WITNESSING AS A PATH TO FREEDOM
Image credit: Hartwig HKD
THE GIFT OF WITNESSING
(Continued from Willingness to Disarm the Ego)
The meditation practice known as witnessing provides powerful insights into the ways in which we are attached to our perceptions. It has shown me the parameters of my active ego with extraordinary clarity. Witnessing has provided lasting shifts in the way I think and perceive. It has helped me move from being attached to painful thoughts, to living with greater freedom and joy.
Witnessing is an essential part of any sincere meditator’s practice. It is at the heart of yoga and spiritual development. Witnessing is not the same as observing. Because witnessing is rooted in non-attachment, it flowers from the understanding that our senses are limited and do not contain the full picture of reality. Our perceptions are temporary, as they change with circumstance and are subject to our moods and whims. What and how we perceive is coloured by the ups and downs of our ego’s dramas.
Through witnessing practice, we meet the moment as it is, without any overlay of how we want it to be. This occurs when we move beyond our attachments to our perceptions, which happens only once we understand that they are not the whole truth. There is a substratum, a deeper unchanging truth, that runs beyond our senses.
Observing is not witnessing. When we observe, we are still attached to what we experience through a running narrative. For example, when we observe a flower, we see it for its colours and size and empirical qualities. Our mind may come up with a story for it, such as a memory of similar flowers in a garden behind our childhood home, or getting flowers like it from a past love. Through this, feelings related to our memories – nostalgia, grief, resentment – may arise. Those emotional associations are then projected onto the flower, which has nothing to do with them.
When we witness, no story accompanies the moment. In the case of witnessing a flower, we would meet the flower’s essence as it is, and harmoniously be there with it. We can note its colour, shape, smell, but there is nothing more that comes with it. The flower simply is, and so are we.
It is easy to confuse witnessing with being numbed out, indifferent or disconnected. When we are in a state of witnessing, we are fully present and rest in a deeper substratum beyond our perceptions. When this happens, life turns from monochrome to technicolour. We feel more connected, more alive, more engaged with life, because we are no longer bound by our limited perceptions, that are coloured by our ego. Even situations that once were painful for us become light and effervescent. Through witnessing comes tremendous spacious vitality. Witnessing feels rooted, vital and expansive. Like a new consciousness muscle, the more we practice witnessing, the more freedom we experience.
I share an incident when witnessing provided me with tremendous grace. I was around someone who decided I was the source of her unhappiness. As I practiced witnessing, I saw her pain. I was with it as it was. It felt like a mass floating in space in front of me. Remaining in a witnessing state, her upset did not become against me, for me or about me in any way. Nor was it really about her. I saw her pain. I knew that pain, because I too have felt suffering. From where I was standing, we were both resting in the perfect now. Her pain came from her attachment to not seeing the love that is here right now. The greatest gift I could give us both was resting in that reality without any agenda. Eventually her mood shifted like a storm that passed through a sunny sky.
Being able to be present for the fullness of life is one of the blessings gained through witnessing. The skill grows through practice. I like to this of it as going to the daily meditation gym. The more time you put into the practice, the more benefit, joy and freedom you gain.
Start your witnessing practice today. Take a few minutes each morning and evening to come to a neutral place, where you can allow yourself just to be. This alone can take practice when you are habituated to doing and wanting life to go your way. But that habit creates tremendous strain, tension and unhappiness. Freedom and joy are only found when you rest into the whole and flow in harmony with the rhythm of life. Nature’s power is so much greater than your limited ego or will, no matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise.
Find a quiet place. Sit on something solid like a bench, chair or floor, with your spine straight, with the intention of just being. Breathe in and out for a few minutes. Simply focus on your breath. Let your body settle into being right and now, exactly where you are, on your cushion or chair. Allow your spine to take root through your seat, feeling the weight of your body, and your connection to the ground. Feel the crown of your head float, noticing your upward connection to the cosmos. Let your spine feel like a neutral conduit of energy between these two points. Breathe in and out.
When you mind wanders, bring it back to your breath. When you breathe in, simply say to yourself, “in”. When you breathe out, simply say, “out”. No big effort. No big drama. Just one breath at a time, in and out.
Should you notice thoughts arise, just say hello, welcome them in. Let them be there with you, rather than getting pulled into them. For example, should you notice the thought that your shoulders are tense, welcome the thought as though it just joined you in your inner living room. It may take a seat beside you. It may come and then quickly leave out the door. Either way, it does not matter. You remain sitting, breathing in and out. Breathe in, say “in”. Breathe out, say “out”.
The practice remains the same, whether you welcome tense shoulders or painful thoughts. Make room for it all, without getting entangled in any of it. Rest in your breathing and allow yourself to expand into the now. Practice this as often as you can.