The Witness

Bodydharma Ajanta cave,  India I was talking to a friend yesterday, and she was telling me that for the last few days she had been in a very low, difficult place but right now, because of something I had said in class, that had changed and she was feeling very high and good.

I mentioned to her that as glad as I was that she was feeling good now, she needed not to get too attached to her new high because everything that goes up has to go down. This is something that happens quite often to many people, to fluctuate between the ups and downs of life, feeling exited when experiencing the ups and depressed when the downs appear.

But instead of focussing all our attention on the ups and downs of life, we can bring our attention into the discovery that we are neither the ups nor the downs, but that we are actually the witness1 that is aware of our ups and downs.

I hesitated writing this post (like if I should do it or not) because very few people are really interested in learning about the witness. Instead, what people are more interested in is getting the highs without the lows, and most of the new culture of self-development, the so called ‘new spirituality’ is actually about how to be more time in the highs, and as a consequence how to control the world and the environment so we can be more high without having to experience so much the lows.

And it is true that to a certain extent there is the possibility to control that, but the important part of this sentence is TO A CERTAIN EXTENT, which means that we don’t actually control the environment at all. We control it when the circumstances lead to it and we don’t when they don’t. We can control the environment only to a certain extent because the environment and even our own states of mind are not really controlled by us but by many other factors, one of them being what in Yoga is called karma, the law of karma.

Karma is often thought of in very simplistic and incorrect ways, like when somebody says: ‘it is his/her karma’, meaning that something bad had to happen to the person. But this is not really what karma is. Karma, at least from the point of view I am using now2, is everything that you have… everything. For example, let’s say you are very intelligent and have the capacity to see something and know immediately what to do. That is your karma. Which means that this intelligence was given to you as a consequence of something that happened in the past. Or let’s say you are very good at sports, or that you have cancer, or that you have three kids, or that you are tall, etc. That is your karma, which means that this ability/feature/circumstance was given to you as a consequence of some past action. (This past action does not refer to a specific action done by a particular person, but to a huge, complex, invisible ocean of events that, following certain sets of known and unknown laws, happen to come together at any particular moment to create the present occurrence.)

What happens to us, these ups and downs, are also our karma. And yes, we can control them, but no, we cannot REALLY control them because even what we can control is because of karma. Does this means that I should cross my arms and just wait for my karma to make my life? Well, if that is what you do, then that is your karma. But if crossing your arms does not feel right to you, and instead you feel that you need to go out and make your life with your efforts and your actions and your power, then that is what you need to do because that is your karma.

We cannot control the environment. Karma does. Yes, there are many modern teachings about how to control the environment, but these teachings don’t work unless it is your karma to make them work. What usually happens is that a person learns a technique that works very well for the person teaching it, and then starts teaching that technique to other people. And it may attract people that have a similar karma and it will work for them, but it will not work for all the other people that have a different karma. And so it is not the technique that works but the expression of karma for those particular people. This is the complexity of dealing with the external world.

Everybody wants to have the ups without the downs. Everybody does. I do too. But luckily (it was my karma) I was also very interested in what I call the truth. And to be interested in the witness is to be interested in truth.

The reason we want the ups without the lows is because it feels good. When we experience the highs without the lows we feel very good about ourselves, we feel happy. And this is what we all want, to be happy, to feel good.

But to know about the witness is not exactly about that. To have an interest in understanding that we are actually the witness is to go further than that. To know that there is something we call the witness—which is actually what we really are—is to know that there is something that is watching the ups and the downs. The ups and downs come and go and ‘I’, as the witness, am the one observing it.

What is this witness? The witness is the part that observes life, including my own thoughts—my ups and downs—in a way no different from observing the weather. We can call it the ‘weather of life’.

The witness is the part that observes the unfolding of the ‘weather of life’.

The witness, the ‘I’, that is not involved in neither the ups nor the downs, is the part that understands that the ups and downs belong to karma, and that karma, just like the weather, is not me. If it rains or it is sunny, I don’t call that me. We are taught very young that we are what we think, but the thoughts that appear in our heads and create our ups and downs are not really different from the weather. Like the weather, they are also dependent on a great many circumstances and events that are out of our control3.

But the witness is not affected by them.

In the beginning, when we start to become aware of the witness, and because it has this characteristic of being ‘unaffected’, it may seem that this witness separates us from the rest, from the world, and in particular, from other people. But in reality it’s being this witness what actually connects us.

It is as bodies, separate entities—which is what we believe/assume to be—what actually separates us. As bodies, I am here and you are there. I may want something from you or you may want something from me. If what you want from me is something I want to give you (and I will want to give it to you because of what I can get in return from you) there will be attraction, connection. If what I want to get is not what you want to give me, there will be opposition, and if I don’t want anything from you, nor you from me, there will be indifference. This is all the connection there is between people when we are bodies, when we feel we are separate entities.

But as the witness, we are not separated because the witness here is the witness there, the witness in ‘me’ is the witness in ‘you’. The witness is our presence, and there are not two presences. Presence is actually synonymous with love; love being a sense of unity, a sense that ‘I am you and you are me’.

And it is only when we allow ourselves to take the position of the witness, to ‘become’ the witness, when we are actually able to experience love.

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1. Witness is just a word pointing to a wordless state of being. There are different words that can point in different ways to that same state. That wordless state is not really a witness, but witnessing is one of many ways that we can talk about that state. As it is said in the very first sentence of the Tao Te Ching: ‘The Tao that can be spoken is not the real Tao.’ 

2. Karma is a very large and complex idea and I am just giving here one of its several possible definitions.

3. The deep understanding that thoughts are not under my control is a very large and complex topic in itself. I have written about it in some previous post and hopefully I will have the chance to dedicate a whole post to it.

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