Cultivating a Witness

There was a young man who said, “Though,
It seems that I know that I know,
What I would like to see,
Is the eye that sees me,
When I know that I know that I know.” ~ Alan Watts

Thinking about Thinking

One of the most fascinating, yet detrimental abilities human beings possess is the ability to think about our own thoughts. For some, this is proof of man’s intelligence and superiority over the animal kingdom, this self-consciousness. While this can be a great advantage and source of self-inquiry, I also believe most of the ills we face in life are due to our inability to STOP this incessant thinking about thinking. Much like your own eye, the more you can actually see it(cataracts), the less effectively it is really working. This clouding of thoughts interpreting thoughts can lead to confusion and mental blindness.

How often do we have a single thought of any nature, almost automatically, and then we begin the process of praising and enjoying that thought, or more often than not, criticizing the thought, and judging the actions and events associated with it, sometimes berating ourselves for occupying such thoughts, and getting worked up in the process. So often, we work ourselves up into a state of anger by allowing this snowballing of negative thought interpretation to cloud the workings of our mind.

Has it ever happened that someone close to you, or just a random stranger perhaps, did something less than favourable, and then all day it puts you off and into an irritable mood? This is the very process I am talking about; spinning this thread of drama through our life based on one single event which may or may not even have been directly pointed at us in the first place. This is largely a defect of the ego structure(which can be argued to be defective by nature), perhaps being overeprotective and making exaggerated interpretations as a way to recognize, and guard against. It doesn’t help when the sole reason for this guarding comes from our own thoughts.

The way around(or should I say through) this is to cultivate a Witness.

Having a thought does not mean you are that thought

Who you are is constantly changing. There are literally a hundred versions of yourself you occupy throughout your day, often more. The old adage about the universe, ‘The only constant is change’ applies to our own consciousness as well, and can be our greatest ally if we can utilize our energies consciously, and not get lost in the stream of thought that occurs almost every second of our waking life. The only way to see the magnificent drama unfold in front of us is to take the role of a Witness, and observe the play happening without judgment or evaluation. This may seem impossible, and at some times it probably will be, especially during times of intense anger or emotional misery.

Much like trying to stop in the middle of any emotional engaging activity(imagine being extremely wrapped up in an emotional part of a movie, and someone turns off the TV), trying to stop your anger in the midst of it can be extremely difficult. You’re already so wrapped up in the energy, and chances are your physiology has followed suit and begun some kind of muscular strain or tension, making it even more difficult to release these feelings.

One of the dangerous things about anger is how truly gratifying and addicting it can be; displaying anger towards another subconsciously adopts the role of being ‘right’ while the other person is ‘wrong.’ Combine this sense of entitlement we feel, along with the dangerous drug-like emotional feelings we have, and you have a threatening combination, ready to pull anyone out of their minds and into the gutter at a moment’s notice.

It’s important to realize that having a thought and becoming a thought are not in any way, shape, or form the same thing. This is an important attitude you can embrace, and will not only allow you a greater sense of peace in your own life, but will allow you to understand the workings of others around you more intimately.

Just because you have an anger within you, does not mean you are inherently anger itself, or even that that anger really belongs to you. Emotions can be like the flu, and often spread in the same ways(close proximity with affected people). But the point is, you are NOT your anger, you just can’t tell the difference sometimes.

‘This too shall pass’

One of my favourite parables is the story allegedly originating from Persian Sufi poetry, that tells of king being humbled by the four simple words, ‘This Too Shall Pass’, illustrating that all mental, emotional, and physical(positive or negative) conditions will always come to pass. If this is not a concept you are familiar with, I suggest considering it with great investigation, and finding the truth of these statements and how they apply to you and your life. In the midst of emotional chaos, remembering these 4 words can be like a lighthouse on the horizon, guiding you home; but sometimes we need a Witness to see through the fog and recognize the light.

The Witness doesn’t judge, it merely watches

So what is the Witness? The Witness can be thought of as the part of you that is seeing, but not looking; that is to say, a kind of back wall of your mind running through the movie of your life, without any input or intention of finding anything. It is completely a receptive process, and has no activity at all aside from just ‘witnessing.’ It does not evaluate, judge, or even feed into the thinking process. The Witness merely observes your actions, moods, and thoughts completely free of judgment. If you find yourself becoming angry, and your witness is observing, you will find it hard to be against yourself(thinking down on yourself for being angry), which can feed the anger further(what we resist, persists). In fact, if there is any evaluation of your thoughts and moods, that evaluation is also being witnessed and observed exactly the way it is.

This is important, and refers to the ‘thinking about thinking’ I was talking about earlier. If you’re like most people, much of the chatter in your mind isn’t even authentic thought, but an evaluation of earlier ideas and moods, “I’m so good for such and such” or, “Look what I’ve done, I’m so dreadful.”

You must allow this evaluation to be witnessed as well. The Witness is not a further way of criticizing, it’s letting things be as they are and merely observing. Your Witness doesn’t care how well off or living in sin you are. It merely watches. It is not there to judge you at all.

Many times you will forget, and much of your Witness will probably be active during much of this ‘thinking about thinking’ phase. This is a great place to start, and will have a huge impact on how you deal with your day and how you interact with yourself or others. Anger is the best time to remember your Witness, though a Witness in times of intense well-being is important as well; this allows a greater perspective on the beauties of life, and how we choose to wrap ourselves up in the drama of our lives for the purpose of truly living. Don’t be worried if you think cultivating your Witness will take away any of the spice of life, many find the opposite is actually true. It’s like taking a break from smelling the rose in order to climb the mountain and see the entire field of wildflowers below. During times of anger, it can be like taking the thorns out of your hand in order to see the rose itself more clearly.

Over time, your Witness will become aware of the originating thought itself, and will then begin to cut out much of the mindless self-feedback our thoughts operate within(thinking about thinking), and open up plenty of space for other, more constructive thoughts and interpretations to occupy. You will witness the original thought, and it will rise, and then begin to subside as you witness, just witness with absolute love* and non-judgment.

And then one day, your Witness will catch the first murmurings of something; like a small voice trying to tell you things, only you’re not sure what it is, or where it’s originating from. Then you will realize it’s your anger, and it’s been side-stepped, and that’s all it was. “Oh, just my ego there. Hello ego…”

Remember, you will often forget the Witness, even after observing the kinds of benefits it can have in your life. Do not be discouraged, just keep witnessing. This is all part of it. It probably happened a few times just reading this post.

*Love isn’t a process, journey, or feeling, it is a state of being. Making love a journey, a ‘there’ while you’re still ‘here’ implies a intrinsic separation between you and love. I personally do not believe this separation exists.


About OneBreathMeditation

I have been meditating for 8 years, and while I don't consider myself an expert, I know I'm knowledgeable about the subject, and can possibly provide help to others who want to experience the enriching benefits of meditation.
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13 Responses to Cultivating a Witness

  1. Such a true and mind-opening piece of writing!

  2. Ms. Nikks says:

    My mother always tells me during the rough times, “Don’t fret over it. This too shall pass.” So this totally brought a smile to my face. Great post to read before entering the world on a Monday morning.

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  7. eveleenlp says:

    i would also like to expand on the anger thing – anger is not a real emotion, its a go-to feeling when we feel wronged. so next time you feel “angry”, pretend you arent allowed to use that word, then how do you feel? sad, anxious, frustrated, lonely? if you get to the root of what is causing your anger you can address that feeling rather than wasting time on a false feeling of anger.

  8. Silly Whabbit says:

    I liked reading this (the obvious):
    what we resist, persists
    Thanks for blogging this.

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