“Or perhaps I am the one
Who is out in the night,
The forest sand wet under
My feet, moonlight shining…
And he is the one who is
At home. He sits in my chair
Calmly; he reads and prays
All night. He loves to feel
His own body around him:
he does not leave his house.”
– Francisco Albanez
There is a great book I read about 9 years ago, The Untethered Soul. It was the first book I had come across that explained things in a way that I could grasp. I am going to paraphrase from memory:
Imagine there are three objects in front on you: a dog’s collar, a clay flower pot and a hair brush. And imagine I asked you, “Which one of these is you?”
You would think, “How crazy. None of these are me.”
“Well, how do you know that?”
“Because I am looking AT them. They cannot be me because I am the one observing them. They are outside of me.”
This “me” is sometimes called the witness. The first time I became aware of the witness was a major ah-ha moment for me. It felt like I remembered a roommate that I had been living with for a long, long time but had forgotten to see. I was tripping over his discarded shoes and smelling the toast he burnt at breakfast but i never really saw him.
In my experience, the witness is not my emotions (a dog’s collar) or my thoughts (a flower pot) or even my physical experience (the brush). The witness is the one inside observing these things. When I become quiet in meditation, I become aware of this witness, the core essence of the being that is me, without judgement or attachment. It is a very strange feeling because the witness is not a dead thing, a passive static thing, but it does not hold the same strong feeling about things that my mind does.
That said, I would not want to be in the witness place all the time because I enjoy my human experience, with my angers and fears and clinging love. I feel like I am in a human body now in order to experience these things and the effects of them. But the witness is a useful place to visit. To remember…
To find the witness, here is what I do: I imagine a dark theater where a movie is playing on the large screen. The screen is my eyes, looking out into the world. I can see all the characters, the plots, the motives. But I go back, behind my mind, and sit in the very last row of the theater, simply observing the screen. In the front row are three clowns, inhaling popcorn and commenting loudly on the movie; my ego, my mind and my emotions. They are totally engrossed, to the point that they have forgotten that this is only a film. And I sit quietly in the back, the witness, taking it all in.
Suddenly the intensity of the movie lessens. It is simply scenes going past and I can feel that everything stretches out in one continuous connection, going forwards and backwards in both directions, and they everything is okay. There is really nothing to worry about. And I begin to sense that I am a spark, a piece of a larger witness component, that is always present and never ends.
This meditation never lasts long for me. And when I open my eyes I am calm for a few moments. As I get up and move around, the movie closes in around me and I am back in the front row, then up on the stage, an actor. I feel everything. I believe everything. And I go on with my human experience.