“If we consider the knower independently of the known, it reveals itself as pure witness. When knower and known are not-two, there is no place even for a witness.” – Jean Klein
In yoga and in our spiritual journey, we seek the transcendence of duality, the arrival of unity between ourselves and the cosmos, knower and known, observer and observed.
One of the ways we work toward this unity is through meditation, by learning more about how to tame the mind’s wild and roaming ways. But immediately, a question arises: who is the “we” in relation to our own minds? Who exactly is it that can control our minds, which we so often associate with our very sense of identity?
How are we different from our minds?
Once we start meditating, we learn pretty quickly, through direct experience, that there is a part of us able to “watch” or witness ourselves meditate, and that “something” accompanies us off the cushion and into our lives as we become more mindful and present in our daily lives.
When we are instructed to observe our in-breath and out-breath, suddenly there “we” are, as though from the outside, tracking the breath’s movements. We are also aware of becoming distracted, and we can guide ourselves – our own minds – back to the breath.
This “witnessing consciousness” is also known as a kind of meta-consciousness in scientific terms; it sounds fancy and official, but that doesn’t make them any less mysterious!
When I think of the witness or observer as I normally understand the words, two visions come to mind.
I think of the unobtrusive but interested observer, maybe collecting scientific data (though the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle teaches us that the act of observation changes that which is observed), or maybe sitting a cafe watching life pass by, somewhat aloof, but with great curiosity. The observer seems to be guided by a higher principle or motivated by a desire to reach greater meaning.
When I think of the witness, my mind floods with images of those who have been at the scene of momentous events like calamities, natural disasters, or the terror of war, who make an active decision to record and transmit what is being witnessed, so that the world can become more compassionate and future generations can benefit from the mistakes and tragedies of the past.
As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I have been privileged, and sometimes overwhelmed by becoming the legacy and carrier of unimaginable things experienced and witnessed by loved ones.
As I write this, hundreds of witnesses are chronicling the ravaging effects of the Nepal earthquake, tearing our hearts apart and inspiring us to help. In an age of instant media access, we are all becoming witnesses, with the privileges and responsibilities this entails.
What is the overlap between a “mere” witness to events and someone with feelings and conditionings who experiences the event?
Can any being ever be neutral, whether out there in society or within our own selves?
Until we experience pure One-ness, we are always a little bit “in” and a little bit “out” of things, and this can be a confusing place to be.
It may well be that the common denominator between the worldly witness and the inner witness is compassion, and the merging this allows between a self that is conflicted or divided within the universe.
Grappling with the witness and observer can be a chaotic endeavor, but I think it’s important to understand this special consciousness inside of us, so that we can become more conscious beings in a world that desperately needs this from us.
Rather than try to understand it intellectually, I’ve tried, below, to delve right into the “my inner witness,” using my meditation practice as the basis.
If the goal is to lose the witness altogether and merge into a compassion-flooded whole, then this is a humble attempt to bring the witness into sharper focus. I would love to hear any thoughts regarding this phenomenon!
Who is The Witness?
The witness tells me I’m thinking while I try to clear my mind, and brings me back to my body.
The witness stands guard but does not offer solace.
The witness stands back when emotions overtake me and whispers quietly, “Let this be so.”
The witness observes me “be” as though from afar, while remaining a part of this “me” fabric.
The witness guides me into nature when I need comfort and solace, and disappears when I am in rapture.
The witness points me to the physical effects of my confusion, by way of telling me that I am not my confusion.
The witness asks me if I’m being honest with myself.
The witness doesn’t argue with any other part of me, even as the parts argue with each other.
The witness doesn’t have the same goals for my life that I do, and doesn’t get frustrated when the goals I set are not met.
The witness seems to want what is best for me, or at least doesn’t veer me in the direction of harm.
The witness is not a friend or an enemy.
The witness knows what I am doing but doesn’t make any judgments.
The witness asks for nothing the way other parts of me ask me to tax myself over and over.
The witness is not a master or a guru.
The witness allows me to be more attentive.
What do I do with this attention?
Which part of me is the keeper of my stories and the inspiration behind the dreams I long to fulfill?
Can the witness take me there and beyond … or can it only witness the evolution?