Cultivating the witness. It’s an integral part of the practice. On the mat and on the cushion, one of the aims of yoga is to increase our capacity to take a step away from the intensity of our immediate experience— whatever that may be— and shift to observer mode. Over time, we learn that there is always a part of us that is neutral and steady, detached from the drama of the moment and able to see clearly. While I’ve devoted years to this practice, as of late I’ve been catching myself in the swirl of the storm, outside the center of calm abiding. Seems like a great time to take a closer look.
You are in the seat of the witness when you observe yourself making a judgement, watch yourself starting to lose it, or notice the anger rising within before getting lost in the heat of the moment. We all experience this from time to time. The question is, are you actively working to grow that witness part of you? It’s an important question to ask because this level of consciousness doesn’t grow on its own. And it would definitely be good to spend more time there, especially if you, like me, have been spending a little too much time on the spin cycle.
If you’re not sure what I’m getting at, check out these comparisons:
Have you ever been in a challenging yoga posture steaming and stewing on stories about your horrible yoga teacher or why your body is shaking or tight or weak? Conversely, how about when your mind is clear and cool even when your body is trembling from full effort?
Have you ever had a meditation turn into an extended conversation with yourself about something that happened years ago or has never happened at all, completely forgetting you were doing a meditation technique in the first place? In contrast, what about when you are steady with your meditation, simply noticing the thoughts or emotions that move through you, without engaging in any way?
In the former examples, we are in the ego, the small self. In the latter, we are in the witness. It’s the sweet spot. It’s where everything can be just as it is and we are okay.
Consider these two versions of the self. First, there is the ego, or individualized self that is always reaching, grasping, attaching, judging, striving. The ego wants what it wants, and more than anything fights to control you, to stay in the realm of the known and reside firmly in the illusion of control. Second, is the Self, or the witness consciousness that we truly are, at core. This is the part of us that is unchanging, connected to the timeless, ever steady and calm. How much time do you spend on either side? With which are you identifying when life turns up the heat: the part of you creating the story and the struggle or the part of you that creates a pause, watching and waiting for right action to arise?
To identify with the witness within is to experience life from a place of peace and clarity. From this vantage, you can see the part of you that is reacting; observe the intensity of sensation; watch the ebb and flow of inner resistance; notice with curiosity the ever-spinning wheel of the mind. When this happens, you’re less pulled off center when life goes off course. It’s not about pretending like nothing is happening when you’re in the line of fire, rather, it’s acknowledging that pain or discomfort is present without losing the plot. As usual, it’s a both/and situation: “I see that this situation is very sucky, and I am also okay.”
If we want lasting happiness (and who doesn’t?) we must take the yoga off the mat and cushion and spread it into the whole of our days. While it’s good and necessary to have a morning practice, spending one hour observing your mind, emotions and reactions and every other waking hour stewing and spinning, identifying with whatever thought, emotion or sensation is loudest, is not the path to freedom. We need to find ways to insert the practice of presence throughout our days– and life provides no shortage of opportunities for us to chose attach/engage/control versus observe/watch/notice.
The overwhelm we feel when overtaken with an emotion, reaction or experience can be like sitting outside, unsheltered during a thunderstorm. Let’s take sadness as an example. When you are in the middle of it, it feels like it just might rain forever. The trick is to take that necessary step back and watch the storm move through. In doing so, you create the space to breathe. You are not the storm. And the you that watches is eternal.
Why is this so hard? Even this idea can be challenging because we have for so long identified with our feelings and emotions. Even the language we use to describe these experiences connect the I to the it: we say “I’m so sad” instead of “I’m feeling sadness” or “I’m filled with sadness right now.” The true I is constant, the never-changing self. I is not sadness. Sadness is just the weather. You can insert anger, grief, impatience or countless other emotions to replace the sadness. The point is that they are always changing and there is a you in there that is the calm observer. 24/7/365.
We have all been navigating as best we can through a wild season. Our energy and resources have been taxed to the limit, yet we must continue to return to the steady center that is undisturbed no matter the situation. While this particular storm has been a doozy, it’s not the first or the last we will endure. How transformative would be it be to identify with the part of you that is calm and at ease— the part of you that is not in the swirl, but is able to observe it— and rest and watch while the winds howl and the rain falls?
The ego is desperately seeking stable ground, a forward path, a return to normal. But the thing about a storm is that it clears away the dead and dusty and creates fertile ground for something new. Rather than reaching for the what was in a vain attempt to stabilize the ever-grasping ego, we must continue to stay with the breath and the moment, turning toward the what will be, however foggy that view might be. The way forward is one breath at a time. We can do that kicking and screaming, or pausing with compassion and curiosity as the moments unfold.