We are going to spend just a few minutes thinking about watching a movie that has been really important to us. Or for the avid sports fans (perhaps football, boxing, baseball, etc.), you may think of one of those games or matches you watched that changed your life (maybe a Super Bowl victory for your favorite team, or the Ali-Foreman fight, if you’re into that kind of thing). Since movies are the most universal example, we will use this for our little thought exercise.
Take a moment, and remember a time when you watched a movie that really, deeply affected you. This could be your absolute favorite movie, or one that you’ve only seen once that just seems to stick with you. Most of us have had at least one of those experiences, where a film has changed us or changed the way we think about things.
As you watched this movie, recall how you are completely drawn into the personal stories of the characters involved. When a character experiences loss, grief and pain, we can actually feel it. We may even cry when this character cries. Or we may experience an immense joy at their accomplishment or achievement, which was won after an intense struggle, or victory over great adversity. When our character perseveres and overcomes, you can feel yourself smiling, or even cheering. And when someone hurts “our” character, you feel their pain, or you may share in their anger.
These films take us on a “rollercoaster” of feelings and emotions. We may feel enraged, excited, terrified, sad, ecstatic, hopeful, happy or a variety of other feelings. The point is: we get lost in the stories on the screen. At times we literally forget that we are sitting in a room, watching a movie. In these moments, we live vicariously through the characters’ experiences and become deeply involved in their story. We get “captured” by them, and can get so tangled up in their stories that, in some sense, we mistake ourselves for the characters that we are watching on screen. And so we begin to forget that we are even “us”… we forget that we are “watching” anything at all.
Now that you’ve remembered the kind of film experience I’m talking about, let’s consider a few things… and although this is just a “thought experiment”, I would recommend actually trying this the next time you find yourself caught up in a moving story.
What if, while watching the movie, you realize that you are just watching a movie. This seems obvious of course, but if you really think about it, in those moments that grip you, you sometimes forget. You may think, “oh yeah I’m watching a movie”, but a few minutes later you’re right back in it again. So if you think about yourself “watching” the movie, you may realize that you are “not really there” in the story, but instead, you are behind the camera. You are actually watching the story that the camera is showing you.
If you pay attention, you will notice the camera moving this way and that way, taking wide angle shots, close ups, zooming or shaking to give you the effect of movement. Again, when you watch a movie, you are like the camera, which is showing you a story. You may get “pulled in” by the story at times, but then you remember that you’re the camera and suddenly you start to see the bigger picture. In those moments, in which you recognize that you’re the camera, which is “watching” the story, you can see all sorts of things that you hadn’t noticed before, like the scenery, the colors, the lighting and so on. By doing this, you take a little step back from all of the drama that’s unfolding in front of you.
So why is this thought-experiment relevant?
Think of yourself as the “camera” again, and now think of the “story” as all those thoughts, memories, feelings and emotions that you have running through your mind right now. You may have intensely anxious thoughts about something that hasn’t happened yet, along with all those terrible scenarios being played out in your head. Or maybe you’re having an angry feeling about something that was said to you this morning, last week or a decade ago. Or you’re stuck on a memory about how embarrassed you felt when you made that mistake. Or you could be having thoughts about how you’re a failure, weak or inadequate. Sometimes we realize that these thoughts are “just thoughts” and other times we mistake ourselves for them and come to believe that they are the truth.
All of these thoughts, feelings, memories and sensations are really just the story going on in our minds, just as the characters, scenes and dialogue are really just the story going on in the movie. And just as you can remind yourself that you are “the camera” watching a story in a movie, you can also remind yourself that you are “the camera” watching a story in your own mind. When you realize this, you may begin to notice, even if it’s for just a single fleeting moment, that the story in your mind is nothing more than a story in your mind. It is not the “ultimate” truth. It is merely a story.
And so you can watch it, and notice what’s happening in the scene- noticing all the things coming and going, this way and that, changing shape and form. You may notice the characters arguing in your mind, about how you should or shouldn’t feel or think a certain way, or about whether or not you’re “good enough” for others to like you, or whatever else might be going on that’s causing you some distress. Remember that you’re the camera, which is “watching” the story. Notice when you begin to get sucked back into this story in your mind, and just gently remind yourself to watch what’s going on, even if it’s only for a split second.
I am not suggesting that it is possible to be “watching” all the time. In fact, while writing this, I have been sucked into my own story about 50 times, and gotten all caught up in a variety of thoughts about myself, and anxious feelings about things that haven’t happened yet. If you decide to try out this practice of “watching”, it’s important for you to understand that there is no “right way” or “wrong way” to do it. Rather, it’s in seeing that this moment holds an opportunity for you to remind yourself that you are not the story in your mind, but instead you’re the “thing” that’s watching it. What this practice does is allow us to take a step back from our troubling thoughts and feelings and to be present with ourselves. Too often, we end up believing all the thoughts and ideas in our minds, and when they’re not helpful to us, it leaves us with anxious feelings and even more critical thoughts. This is how we mistake ourselves for the characters in our own mind. And just like when watching a movie, sometimes it’s okay to get caught up in the story. And sometimes, it might be helpful to say, “oh yeah, these are just thoughts… this is just a story.”
The example mentioned above is just one way to look at these things, so you may find that a different approach is more helpful. Everyone is different! It’s important to note that this is just an introduction to one possible way of developing self-awareness, and it is not a solution to “fixing” any specific problem(s). If you decide to continue reading SPIRO, you may find another approach that works for you, or maybe you’ll get inspired and develop your own. If not inspired, maybe you’ll just get frustrated, and end up developing your own method. Whatever works for you!