other things.
Body, Mind and Spirit: Yay! We loveth thee, Observer!
I should talk for a moment particularly about the relationship between spirit, the mind, and the Observer. As you can see from the “verses” above, the Observer is what we use to analyze ourselves and watch this whole drama unfold. If it identifies more with the spirit – the eternal part of ourselves – then it’s more apt to make choices that align with that. If the Observer doesn’t have a strong bond with spirit, it will make choices more apt to align with mind – including the wild and woolly subconscious – or even the lower-vibrating body. We see this all the time, too, particularly with sexual errors.
All this assumes the Observer is operational at all. If it’s not been empowered, we don’t know it exists. In this instance, mind, body and spirit are left to brawl among themselves. The person in this condition (which are legion), has no stability within themselves because each of these components will win out from time to time, yet all have different wants that become needs.
The point is, unless we can train ourselves to remain detached from desire, the habit will be to make the desire into a need when it’s really not. Three-year olds and addicts equate desire with need, not healthy adults. So, how do we refrain from making desires into needs, and give increased control to the Observer? Let me give you a hint. Let’s use more self-talk (non-Biblical this time):
Mind: Hey! It’s time to meditate.
Body: I’m squirmy.
Spirit: Meditation feels good to me.
Observer: Hey, you guys, we’re thinking when we’re supposed to be meditating… let’s head back into the zone.
Body: I want to help! I’ll inhale deeply through my nose and exhale through my mouth.
Spirit: Thank you, body! When you do that, I feel able to communicate with the Observer.
Mind: Um, we’re all thinking again.
Observer: All three of you - can you stop for now?
Spirit, Mind, and Body to Observer, while taking a deep, cleansing breath and then whispering): Shhh…. We’ll be good now. Dropping back in!
In meditation, the desire to think is what arises like a craving for sugar in midday. The untrained mind makes that a need and runs with it; buying the candy bar is analogous to going with the thought. The trained Observer values spirit and sees the mind and thoughts as somewhat separate from itself. In other words, it can see an idea, quickly understand and categorize it, and release it for the moment. It doesn’t believe that the thought has to be processed right now, which is what most thoughts “want.” During meditation (or wherever the Observer is consciously active), a thought can wait to process like my body can wait for vegetarian chili while standing hungrily in a checkout line. The body may want to squirm during meditation, too. An untrained Observer, one that’s identified with what the body wants, will allow it to do so. But a trained Observer will make a split-second decision out of habit to ally more with spirit than it does with the body. Instead of squirming, then, the human organism assists the Observer by going to the breath which takes the whole Community of Four back into the zone.
Meditation, then, is a key to making decisions that align with Spirit - if this is in fact what we wish. By doing so, by practicing it regularly, we become more adept at staying separate from transitory need. We see it rise. We note it. And we release it before attachment forms and it becomes a need. Eventually, like all that we consistently and intentionally practice, this becomes automatic. When it happens automatically, the integrity we need in order to practice self-discipline becomes much more accessible, and less willpower is needed to stay in alignment.
Additionally, we become more sensitive to even smaller desires that otherwise might sidetrack us from our spiritual paths. This increased sensitivity is often called, “spiritual refinement.” Note that we are unable to be refined if we allow ourselves to be controlled by our basic impulses. Refinement happens step by small step, decision by small decision that align with the truths we’ve already been asked to master before proceeding.
Wrapping this up, why is all this important?
I believe that this work that I’ve been describing, the identification with the Observer rather than the body, spirit, or mind, is a key to human evolution. This evolution is what we’re doing now. If it doesn’t look like it, what with all the violence, chaos and upheaval in the world, I’d point out that an egg doesn’t look like a bird, either. There’s a process involved in any kind of evolution or transformation, and it’s always violent to the status quo. The “good” news is that there are no shortcuts to it. Our individual responsibility is to do our own work, period. That means that we have to take a look at our impulses. But not only these. Our preferences, habits, and the tired old stories we tell ourselves about why we’re “this way” or “that way,” why this is “good” and that is “bad,” are all called into the courts of self-inquiry.
I started this essay with a reference to racism and how it’s related to impulsivity and then took it another direction. But let’s return to that now with this question: how much less racism would there be if the Observer within each of us caught the prejudice as it arose from the subconscious? Or from faulty values that were taught by wounded, imperfect parents? If we were able to step back from our triggers as I’ve described, would it be necessary to chant, “Black Lives Matter” today? Would the MeToo Movement have been necessary if more men knew how to compartmentalize in healthy ways their sacred sexuality, and even use it to increase their power to do good in this world rather than continue to traumatize others, especially girls and women?
Would greed be so rampant in the corporate and political worlds? Would we have increased abilities to manage our wants so we can curb our consumption in order to allow other beings including a better chance and survival? Might this include streams, forests, mountains, insects, plants, and animals? I think so.
Many of us have been told that we’re tilling the ground in preparation for “a new human.” No one that I know actually knows what that means. But it’s clear to me that in order for us to prepare, we need to shift ourselves on both macros and micro scales. To do this, personal evolution is key. It’s not about changing others. Good luck with that, anyway. The best way to change the world is to change ourselves. In fact, doing the work of the Inner Seer, what I’ve been describing, is what my mentor Redtail says, “is the highest form of activism.”
A meditation practice then, teaches us how to work with the mind, body, and spirit, by identifying with the Observer which is connected to, yet separate from, all three. Using the Observer as an “access point” into our inner “whats and whys” is one way to refrain from identifying with impulses that are less than helpful. It’s a way to create space between childish desire and conscious choice. And, it was under the direction of Spirit that I made promises in 2014 to my Self during Redtail’s class. The promise was that I would clean up the diet of my body in order to feel more effectively the messages from the Eternal, or Spirit.
Which, it turns out, doesn’t speak Biblically at all.
*Time: What we’re looking for is more of this. However, the shamanic term is “dying to the past.” This means that what we have experienced in our lives has no more emotional charge to it because it’s dead. We’ve tracked the feeling, caught the memory, held it, made it tell its story, extended proper compassion, and released it with gratitude for the gift of wisdom it provided. We find that the sad stories of the past don’t have the same effect on our lives if we don’t allow the emotional charge to take over our own within the present moment. The fewer of these unhealed traumas that exist in our lives, the more time we literally have to be present with whatever arises because we aren’t constantly listening to the “ain’t it awful” stories they want to keep relating to us, or the similar situations they think they’re protecting us from.
** To further illustrate the relationship between current actions and past traumas, please see my poem, “I Felt Bad,” here.
***Note: there's no way to get to the bottom of the Observer. If we end up identifying too much with it, another deeper level is required. The idea is to get outside of identification with "lesser," more contracted versions of ourselves. The Observer is beyond the bulk of our ideals. It exists in alignment with Soul. If / when the times comes that we've assigned egoic values to it, it's time to release it and go a step deeper. Personal ceremony is a great way to do this. Contact me for ideas.
Please stay tuned for my upcoming book: “Poems and Prose to Break Your Knows.” I’ll be self-publishing it sometime this winter.
(artwork by Vishnu Mk)