Written for the upcoming Body, Mind, Feeling, and World workshop. If you're interested, sign up. “The empty sky is my witness.” – Jack Kerouac
We want peace. We want relief. We want a sense of calm and a broader opening to joy. These are universals, although they come to us in very particular and personal ways. And they are things that are promised us, in yoga, in meditation, in spiritual paths of any shape or origin.
The way in is paradoxical, and has more to do with not doing and not reacting than with a ‘practice’. It comes in stepping back and witnessing who you are.
The irony is of course that we think we know. We think we know better than anyone else does, certainly. There is a sense in which this is true: no one else knows our secrets, or is as preoccupied with our thoughts and feelings and beliefs as we are.
But there is also a larger sense in which this isn’t true at all. We don’t know who we are. We don’t have the foggiest. We have a tendency to become attached to our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs and confuse them for ourselves. And we have a tendency to stay so close we can no longer see the big picture.
Once upon a time, someone told me “your thoughts aren’t true, you know. You don’t have to believe them.” This was a revelation. It continues to be a revelation. This was the beginning of many deep changes in me, starting with a yoga practice, an exploration of mindfulness and meditation, and not a little soul searching. In any journey of healing or self work, honest appraisal of our thoughts and beliefs has to come in to play. This causes a minor eruption. A revolution, complete with burned citadels and blazing flags, from the heart outward. It results in clarity, centeredness, and purpose. It creates a sound refuge.
And it’s tremendously hard to explain, as it’s a thing of experience. Of show, don’t tell.
Sakshin, the Witness, is the you of you that is larger than your conscious thoughts or fleeting emotions.
The human animal is a thinking and reflective animal. Not only do we think, but we have the capacity to watch ourselves think. We have the gift of self awareness. The easiest way to envision this is to call up in your mind a picture of yourself, where ever you are right now. Watch as this character of your mind stands and leaves the room. You can do this whether you actually leave the room or simply use your imagination. This quality is what allows us to remember, to learn from what we remember, to ruminate and change our minds, and to create or plan.
But the camera can pan back even further, to where we see the thoughts, can start to question where the thoughts are coming from, ask who the thinker is.
Sakshin, the Witness, becomes our closest ally in our daily practice. We are ambitious, judgemental, competitive, and want to change. But we cannot create any substantive change until we know and accept what is.
Sakshin is the quiet water beneath the constant chatter and fluctuations of our everyday consciousness (citta). It is those fluctuations Patanjali wanted to quell with the practice of yoga. The fluctuations are caused by perception, thought, emotion, memory. Because of avidya – our inability to see, our mistaken ideas about dualities, our ignorance – we imagine that these fluctuations define and limit who we are. Our ignorance hurts. We suffer.
All our life, and much of our strength, is spent is assigning values to people and things. We analyze, we criticized, we compare. We feel envy. We feel lack. Or we feel pride, ambition, dedication. But we are rarely taught to accept and simply mirror what is. Sakshin engages both the outer and inner worlds on their own terms and lets them speak in their own words. It is present-centered, with no memories of the past or concerns for the future. Sakshin is self-reliant, independent of approval or disapproval, self-accepting, and big enough to hold both success and failure.
Mindfulness, buddhist Practice
In meditation we learn to be non-reactive. There’s a thought, we let it pass without judgment or any need to follow; there’s an itch, we let it be without moving; there’s a sound, you notice and refocus on your breath; there is a surge of emotion, you feel it fully without turning it into a command or a story.
The practice is simple. Not doing. Not attaching. But it has never been ‘easy’. It teaches the vast difference between what’s actually happening and what the mind is making up. Oddly, this practice allowed me to be more engaged with ‘what’s really happening’ and with the processes of my mind. It has allowed me greater spontaneity, a relief of grief or doubt or regret, and a full appreciation of my strengths and limitations.
The paradox is that being attached to a thing – emotion, say – I neither get myself or the benefit of the emotion. Anger is a prime example: if I follow the anger, believe it as ‘truth’, I set off a chain reaction of further emotions, hormones, chemicals, and neurotransmitters. I engage my whole fight or flight response. Typically, I also recall other incidents of anger, or reflect on neutral events in the past, and suddenly ‘understand’ them in terms of this anger. Fuel to fire.
Mindfulness, however, fully engages with the emotion, feels it full on, and lets it be what it is. It gives a sort of dignity to the thing. Approaching anger with that tender, nonjudging Witness, I can often see what is making me angry (usually not what I first thought). I can see what it is that I think I need, or what I think it is I’ve been threatened with. Fears and pains are teachers. We should listen to them. Benevolent curiosity toward anger is the first teacher of compassion; I learn compassion (not pity) for myself, but also a kind regard for the other party, whose needs and motivations are often remarkably similar to my own.
Being mindful toward my anger also graces me with a kind of flexibility, generosity, and bigger than myself ness. Anger rankles and burns. It consumes. But it is also only a piece of who I am, not the whole. And it often consumes more precious and tender aspects. Mindfulness allows me the room to give anger its place without letting it hold sway.
The big, sweeping space of mindfulness is the active practice of keeping the mind focused on what you are experiencing in the present moment, moment by moment, without commentary, analysis, or judgement. Without reference to the past. Without expectations or fear. Again, oddly, the practice makes us big: by dissolving the ties we take for granted (why does he always do this? Why can’t I ever…? I hate…I wish…every man is the same…my body does this every time I get a headache) we have the room to try other approaches. We see people for who they are, rather than what we’ve come to expect from them. And we see that who we are need not be attached to who we’ve always been and the way we’ve always done it.
Typically, we use the breath as a vehicle or focusing point for our meditation. But we can apply mindfulness to anything: different sensations in the body, sounds, emotions, even thoughts.
Finding the clarity born of mindfulness, letting go of distractions, needs, and expectations that carry us away from the present, only happens with time, commitment, and a surrender to the process.
The process can be scary. We learn how little control we have over our own minds. The light we start swinging around can illuminate parts of ourselves we’d rather not know, or force us to reckon with things we’ve spent tremendous energy avoiding. When people begin a ‘meditation’ practice, they often say “I’m no good at this. You tell me to follow my breath but I can’t shut off my thoughts long enough to do that.” Depending on who we are, ease of sitting with the uncomfortable may be terrifying. Impatience, self-criticism, perfectionism, and the desire to quit or run away run deep in us.
In the end, mindfulness is not about escaping thoughts or emotions, or turning the thoughts off. Thought happens. No one can stop thought. If that were possible, there would be no reason for meditation, ‘liberation’ of yoga, or any of the self-soothing strategies humanfolk have devised over time. We don’t escape thought and feeling and what is, but radically change our relationship to them. “You don’t have to believe your thoughts.” said unnamed teacher: mindfulness and witness open the heart to possibility. It allows choice, rather than reaction. It opens a space for Right Intention to steer our lives, or true belief, or the really right thing to do.
Thoughts and emotions can overwhelm: most of the ‘problems’ in our lives have to do with our reaction to thoughts or feelings we didn’t know how to think or feel. Mindfulness won’t magically stop this, but it will bring it to light. At those times, we can begin to fall back on compassion – again, not pity – for ourselves, the great reality of where we’ve been and the greatness of the task we’ve begun. Facing demons rather than running from them. Mindful witness is a place to begin the forgiveness of self, and of our failures.
Yogic Sakshin, the Eternal Witness as ally
Begin at the beginning. Begin where it’s practicable. Begin with the body.
Sit back or lie down on the floor and close your eyes. Step back from your body, as you might step back from a puzzle or slightly crooked picture frame. Scan your awareness over your body’s surface. Easy. Do this from the soles of your feet to the crown of your head. Feel, for example, where your skin comes into contact with the world, the border between what’s inside and what’s out. Feel where fabric of your clothes touches your skin. Feel the heat or coolness of the floor. Feel where the air in the room moves over your body. Feel where your skin is soft, where it’s calloused. Where it’s warm or cool or cold. If you can’t stay methodical, let your awareness play. Just keep refocusing on being aware.
Begin to start scanning those places of your body where we don’t often go – with awareness, with breath, with vision. The back body is key. Notice if there are areas beyond the vision of your Witness (internal organs can be hard. Or areas of injury may simply feel ‘injured’, not detailed). Somewhere along the way, we lose large tracts of ourselves to a kind of physical avidya (ignorance or not knowing). Eventually, someday, the Witness will be the guide that brings you to those places.
Follow your Witness inside, away from the surface, toward the contents of your citta (everyday consciousness…that fluctuating mind). What do you see in there? Our brains consume more energy and more sugar and more blood than any other part of our body, but we’re largely unaware of what it’s doing. Forget the whole we only use 10% part. Generally speaking, I’m wholly unaware of that 10% I am supposedly using. Ordinarily, we identify with the fluctuations and so submerge or lose ourselves in them. We lose not only them, but ourselves. The Witness will tell us the kinds of thoughts we have. I was surprised to learn how much time I spent planning and worrying and projecting – I thought I was a lazy and sanguine kinda gal. Most of us are consumed by planning, rehashing, competing, preparing. Any and all of these have a value and a place – but if we’re not aware, we’re not even getting the benefits of worrying, planning, or preparing. Or of reflection.
Use Sakshin to step back from the contents of your mind and regard what you see without favoring any one of them, or trying to dismiss the unsavory. Appreciate that you can remember yourself and know yourself apart from these rippling thoughts, cataclysmic or therapeutic or preoccupied as they may be. Allow each its full expression without getting mired in them. They are a part of you. Wings, or limbs, or potentials. But they are not who you are.
Sakshin is the means by which we inquire into and enlighten ourselves. It asks, sometimes irreverently, sometimes compassionately, who we are. The more open we are to the Witness, the more we begin to see our ignorance/avidya; we begin to realize we don’t even know who we are. This is a gift. We have worlds of potential in us, big areas of healing that have historically looked like lost causes, huge reservoirs of flexibility, endurance, compassion, attention, and creativity that remain lost in the morass until we approach and learn, Witness as guide.
The elementary act of witnessing, and not doing anything, is enough to initiate the process of transformation. Physical transformation, emotional transformation. Revolution of spirit. When the Witness shines the light of awareness on the unnecessary or unhealthy doing-somethings we engage in, the doing-somethings immediately lose some of their potency. The grip of avidya – and hence, suffering – is weakened. Stubborn, trenchant tensions or habits or beliefs spontaneously dissolve and transformation becomes effortless. We subtly change. The authentic slips in. Breathing, and all the other things we do ‘just happens’.
Your inner being is nothing but the inner sky. Clouds come and go, planets are born and disappear, stars arise and die, and the inner sky remains the same, untouched, untarnished, unscarred. We call that inner sky sakshin, the witness, and that is, the whole goal of meditation. -Osho
“I am the goal, the supporter, the Lord, the witness, the abode, the refuge, the friend, the origin, the dissolution, the foundation, the substratum, and the imperishable seed.” -Bhagavad Gita
This, Gargi, is just that which is not changed. It is not seen, but is the see-er. It is not heard, but is the hearer. It is not thought, but is the thinker. It is not known, but is the knower. Apart from it, there is no see-er. Apart from it, there is no hearer. Apart from it, there is no thinker. Apart from it, there is no knower. Gargi, in this alone which is not changed, all space and time are woven, warp and woof.- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 3.8.11
“Some look upon this Self as marvelous; others speak about It as wonderful; others again hearof It as a wonder. And still others, though hearing, do not understand It at all.” ?