The Difference Between Thinker and Observer in Advaita: A Dialogue


  1. Introduction
    1. The Ways and Means of Self Inquiry in Advaita
    2. Adopting and Adapting Krishnamurti’s Teachings for Advaita
    3. The Use of Observer/Viveka in Teaching of Advaita
    4. The Method of Advaita and Negating Superimpositions
  2. The Dialogue


The Ways and Means of Self Inquiry in Advaita

The path to ultimate truth in Advaita is self inquiry where a seeker is led from the gross to the subtle. It is held in Advaita that the root of suffering and falsity is superimposing the duality of a “subject and object” where no such duality exists. Ultimate reality is non-dual knowledge/Awareness/Brahman. Thus, the method of Advaita followed by a teacher is to deliberately superimpose a “subject-object” duality, where none exists in reality, and then to keep examining all objects to show that they cannot be ultimate reality, for ultimate reality is unchanging. This is done taking in account the original superimposition accepted by the student. When a student starts self inquiry, he/she assumes the body and world to be real. Advaita, through its method of traditional inquiry called “Agama“, first accepts the body as real for the student and then through various “prakriyas” or “ways and means” shows that the body cannot be any real existent. It is rather an “appearance” which is nothing but Awareness. Similarly, it shows that even the world and mind are nothing but appearances, rather than any objective, substantial realities. One such “prakriya” is found in Mandukya Upanishad. It is called the avasthatraya viveka which I have discussed in my article – Turiya : The Fourth State of Consciousness & End of Suffering

Adopting and Adapting Krishnamurti’s Teachings for Advaita

In this article, I am helping a student discriminate between the thinker and the observer. This is a very subtle prakriya. One does not find it handled very minutely in Advaita literature. It handles it somewhat indirectly in its prakriya of the panchakosha viveka – the discrimination of the five sheaths – where it discriminates between mind (manas) and intellect (buddhi). On the other hand, in the teachings of J Krishnamurti, “choiceless awareness of ‘what is'” forms a bedrock; therefore his teachings have many prakriyas that help a student discriminate between the “thinker” and the “observer”. This co-option of his teachings into Advaita is entirely my own. For Krishnamurti would strongly object to any demarcation of “ways and means” to be found in his teachings. But Advaita is more generous in its approach to helping a seeker. It adopts all teachings, models and methods from other paths it finds suitable towards the end of making a student realize the ultimate reality as long as it does not contradict the ultimate nature of reality as non-dual knowledge/awareness/Brahman. Thus, it has adopted approaches from Sankhya, Yoga and Buddhism towards this end while at the same time remaining critical of any dualistic approaches found in these schools. In the same spirit I find In Krishnamurti’s teachings, a veritable mine of prakriyas or “ways and means” to distinguish between the thinker and the observer. At the same time I discard those aspects of his teachings that do not accord with the highest approach of non-dual self inquiry found in Advaita.

The Use of Observer/Viveka in Teaching of Advaita

In terms of Advaita, the thinker and observer are both aspects of buddhi/intellect. In terms of hierarchy of subtlety, the observer is the more subtle aspect of the intellect than the thinker. Actually it is the subtlest aspect of the intellect. While Krishnamurti, in tandem with much Yoga terminology derides the thinker, Advaita actually refines the thinker to the level of observer to carry out the most subtle act of discriminating between Witnessing Awareness, and its objects.

Those who are not committed to self inquiry actually find little use of the “observer” aspect of intellect. In fact the training given in our highly industrialized societies is to develop the thinker to the hilt. The word “intellect” is ubiquitously conflated with the word “thinker”. Yet, in Advaita, the highest function of the intellect is not thinking, but discriminating between Witnessing Awareness and its objects in increasing order of subtlety, through observation. Because of the force of habit inculcated by society and the modern industrial education system, it is extremely difficult for modern seekers to let go off their addiction to the thinker. My last statement should however not propel the reader to deride the thinker the way all schools of Yoga do, including Krishnamurti, who primarily follows the methodology and the vocabulary of the Yoga school in a modern context. Advaita is a very subtle and very powerful teaching. Only a handful of teachers unlock its real teaching and potential. Most mix the approaches of other schools – primarily Yoga and Tantra – which hold thought as a culprit. Advaita uses the thinker, refines it to the observer and then as the penultimate but most important step in its teaching strategy, it uses the observer to shift the identity from an embodied personal observer to a disembodied transcendent witness. I wrote about this shift in my article Self inquiry and insight into one’s true nature/Self in Advaita. Post this shift, thinking continues without any thinker or personal observer who claims it in any way. Thinking is required for all normal day-to-day tasks, to earn one’s livelihood, to communicate, to do science or philosophy. None of this is denied either by Krishnamurti or Advaita. The difference is that while Yoga and Krishnamurti say that ultimate reality can be revealed only by ending of psychological thought, Advaita says that Ultimate Reality is always the case, always already present; the only thing that needs to be removed is the ignorance about it. Once ignorance is removed, Ultimate Reality is revealed, and one does not need to bother much about the ending of psychological thought because it too is seen as Awareness/Ultimate Reality

The Method of Advaita and Negating Superimpositions

For Advaita, the thinking is not an obstruction to reality, it is the “ignorance” of considering oneself as a thinker which is the problem. Thus, it’s penultimate and most important step is to shift the identity from one being any “er” (thinker/doer/experiencer/observer) to being Witnessing Awareness. The ultimate step is understanding that even the Witness is a subtle superimposition on Awareness. But this is done only after all other superimpositions have been negated. To shift from being a “thinker” to an “observer” is actually entering the gateway to self inquiry in Advaita. Only when the observer is established quite stably then there is a possibility for a seeker to make a leap to being identified with Witnessing Awareness.

The Dialogue

The dialogue starts with my student asking a question related to fear. My attempt in the dialogue is to make him be choicelessly aware of “fear” by becoming its observer rather than trying to end it by doing some analysis and finding some solution (which is again nothing but thought) as a thinker. The thinker can solve technological problems but the problem of suffering cannot be solved at the level of the thinker because the thinker is nothing but thought itself. It cannot be solved at the level of the observer completely either. But each shift in hierarchy of identification not only decreases suffering but also prepares for the higher stage of identification. This process continues till one reaches the highest subject: Witness, which is beyond thought. Finally, even the Witness drops resulting in complete non-dual reality without imagining any subject-object distinction in it.

Anurag: Who feels the fear Krishna?
Krishna: Honestly, “I” feel it
Anurag: And who is the “I”
Krishna: Thinking about it, there is no “I” because BMI doesn’t exist and Self is fearless
Anurag: No, don’t conceptualize. You know fear. Is the knower of fear, fear?
Krishna: Ok sir, so, I feel that I feel it. No I am not fear. Because I am not fear that’s why I feel fear …
Anurag: Right. Just stay with this and learn to watch the fear. Don’t conceptalize too much. Watching is important, not the concepts.
Krishna: Yes sir
Anurag: There is a difference between saying I feel fear and I watch fear. Right?
Krishna: But when I “try” to watch usually I soon find myself overwhelmed and acting according to the fears. And then I automatically fear being trapped in fear so I try to combat it again.
Anurag: What do you mean by you get “overwhelmed”?
Krishna: Means mental and physical actions as if the fear was true
Anurag: Use less words. Answer my question with the help of experience not concepts. Krishna: So let the actions happen but watch the actions happen…experientially I feel like I am overwhelmed in that case when I am just watching.
Anurag: But you just said that you are not fear because you can watch it. What changes? What is the problem with this?
Krishna: I am not fear … but that feels like its assumed anyway because I’m “scared of fear”. Suppose I have a fear that there is a ghost is behind me … then thought comes that of course ghost is not real … then another thought comes which says that there is no real ghost and you are feeling fear so why not minimize suffering and just turn and check if the ghost is there or not …
Anurag: Ok. You can turn and check. Where is the problem?
Krishna: I have the fear that it’ll happen again …?
Anurag: What will happen again?
Krishna: That fear will happen again. So fear of fear …?!?
Anurag: So you watch it again then. Where is the problem?
Krishna: That somehow I’ll be trapped in it. That even if I’m not thinking anything and just instinctive reacting I’m still watching it but reacting helplessly … so fear
Anurag: Fear of fear is still fear. There is only one thing…fear ! It is just being conceptualized each time differently. But you can watch fear. So fear is an object to the watcher. You can’t be fear ! You are the watcher, the observer. Fear as a sensation arises and falls to you.
Krishna: Yes sir … but it feels wrong
Anurag: Then this is the thinker not the watcher or observer. The thinker does not just watch, it tries to change what it watches because it labesls and judges toughts and feelings as right and wrong.
Krishna: I think it feels wrong because … if I say I’m not the fear then the sayer of this is the thinker not the watcher? So the thinker is trying to be watcher
Anurag: The thinker keeps you trapped in the conceptual net.
Krishna: Is the thinker using watching to change …
Anurag: No. It is preventing watching/observing from happening.
Krishna: Yes that is what I don’t know sir
Anurag: Observer is never trying to change. When you are trying to change something you cannot watch it.
Krishna: But who is the one trying to stop the thinker from preventing that?
Anurag: The observer comes when the thinker realizes it’s limitations. And falls silent on it’s own. It understands it’s limitations.
Krishna: I felt like … oh feels like that observer doesn’t try anything so if I say I am the observer than it’s the thinker saying I am observer. So thinker is trying to be the observer but fails and then falls silent ? What I’m slowly understanding is that this conceptualization is the main problem
Anurag: The thinker cannot become the observer. Its task is different. The thinker is required to solve technical problems, not psychological ones. It realizes it’s role and ceases to operate in the psychological realm. It acts only when required…say when solving a maths problem when you do your homework etc.
Krishna: I get that sir …
Anurag: Yes. Conceptualization in the psychological realm is the problem. The thinker cannot “solve” psychological problems.
Krishna: But I don’t think I really get that … because if I really understood this my problem would have got solved
Anurag: We are working on it through this dialouge.
Krishna: Yes sir ….
Anurag: The purpose of this dialogue is not to negate the thinker but to understand that it cannot solve psychological problems. It can only analyze technical problems and come up with solutions to technical matters. Psychological problems can never be solved.
Krishna: So should I keep doing whatever comes …?
Anurag: Keep observing whatever comes. In that silent observation, action arises on it’s own. Then you observe the arising of action too. In Zen they say you dont shooot the arrow, the arrow shoots on its own.
Krishna: But one sidetrack … psychological problems end with ending of vasanas and vasanas are created by action in the world and dissolve back to world so the suffering and ignorant stages are all equally parts …?
Anurag: I did not quite understand what you are trying to say but whatever it is, does this knowledge help you in ending your suffering?
Krishna: No ….I dont think so
Anurag: Why? Because the map is not the territory. Concepts are not vasanas.
Krishna: Didn’t really understand that sir …
Anurag: Thought/Concepts cannot dissolve vasanas. Thoughts are products of vasanas themselves. Vasanas are in the causal body. They fructify as thoughts and appear as the subtle body
Krishna: So being aware of fear means one should not try to analyze or think “why fear is come” …?
Anurag: Yes. Analysis implies getting a solution. You are all the time trying to hit a “jackpot”, some instant, big time realization that is going to vanish all your suffering. You are approaching self inquiry like a maths problem. It does not happen this way. Definitely there are big insights, but they do not come through mere conceptual analysis but by following a particular line of reasoning as indicated by the tradition of Advaita.
Krishna: I thought that observing whatever is happening now is just observing subtle and gross so to really try observe the vasanas, I’d need to analyze the fear … but it was a mistake … shock reaction. Yes sir that is exactly what I was doing….exactly.
Anurag: Yes. It was a mistake. Observation is a higher order than thought. Don’t you see it. You can observe thought, so how can thought be more subtle than observation?
Krishna: Trying to figure out the “method of observation” that will be the right method that will somehow give the motivation and take me all to the end without any pitfall…almost ridiculous thing but …. this desire for answers is very strong.
Anurag: Observation begins when thinking for a solution ends. It is a negative effort. Not a positive one.
Krishna: Yes … sir I understand
Anurag: Good. I think you do now.
Krishna: … and when I said I understand I also doubted it because there was no jackpot sensation so …
Anurag: It’s the desire for answers that creates thinking. Thought is all the time geared to take you to a projected end. In observation there is no end. There is only passive watching. In this watching there is the unveiling of all layers of thought. It is not something projected or invented.
Anurag: So you see what is happening? Thought has projected one end, one ‘jackpot sensation” and is pursuing it. Thought is going in circles. It is pursuing it’s own projected end.
Krishna: Yes sir … I didn’t understand it because I was trying to think about it. And then thinking about the doubt. And then trying to think how to convince myself to stop thinking
Anurag: Absolutely !
Krishna: … now I think I’m beginning to get what watching actually means
Anurag: Some people talk about ending of all thought. But the one who tries to end thought is part of thought. All psychological action is part of thought.
Krishna: The catch is that it’s accompanied by the jackpot feeling so it’s false too …
Anurag: Only when one understands the limitations of thought does one stop conceptualizing. One does not need to put an effort to stop conceptualizing because that very effort is born from a concept again. Now, how does one understand the limitation of conceptualizing without conceptualizing? By observing. So you see it is a vicious loop if you want to arrive at a method through thinking. You have to just see what I am saying and start observing. You learn by doing, not by asking how?
Krishna: Yes sir. Because I immediately started searching for the right “way” of watching thoughts in my brain
Anurag: In observation where is the question of true and false. Observation is not judgement. That is done by the thinker.
Krishna: I understand … sir
Krishna: And I also noticed that my mind just imagined vividly what it “feels like” to be observing thoughts.
Anurag: Yes, so you observe this too and release it. The observer is actionless. It is like the sky in which things appear and disappear
Krishna: Yes, sir. Observe and release. So no resistance ….
Anurag: Bingo
Krishna: But is there a method to do it anyway… lol the mind is back saying that without a method how will i do it. But yes how to do it? No resistance…Observe the desire to drink water and then the observe the desire to stop the desire to drink water and observe the result also …. observe everything … ? Sir.
Anurag: By understanding that thought cannot solve psychological problem. When you see a very complex machinery for the first time, what do you do? You start observing it. Right?
Krishna: Yes sir
Anurag: Thought is an incredibly complex machinery. You can understand it only by passive observation.
Krishna: Yes sir …
Anurag: The thinker is only a fragment of the vast network of thought. A thinker becomes the centre of gravity around which thought tries to order itself and become a solid mass. It tries to congeal and create a solid identity. Our purpose is to understand the whole of thought rather than create a solid identity. Its a reverse process to what you are taught by the world and society. So when there is no centre of gravity as the thinker then thought does not find a foothold to congeal and solidify, conceptualizations start dissolving.
Krishna: One conceptual thing is nagging me… observer is already observing so is it the thinker who tries to be … oh but you already answered it several times and the answer is just not sinking… so problem is with the desire for quenching answers …trying to assimilate this sir
Anurag: The observer is being superimposed by the thinker right now. You have to negate this superimposition.
Krishna: Yes sir yes sir yes sir … it must be done
Anurag: By seeing the falsity of the thinker
Krishna: Thank 🙏 you 🙏sir
Anurag: Which I am showing you. Not by more thinking 🙂
Krishna: You are showing it sir … but I need to be able to see it … that will come after long time … but it is always there
Anurag: No hurries. Let this conversation seep through.
Krishna: Yes sir.
Anurag: Good. I shall sign out now 🙂
Krishna: Din aapka mangal ho sir [Hope your morning proceeds auspiciously]
Anurag: Thanks Krishna. Go through this conversation again and again 🙂
Krishna: Yes sir
Anurag: 👍
Krishna: 😀🙏🙂 Yes, sir. Observe and release.

2 thoughts on “The Difference Between Thinker and Observer in Advaita: A Dialogue

  1. ‘ The thinker is only a fragment of the vast network of thought. A thinker becomes the centre of gravity around which thought tries to order itself and become a solid mass. It tries to congeal and create a solid identity. Our purpose is to understand the whole of thought rather than create a solid identity. Its a reverse process to what you are taught by the world and society. So when there is no centre of gravity as the thinker then thought does not find a foothold to congeal and solidify, conceptualizations start dissolving.’

    AWESOME. to cutt off the identification of being a thinker………even that of a seeker for enlightenment that has seeked for 23 years. 🙂


  2. Dear Javi,

    I am sure that as you subject yourself more and more to the teachings and engage in dialogue, you shall discover how to discriminate between Awareness and the thinker/doer/experiencer.
    The only thing is that you should not be in a hurry to arrive anywhere. Be slow. Being slow is being fast 🙂

    Also don’t think of any arriving. Take your path as understanding. Give yourself some time to let the concepts of your old paths to subside and don’t view this path with the same angle. It’s method and technique is different. Though the final aim of all non dual paths is the same.

    Warm wishes,


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