This month’s essay focuses on the practice of Witness Consciousness and how its healing power may be applied to our culture’s hyper-critical social media circus. This essay is a continuation of a column I wrote about “Witness Energy” in the May 2019 edition of SoulSongs, the official newsletter of KaleidoSoul. I hope you take a few minutes to read it.
Many great minds have written many volumes about the vast, deep life-changing practice of Witnessing/Observing. It’s clear to me that all my “Contemplating the Beauty of…” essays have flowed from the wellspring of practicing Witness Consciousness! I hope you find something useful for yourself here. I invite you to share this essay with others and to share your reflections in the comments section below. Or please share your thoughts with me at email@example.com.
Mystical traditions from around the globe include teachings on the vital, life-transforming practice of Witnessing/Observing. Briefly, here’s the practice I’ve learned from my Kriya Yoga lineage:
1. Activate a cobalt-blue light a few feet above your head. The light is like a video camera, recording everything that is going on within and around you. It records without judging, interpreting, or analyzing.
2. Every time the mind reacts to what’s being recorded, use the simple mantra, “Isn’t that interesting?”
3. Then on a regular basis, write down…
a. what the cobalt-blue light has recorded.
b. the mind’s reactions to what was recorded: its endless judging, interpreting and analyzing.
c. your observations about your attachment to your preferences.
4. Notice the difference between the neutral recording and the mind’s reactions. Notice the patterns that the mind habitually expresses.
After a while, you will automatically activate the Witness/Observer when you first wake up and before entering your dreams. Your concentration will bring awareness of the thoughts arising and ever greater skill at neutralizing them with the mantra, “Isn’t that interesting?” You will find yourself dis-identifying or detaching from old thoughts about the nature of life and of your “self.” You will learn to laugh at your habitual thoughts and feel lighter and happier. You will learn to slow your reactive impulses and avoid regrettable responses. You will be able to pause and bring more wisdom and grace to the way you think, speak, and act.
PREFERENCES R US
Summer 2008, Rogers Park, Illinois
Early in our courtship, Harry is helping me do the dishes in my pink apartment overlooking Lake Michigan. He goes to dry his hands and I firmly explain that the paper towels are for hand drying and the linen towel is for dish drying. He looks me in the eye and smiles affectionately as he dries his hands on the linen towel. My personality was quite irritated when, just as firmly, Harry explains that from this day forward, he will be drying his hands on a real, not paper, towel. Our preferences had collided, intruding upon our new and sweet romance. We had to figure out how to compromise on this crucial matter! Thirty years on, we’re still figuring things out, saved by our shared commitment to being happy rather than being ’right’ at all the times.
Several years ago my Witness/Observer practice was taken to a new and uncomfortable place when my meditation teacher Swami Pranananda introduced us to the Hsin-hsin Ming: Verses on the Faith-Mind, considered to be the first Chinese Zen document. Seng-t’san, the third Chinese patriarch of Zen begins…
“The Great Way is not difficult for those not attached to their preferences.
When neither hate nor love arise, all is clear and undisguised…
If you wish to know the truth,
Then hold to no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
Is the disease of the mind.”
Swami Pranananda emphasized that it is the nature of the human mind to have preferences. The problem is attachment to preferences builds an “echo chamber” in which we strive to support our preferences. Worse, we get caught up in the need to control others so they will conform to our preferences. Thus reality and truth are obscured. Not to mention harmony and respect.
What is important is to be vigilantly mindful of the consequences of our attachment to our preferences. When I first encountered the opening line, it felt like the Sun’s brilliant light had suddenly revealed what the clouds had obscured. All was indeed “clear and undisguised.”
All at once, the dots connected in a brand-new way!
Thus began a cringe-filled exploration of the consequences of my attachment to my beloved preferences! I confess I’d actually been proudly attached to my many preferences. After all, I come from a long line of opinionated women. It had taken me years to subdue my people-pleasing ways and to discern exactly what were my own thoughts and opinions, independent of my motherline and all other so-called authorities.
Until this lesson, I’d never carefully considered how my preferred likes and dislikes, my countless “firm in the knowledge” attitudes, might disguise reality. I’d never realized how taking a firm stand for my preferences narrowed my Horizon of Awareness. I was unaware of the controlling consequences of my attachment to my preferences.
I’d never considered how being attached to my preferences resulted in my mind’s continuous judging and evaluating first my own preferences and then the preferences of others. I’d never really woken up to how violent my thoughts and words were as a result of my continuous judging of others’ preferences. I witnessed with horror how my attachment to my preferences violated my vow of Ahimsa (non-violence) and my vow of Santosha, to live a contented life.
A NEW ATTITUDE
My beloved mentor Sister Virginia Mary Barta often said, “Marti, you need to take people where they are. You need to trust they’re doing their best.” I’d look at her blankly, wondering (why and) how the heck I might do that!
Years later, Swami Pranananda’s compassionate words gave me a way forward, new thoughts that are releasing me from my habitual thoughts of shame, blame, and criticism of self and other. She said:
“Attitudinally, letting go of your preferences means to understand the nature of life. It means to understand that each of us is on the path. We all have our own timing mechanism, our own unique experiences. It means that if you can accept me or anyone without judging, and simply say, ‘Oh, tonight she has a preference for XYZ,’ then you are letting go of the human mind’s constant need to have everyone else live their life the way YOU want them to. So whether you are judging another for the way they drive or park or their hair or clothes or perfume or cooking or speech, just accept them, accept all of us, without trying to change anyone. Knowing, not intellectualizing, that we all are on the path.”
THE PRACTICE OF OBSERVING/WITNESSING
…is a way to explore your preferences and the consequences of being attached to them. Remember, all humans have preferences. Our attachment to our preferences is what causes problems. This exploration may lead you to some brand-new thoughts and behaviors that bring more peace and harmony into your life.
1. Activating the cobalt-blue light, the symbol of Witness Consciousness while adopting an attitude of friendly curiosity as your days unfold in the next few months.
2. Focus on simply observing your preferences—without judging.
Start with what your senses prefer—taste, touch, sounds, sights.
Then tune into the mind’s rants and raves, its habitual unconscious reactive nature.
Notice how interactions with social media affect your preferences.
3. Each day, keep notes, listing your preferences. Be prepared for the list to cover several pages!
For example, “I dislike the color orange. I love all things purple. I dislike sour tastes. I prefer mildly seasoned food now that I’m older.”
4. Once you have a clear notion of your preferences, simply observe and record the judgments that flow from them.
For example, “His tweets enrage me. You’re wearing that? Clichés du jour (i.e., “here’s the thing”) makes me crazy. Etc., etc., etc.”
5. Next, continue observing in a neutral way the consequences of your attachment to your preferences.
Notice how your relationships are impacted by your preferences. For example, “I argued about…I avoid her because …I’m the only one in the family not watching that show…I refuse to eat at her house with all those animals…”
6. Finally, take baby steps to detach from your preferences. At your next meal, try eating or drinking something you’ve previously disliked. Or try giving up things you really love for a few days. Wear a color you really don’t prefer. Observe your mind’s discomfort and do it anyway!
THE GLOBAL VIRAL POLLUTION OF THE SHAMING MIND
The novelist Salvatore Scibona recently wrote a provocative opinion piece describing the impact of social media on civil discourse and simple human kindness. In this worthwhile read, Scibona says “we are undergoing an industrial revolution of shame” and describes how, with lightning speed, new technologies of social media accelerate and exacerbate a climate of toxic blaming and shaming. You’ll be surprised at his remedy.
This week, a sweeping new United Nations assessment has concluded Humans Are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an ‘Unprecedented’ Pace. “Humans are transforming Earth’s natural landscapes so dramatically that as many as one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, posing a dire threat to ecosystems that people all over the world depend on for their survival…unless action is taken.”
I would include a clear, wise, compassionate human mind in that list of one million endangered species.
“Belonging to one another is enough. It is where we find our peace.”—Call the Midwife
One simple practice to counter the malignant pollution of the mind and spirit is the practice witnessing and observing. May you and your world benefit from the saving grace, peace. and healing that comes from cultivating Witness Consciousness.
May you walk in Beauty today and all the days of your life.