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Adam Smith's impartial spectator

Adam Smith, the great 18th century economist wrote a less well known book called the Theory of Moral Sentiments. In it he named the ‘detached spectator’ as the true guardian of correct behaviour.

The person within- an impartial and well informed spectator- has the ability to stand outside oneself and see one’s actions- the person within- not conscience which is either accusing or patting you on the back- simply an observer. This is a key breakthrough long ignored by other philosophers.

What he meant was the ‘observing self’- the part of you that is able to detach and observe (sometimes) what the rest of you is doing.

Encouraging the observing self is the goal of most mystical and meditation oriented religious practices. The sheer sense of freedom that occurs when you realize that your identity includes an awareness of other ‘selves’ and that you are not merely an externally defined person, this realization comes as a great relief to many. By not ‘holding onto thoughts’ but simply observing each one as it takes up residence in your head you can gain a sense of detachment from the thoughts you previously thought ‘were you’. An angry thought takes possession of you- if you observe it as ‘there is an angry thought’ you have gone a long way to defusing that anger.

When time seems to rush on by it helps to be able to observe the thought that tells you ‘time is rushing by’. Then you can self-observe the structure of thoughts that supports this feeling. It is great way of weakening the grip mechanical time has over you and replacing it with a much more elastic view of time.




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