If this was bone-obvious to everyone else, then silly me, but I just thought of it because I heard these two words separately long ago and connected them while answering another question...

Are "the Observer" and the process of being Mindful, in essence the same thing? Does one involve the other inherently?

I have used them differently and never connected them before, because I thought:

  1. The Observer is a developed system within "me" (which is a collection of points of view of varying levels of awareness) and not everyone has an Observer or is aware of it all the time.
  2. Mindfulness is something I do and is not the activity of another point of view within "me".

But, trying to be mindful when I have only one point of view is not very possible, and who would be mindful, other than the Observer?

Finally: is transcending the Observer (and the need for Mindfulness) the same as Nonduality? I think it is. (Don't worry about answering this question, it is just an idea.)

EDIT: My Healing Teacher said that I have to get people to "define their terms", so here are my definitions:
The Observer is the experience of being aware of myself. It feels like I am witnessing my own thoughts and actions.
Mindfulness is the process of being aware of what I am doing. (To me, this does not require an Observer, but that is what I am asking.)
"Being aware of myself" means... Well, that I know what I am doing right now. Different from the other two.
A Mind - is something that could do otherwise, it exercises choice on some level.
Awareness is the action of a sufficiently developed mind.
Consciousness is awareness of being a self.
A Self is something that knows it is a self, and that other selves know, etc.
(Don't even get me started on the idea of Mindfullness being a way to empty the mind!)

Has this made it any clearer what I am asking? Please try to use words such as these for an answer, supplementing with the appropriate Buddhist terms.

ADDITION: here are some links which I hope can help people understand what I am asking:

  1. This RYUC one is a bit of a muddle, but the Observer corresponds with what I am asking about, and also is similar to what I call a Neo state. The Witness is more like how I would describe nonduality.
  2. This one about Energy Healing says that "In Buddhism, developing the witness/observer is a foundational piece of their teachings." Ha!
  3. In this one, they use the words observer and witness interchangeably.
  • Is this question related?
    – user2341
    Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 18:48
  • Beware that Lanka is suggesting that "mindfulness" is a term used rather loosely (I presume that's from the perspective of the Theravada school and according to the vocabulary of the Pali canon). Mindfulness might be the English word used to describe something which is also translated as "bare attention" but there are nuances (other kinds of mindfulness and/or attention).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 18:48
  • @ChrisW Ask a simple question, get a complex answer. sigh
    – user2341
    Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 18:59
  • My mum dislikes my using non-English words (for example I lost her interest as soon as I tried to mention dukkha).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 19:08
  • 1
    It seems to me that using vocabulary like "being aware of yourself" begs the question (e.g. that there is some well-defined "yourself"). IMO that can't be done unambiguously using conventional (for six-year-olds) words, and instead you might (or then again might not) want to use technical vocabulary with more precise definitions.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 19:48

8 Answers 8


The Observer is the experience of being aware of myself. It feels like I am witnessing my own thoughts and actions.

In Buddhism, "myself" as an entity would be a mind-object: a concept, something one conceived / imagined, which receives attention -- a 'self' is taught to not be in the range of actual experiences such as a touch, a smell or primitive mental phenomena (such as a mental image, or mental sound) that can be contacted.

In Buddhism, one is "aware" of the detailed micro experiences (that, among other things, give rise to a concept of self). In buddhism, this "detailed awareness", or "attention" to a specific "primitive experience" is called consciousness (vinanna), which is formulated in buddhism as six-fold: eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness, mind-consciousness1.

Then, it's said that if there's eye organ and visual forms, eye-consciousness arise. The coming of the three is contact. For example in my visual field now there are bed sheets, wall frames and a TV. But while I write this, I'm not conscious of any of these forms, only of this visual character I'm typing right now.

For example, I just realized there was a lamp in the ceiling with lights on in my visual field, even though it has been reachable all the time. Until that moment, there was no contact (my consciousness was not directed) to this particular visual object.

The same occurs with mind as a sense: there are mind objects (e.g. thoughts) a "mind organ", and a mind-consciousness arise; the coming of the three is contact (e.g. when one gives attention to a particular thought). With contact, pleasant, unpleasant (or neither one) occur -- and so on.

Mindfulness is the process of being aware of what I am doing. (To me, this does not require an Observer, but that is what I am asking.)

I think this is close to what mindfulness (sati) is in buddhism. It has different/related meanings depending on context but without going into details, I would summaryze as Thanissaro Bhikku put it: "What does it mean to be mindful of the breath? Something very simple: to keep the breath in mind."

"Being aware of myself" means... Well, that I know what I am doing right now. Different from the other two.

I'm not sure how your "being aware of what I am doing" is different than your "know what I am doing".

A Mind - is something that could do otherwise, it exercises choice on some level.

In buddhism, I think this could be mano, sankhara, or even possibly cetana.

Awareness is the action of a sufficiently developed mind.

I don't quite understand what you mean on this one.

Consciousness is awareness of being a self.

I would not say one is aware of a self (or 'myself', see first point) -- e.g. as if 'self' was an experienced object grasped by any of the 6 sense faculties. But one does elaborate a (by buddhism, incorrect) understanding of being or having 'a self'.

Now, to the question...

Is Mindfulness the same as having an Observer?

In Buddhism (and if you understand mindfulness to be sati), no.

For a detailed investigation on the meanings of mindfulness I suggest Tse-fu Kuan's Mindfulness in Early Buddhism

1: The point, I think, is not to say that there is such a thing as consciousness and it can be perfectly divided in six part (an ontological statement). Rather, it is that understanding the mind in this way is useful / helps with training and understanding of dhamma, and consequently, with final liberation.

  • I agree that the answer to my question is No. I am not sure how you can say that you know you have a self (even knowing it is illusory) yet not be aware of being a self? It seems like "awareness of self" is the only thing that can be said about selfness. Not being aware that it is, renders it, not. I am not sure that you would pass the Turning Test under that criterion. By contrast, "knowing what you are doing" means that you can answer questions about why you did it. Shrdlu could do that. The Observer, in essence, is like a friend who sits there being aware of what you are doing.
    – user2341
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 16:18

As far as I know, Observer (kṣetra-jñaḥ - "the knower of the field [of experience]" or Vedagu - "the one who enjoys [the objects of senses]") is a Hindu concept. It's an ancient expression for the subject of experience, the spectator in the Cartesian Theater:

The king said: ‘Is there, Nāgasena, such a thing as The Knower?’

[Nagasena:] ‘What is this, O king, The Knower (Vedagu)?’

[King Milinda:] ‘The living principle within which sees forms through the eye, hears sounds through the ear, experiences tastes through the tongue, smells odours through the nose, feels touch through the body, and discerns things (conditions, “dhammā") through the mind—just as we, sitting here in the palace, can look out of any window out of which we wish to look, the east window or the west, or the north or the south.
Then the Elder [Nagasena] convinced Milinda the king with discourse drawn from the Abhidhamma, saying: ‘It is by reason, O king, of the eye and of forms that sight arises, and those other conditions—contact, sensation, idea, thought, abstraction, sense of vitality, and attention —arise each simultaneously with its predecessor. And a similar succession of cause and effect arises when each of the other five organs of sense is brought into play. And so herein there is no such thing as The Knower (Vedagu).’

Mindfulness in Buddhism is entirely different. It is not a thing, it's a quality you develop. In my opinion and in contrast with modern trends (DBT etc.), mindfulness in Buddhism should not be understood as open-ended awareness. It is mindfulness of something specific you are trying to cultivate, habituate, get used to - in order to change your patterns.


From Buddhist perspective, we misinterpret our experience of awareness to implicate an entity that is aware. "I am aware" we say -- and this recipient of data, the point of view, the source of light, is what ancient Hindu's used to call Vedagu. Buddhists say such "point of view" is merely a perceptual illusion - like a bush that looks like a dog until you look closer. If you look very carefully, they say, you'll clearly see that there is no "you" that is aware. Instead (this is a Yogacara explanation) there is a simple feedback loop. The current dharma (state of mind - citta) serves as an input into the associative perception mechanism (sanjna) which finds matching imprints of previous experiences (samskaras) among those recorded in memory (alaya-vijnana). These imprints become the new state of mind, which serves as an input into the next iteration of the cycle and so on.

If you look at it this way, it is easy to see why we are fooled into thinking there is a subject of experience, "the point of view" that does the watching. As yet another thought takes shape, the gap between it and the next thought seems like there is "I am watching", then from this gap comes the association - this seems like "I think", but all it really is, is the associative perception mechanism (sanjna) that closes the loop by connecting the mind with the memory. "I am this thing that perceives" / "I am the observer" - is the mistake of identification with sanjna.

I guess you could shift the emphasis from the associative mechanism to the repository of past imprints that serves as the source of the next thought - and alternatively say that it is our memory that is The Observer, that it is our memory that "pays attention" to our thoughts/experiences and comes up with associations - which can lead some people to identify with samskara-skandha (the imprints group, basically memory) - another view that Buddha rejected.

The subjective experience, the virtual life-of-I created by our mind that we mistake for reality, is called "vijnana". This is the whole story that includes The Observer, the observed, and everything that happens between them.

What looks to us as self-awareness, with its sense of depth, is merely the recursive nature of the associative loop. It is a similar kind of effect you get when you point a video camera at TV that shows its own output - with a filter in the middle that adds matching elements of past memories. The same basic principle is at work behind Google's DeepDream:

We ask the network: “Whatever you see there, I want more of it!” This creates a feedback loop: if a cloud looks a little bit like a bird, the network will make it look more like a bird. This in turn will make the network recognize the bird even more strongly on the next pass and so forth, until a highly detailed bird appears, seemingly out of nowhere.
The results are intriguing—even a relatively simple neural network can be used to over-interpret an image, just like as children we enjoyed watching clouds and interpreting the random shapes.
If we apply the algorithm iteratively on its own outputs and apply some zooming after each iteration, we get an endless stream of new impressions, exploring the set of things the network knows about.


  • No, I was not positing a homunculus at all. my "observer" is the sense that I am aware. It is like feeling your fingertip even though it is not touching anything (which happens if it gets injured, is too hot or cold, among other possibilities). So, the Observer I was asking about is just a point of view in the mind, one among many points of view. It is special in that it is a prompt for self-awareness, or IS perhaps the "feeling" of self-awareness. This is recursive, reflexive. The Observer, in my experience, acts like a tool to help one cultivate Mindfulness. (Back to noun-verb again.)
    – user2341
    Commented Jan 2, 2016 at 15:46
  • 1
    You are totally positing a homunculus my friend, and you call it "I am" ;) - I hate to say this but you are very confused as far as Buddhist theory of mind is concerned. Your "point of view in the mind" is a perceptual illusion, like a bush that looks like a dog until you look closer. The recursive/reflexive process you are describing is the associative loop. The feeling of self-awareness, with its sense of depth, is the same effect you have when you point a video camera at TV that shows its own output :) I added more details to my answer above. I hope some of it makes sense to you.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 0:58
  • Thank you for explaining that cycle of consciousness or data flow diagram, i.e. citta -> saṃjñā -> saṃskāra -> ālaya-vijñāna -> citta. It looks plausible! I haven't seen it before. I have (previously) found those Wikipedia articles impenetrable, as if they were (static) entity-relation diagrams, but without any (runtime/dynamic) thread/sequence diagram; so it was hard to see how they 'run' in practice.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 2:13
  • I know it is an illusion, hon. Everything is an illusion. We have no choice but to discuss illusions. I was simply asking about two of them in particular, and how they accord with the illusions of Buddhism. I will peruse the additions to your answer.
    – user2341
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 15:35
  • It's not enough to say it's illusion and yet to keep talking about them as if they were real. We need to look inside the bush to see for ourselves how there is no dog.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Commented Jan 3, 2016 at 15:38

According to Mahayana abhidharma,

Mindfulness is a non-forgetfulness of the mind with respect to a familiar object. It has the function of non-distraction.

It is one the five object-ascertaining mental factors, and it is called 'object-ascertaining' because:

These mental factors hold [an object] through apprehending the individual features of the object. They are said to "individually ascertain objects."

As it is a mind, it is by nature clear and knowing, and it is a basis of designation of the person but is not the person. It is an apprehender, an object-possessor, but it is not a 'observer' because an observer is a person.

A mind, a cognizer such as mindfulness and so forth is possessed by a person (the agent), it has a function (the action) and apprehends its object.

There are various levels of nonduality. In general, a realization that occurs in a non-dualistic manner is free from the appearances of objects and subjects. So it is necessarily free from the apprehension of the object and the subject as being different substances.

In addition, mindfulness is not a process, it is a mind. As such:

  1. It has the nature of being clear
  2. It performs the function of knowing

That it is clear refers to the fact that it has the ability to take the aspect of its object. An eye-consciousness seeing blue takes the [subjective] aspect of blue.

That it is knowing refers to the fact that it apprehends its object. This point is quiet complicated and there is much debate. By nature a mind experiences its object. I hope this answer helps you, as you defined your "Observer" as an experience.

  • Thank you, I am chewing on this, as the word references are complex. Perhaps Buddhism does not use 'Observer' in the manner I am familiar with? To me, it is the sense that something watches from within, unmoved by whatever happens. Many people refer to it, such as Wayne Dyer who said, "The Witness inside never ages. It can't." Is this witness / observer just a New Age concept, or is it described in Buddhism also? I call a self without ego a Neo, and it is essentially only a witness, an experiencer with no values, goals, ideals, etc. Nonduality comes after the self / witness dissolves.
    – user2341
    Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 19:09
  • @nocomprende My "chewing on those word references" rewords the answer as follows -- 'Mindfulness' is the ability to keep something in mind without distraction. It's one of the 'five mental object-determining mental factors', which are listed here. So "mindfulness" is defined as (or is a translation of) Sati or Smṛti. Mindfulness means a mindfulness of the features of the object in question.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 20:55
  • The mind is not a person (I guess in the same way that the eye, or vision-sense-discrimination, isn't a person). The mind is a 'basis of designation' of the person (which is defined here as meaning, "The parts or attributes upon which something is labeled. In the case of the I, it is the aggregates." ... where 'aggregates' is probably Skandhas). A person (the agent) has a mind, which has a function (its function is to apprehend an object).
    – ChrisW
    Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 20:56
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    I confirm it is smṛti (Sati), not samadhi. Here is the text I refer to fpmtabc.org/download/teaching/geshe-chonyi/bp/lorig/handout/… Commented Jan 2, 2016 at 12:15
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    mindfulness analysis and meaning(s) by Joseph Goldstein: google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&rct=j&url=http://…
    – Lowbrow
    Commented Jan 2, 2016 at 17:43

Sati (mindfullness) has the agenda of remembering, keeping in mind, so its quite proper to give it the name "observer" on the level of being an "overseer". Samma sati (right mindfulness) keep the right things in mind. It is often compared with a door-keeper (of the fortress of practice), a good one.

Some short but very usefull essays, to get out of common misunderstandings are:

(Note: this answer has not been given with the agreement to be means of trade or the purpose of/for trade and/or keep people trapped and bound. How you handle it lies in your sphere, but does not excuse the deed here either.)

  • I briefly read your reference: "Untangling the present". For me, the Observer is like where it says: "we focus not on what we are, but on what we are doing." The Observer is like a part of the mind that develops to help with awareness. It feels like someone has sat down next to me, saying nothing, just watching what I do, which is that I am being aware. It reinforces awareness by also being aware. It is a help, not a hindrance.
    – user2341
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 12:22

What is realised at the experiential level is the Dhamma for you. What someone else experiences is not the Dhamma for you. In this sense there is no nonduality as people experience reality in different way (as for what I have learned.) There is nothing similar between experiences of disciples, though perhaps experience of among Buddha's may be similar since they experience all what is conditioned. The main goal of experiencing "reality as it is" to develop revulsion to the 5 aggregates. So what you you experience should be to the extent to avoid unwise attention of attention tained by perverted perceptions, thoughts and views. In this context there is always an observer who experiences phenomena though consciousness aided by the faculties, or one that who feels1.


“It is to one that feels that I teach Dhamma, not to one that does not feel.” —The Awakened One

Also see: To one that feels by Luangpor Teean Juttasubho


'Mindfulness' ('sati') means to 'remember' rather than to 'observe' ('anupassi').

In the context of basic meditation, 'sati' remembers to observe rather than forgets to observe.

'Mindfulness' & 'observing' are two distinctly separate functions & activities of mind, even though they function together in mediation.

And what is the faculty of mindfulness? There is the case where a monk, a disciple of the noble ones, is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering & able to call to mind even things that were done & said long ago. SN 48.10

"What is sammasati? Sati means to bear in mind or bring to mind. Sati is the state of recollecting, the state of remembering, the state of non-fading, the state of non-forgetting. Sati means the sati that is a Spiritual Faculty, the sati that is a Spiritual Power, Sammasati, the Sati that is an Enlightenment Factor, that which is a Path Factor and that which is related to the Path. This is what is called sammasati." [Vbh.105, 286]

The Blessed One said, "Suppose, monks, that a large crowd of people comes thronging together, saying, 'The beauty queen! The beauty queen!' And suppose that the beauty queen is highly accomplished at singing & dancing, so that an even greater crowd comes thronging, saying, 'The beauty queen is singing! The beauty queen is dancing!' Then a man comes along, desiring life & shrinking from death, desiring pleasure & abhorring pain. They say to him, 'Now look here, mister. You must take this bowl filled to the brim with oil and carry it on your head in between the great crowd & the beauty queen. A man with a raised sword will follow right behind you, and wherever you spill even a drop of oil, right there will he cut off your head.' Now what do you think, monks: Will that man, not paying attention to the bowl of oil, let himself get distracted outside?"

"No, lord."

SN 47.20

  • Do you ever have the feeling that you are being watched? Does it ever feel like the point of view of that observer is inside your mind? It is like a déjà vu of being oneself, but it is happening to an awareness-stream that one doesn't have insight in to... It felt so good when it stopped.
    – user2341
    Commented Apr 17, 2017 at 11:52

I thought that my experience was fairly commonplace, but after reading several answers from people in this community that I have great respect for, and no one seeming to understand at all, even after a year, I admit that I feel perplexed. It would be as if I wrote about having a pebble in my shoe and no one could relate or had ever heard of such a thing.

An Observer is as if there is a whole other self inside my mind, just sitting there watching what happens. If you haven't had it, then there is no way it can be described. It is not like anything else, it is not a function or factor of anything else, it cannot be reduced to anything else or explained in any other terms. It simply is an experience, like feeling sad, or wanting to go outdoors. It just happens to be the experience of part of the mind observing the rest of the mind. It happens. It is not a thought that I am having, because it has itself.

My sense of it is, that as one strives to be more aware, the mind develops an extra awareness track that helps one to do that. It is the persistent feeling that even if I get lost in phenomena, that Observer will not get lost, and so realizing that it is watching me, I tend to act with more awareness. Eventually, one outgrows it or something. I won't even get started on describing how it is to have an Accompanying Voice, which is entirely different, and which I also thought was common, but is apparently known only to me?


Yes the observer and the mindfulness are the same in essence they are the ability to import information of your environment,world and self this observation is the key to apply mindfulness to reason and logic why the observer is interacting with self and environment.the observer needs the mindful to reassure the self awareness of ones thoughts and further how these thoughts are influencd and influence the environment.it is a duality of many dualities all becoming the one non dual reasoned logic which further builds character both inner and outer.awareness of the self is further built by mind fullness to know oneself.autism means to know thyself this autismal or automatic duality leading to no dual is the observer and mind as one.

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