the witness

September 19, 2010 § 2 Comments

the witness

The Witness

George Gurdjieff, a Russian philosopher-mystic, noted that if you set an alarm clock at night in order to get up early to get some work done, who you are in the morning when the alarm goes off is quite different from who you were the night before.  In the morning you might even say, “Who the %X**!! set that alarm clock?”  A moment’s reflection will show you that you play many roles in the course of a day … and that who you are from moment to moment changes.  There is the angry you, and the kind you, the lazy you, the lustful you — hundreds of different you’s.  Gurdjieff points out that sometimes one “you” does something for which all the other “you’s” must pay for years or possibly the rest of this life.

Each of these “you’s” reflects an identification with a desire, or a feeling, or a thought.  If, as we have seen, the work is to break these identifications, we can work effectively throughout each day by making each of these “you’s” objects, i.e., by breaking the identification with each of them.  This is not so easy.

There is one technique which is known as adopting the role of the witness … and holding on to that role … ultimately to the exclusion of all other roles.

Who is the Witness?


1.  It is a part of the rational mind.  As such it is only useful up to a point … the point at which you go through the “doorway.”  When you go through the doorway you merge with the One … the Eternal Witness … Buddha Consciousness … (we differentiate these two witnesses by referring to the small, rational mind, ego witness without the capital letter).

2.  The witness could be thought of as an eye … or “I” which sees, though it does not look.  That is, it is not an active thing.  It just sees it all happening.

3.  The witness is not evaluative.  It does not judge your actions.  It merely notes them.  Thus, if you perform an act because of desire, such as eating something that is not sattvic (helpful to your sadhana, and then you put yourself down for having eaten it … the witness — which it finally appears — would merely note:  (A) he is eating such-and-such, and (b) he is putting himself down for eating such-and-such.  Thus, the witness has noted a “you” of desires and a super-ego you … two “you’s.”

This point is important.  Most of the time the inner voices of most people are continually evaluative.  “I’m good for doing this,” or “I’m bad for doing that.”  You must make that evaluative role an object of contemplation as well.  Keep in mind that the witness does not care whether you become enlightened or not.  It merely notes how it all is.

Appearance of the Witness

At first the witness is adopted because of an intellectual understanding of the need to separate the Self from the Doer.  You probably remember your witness only now and then, when you are in a calm dispassionate state of mind.  The moment you get distracted you lose the witness.  Later you “come to” and remember that you forgot.

For example, you are walking down a street witnessing yourself walking down a street.  You feel happy and witness feeling happy … and so it goes.  Then you meet someone or see something that irritates you.  Immediately you get irritated and forget all about the witness.  The adrenalin pumps through you and you think angry thoughts.  At this point “angry me” is who you are.  Only much later do you remember that you were attempting to witness.

At that point you promise yourself that you won’t forget again.  Ah, how little you know about the subtleties of the seductions of the other “you’s.”  Again you are walking and again witnessing walking and so forth.  This time you meet with another situation which irritates you.  Again you lose your witness (or center as it is called sometimes) and again your endocrine glands secret and you think angry thoughts.  But this time right in the middle of the entire drama you “wake up” … that is, you realize your predicament.  But at this point it is difficult to get free of the angry you because you are already getting much gratification.  (It’s like trying to stop in the midst of  a sexual act.)  And so you use some rationalization such as “I know I should be witnessing but after all he deserves to be punished” and with that you climb back into the “angry you” role with a certain amount of self-righteousness.  And so it goes through thousands of such experiences.

After a time (however long is necessary) you notice that although you still lose the witness (fall asleep) as often as before, you are starting to “remember” sooner.  That is, you are getting to the point where the actual falling asleep is starting to “wake” you.  This is a big step forward.

Again, after some time, it all gets much more subtle.  Now you are walking down the street and again you are witnessing it all … and again an “irritant” presents itself.  This time — as you are about to get angry — the witness says “Ah, about to get angry, I see.”  This often short-circuits the energy the “angry you” was fueling up with, and it falls away.  So now the lapse between being awake and being asleep is getting much smaller.  Simultaneously, you begin to note that you don’t fall asleep (i.e., fall out of the witness) nearly as often.  Throughout the day you are remaining centered in the witness watching the drama of life unfold.

On the surface, this method looks like what psychologists call the “defense mechanism of dissociation.”  A girl goes to a dance and no one asks her to dance … and she adopts a superior separateness … watching it all with the thought:  “I couldn’t be less interested in dancing.”  This response of separating herself from her desire arises because she so badly wants to dance.  It must be differentiated from the adoption of a witness when you have finished with dancing, so to speak.  The witness we are considering here is hardly an unconscious defense mechanism.  Though they look alike on the surface, they are quite different.  But only you know which is which.

There is a side effect which occurs while you are developing the witness which, though unpleasant, will soon disappear.  It is the feeling that life has lost its zest as a result of keeping the witness going.  It is difficult to fully get lost in the subtle sensual gratifications of eating when you are witnessing yourself eat.  “He is chewing … tasting … savoring, etc.”  It all seems so dispassionate.  And truly it is.  Here it is well to remember the oft-quoted stipulation that you must “die to be reborn” or “give it all up to have it all.”  Keep in mind that the loss of full sensory gratification is but a stage (and one of the more difficult ones at that) of your sadhana.  And it will only be when you are living quietly and calmly in the dispassionate witness that you will be ready to “permanently” pass through the next doorway.

You will also note that as you break identification with more and more of your roles and begin to live more calmly in the witness, that you begin to be aware of much more.  You begin to see how the laws of the universe are manifesting in all aspects of nature, outstandingly those which you have so recently been involved with, such as your own body and personality.  Now you are beginning to live on the causal plane.  This experience of seeing how it is … is a very heady feeling.  It must be witnessed, too, or else you will get caught in a new ego game of playing “the eye of God” —- while still being you.  This is a sticking point for many intellectuals.  They enjoy intellectual power so much that they cannot forego it by witnessing it … in order to go the final step in which they give up their separateness as an individual “knower” to dissolve in the sea of knowledge.

4.  The witness is always in the Here and Now.  It lives in each instant of living.  It is well to keep in mind that whatever device you choose as a third focal point, it is a temporary crutch.  It is dualistic in nature.  Once you have successfully broken identification with the Doer, and are solely the witness or a servant of Krishna, or whatever, then you must go the final step in which servant and master, witness and that which is witnessed, become One.  The goal is non-dualistic.  The means is dualistic.  Such a means is a sturdy vessel to get you across the ocean of samsara (illusion).  Once you reach the far shore, you leave the boat behind.

Potent Quotes

“Whatever you do, or eat, or give, or offer in adoration, let it be an offering to me; and whatever you suffer, suffer it for me.  Thus you shall be free from the bonds of Karma which yield fruits that are evil and good; and with your soul one in renunciation you shall be free and come to me.” — Bhagavad Gita

“In regard to every action one must know the result that is expected to follow, the means thereto, and the capacity for it.  He, who being thus equipped, is without desire for the result, and is yet wholly engrossed in the due fulfillment of the task before him, is said to have renounced the fruits of his action.” — Gandhi

“He who sees the inaction that is in action, and the action that is in inaction, is wise indeed.  Even when he is engaged in action he remains poised in the tranquility of the Atman.” — Bhagavad Gita

“But that state of Supreme Love and Immortality is made possible only by giving up the objective reality of the world as it appears to the ego-centric intellect and senses, and the consequent renunciation of attachment, by uninterrupted loving service.” — Narada Bhakti Sutras

“To study Buddhism is to study ourselves.  To study ourselves is to go beyond ourselves.  To go beyond ourselves is to be enlightened by all things.  To be enlightened by all things is to free our body and mind, and to free the bodies and minds of others.  No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.” — Dogen Zenji

“If you observe well, your own heart will answer.” — de Lubicz

“An art of living which will enable one to utilize each activity (of body, speech and mind) as an aid on the path is indispensable.” — Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctine

“How does the emancipated soul live in the world?  He lives in the world like a diver bird.  It dives into water, but the water does not wet its plumage; the few drops of water which may possibly stick to its body are easily jerked off when it once flaps its wing.” — Ramakrishna

“At first whenever I fell back into sin I used to weep and rage against myself and against God for having suffered it.  Afterwards it was as much as I could dare ask, ‘Why has thou rolled me again in the mud, O my playfellow?’  Then even that came to my mind to seem to bold and presumptuous; I could only get up in silence, look at him out of the corner of my eye and clean myself.” — Aurobindo

“All the urges of the passions express vital natural impulses, and it is the animal in us which gives rise to them.  The wise man is conscious of them, he knows how to give them their true name and to make use of them as you direct your donkey.  But the wise man is rare, and egoism finds a thousand reasons for giving those impulses legitimate motives and flattering names.  The human passions are life impulses which have been perverted … and so skillfully perverted that it is very difficult to discover, beneath their complications, the almost divine power which is their source — de Lubicz

“What you receive depends upon what you give.  The workman gives the toil of his arm, his energy, his movement; for this the craft gives him a notion of the resistance of the material and its manner of reaction.  The artisan gives the craft his love; and to him the craft responds by making him one with his work.  But the craftsman gives the craft his passionate research into the laws of Nature which govern it; and the craft teaches him Wisdom.” — de Lubicz

“But he learned more from the river than Vasudeva could teach him.  He learned from it continually.  Above all, he learned from it how to listen with a still heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgement, without opinions.” — Hesse

“As long as one feels that he is the doer, he cannot escape from the wheel of births.” — Buddha

“If you can serve a cup of tea right, you can do anything.” — Gurdjieff

“Ch’ing, the chief carpenter, was carving wood into a stand for musical instruments.  When finished, the work appeared to those who saw it as though of supernatural execution; and the Prince of Lu asked him, saying, ‘What mystery is there in your art?’

‘No mystery, Your highness,’ replied Ch’ing.  ‘And yet there is something.  When I am about to make such a stand, I guard against any diminution of my vital power.  I first reduce my mind to absolute quiescence.  Three days in this condition, and I become oblivious of any reward to be gained.  Five days, and I become oblivious of any fame to be acquired.  Seven days, and I become unconscious of my four limbs and my physical frame.  Then, with no thought of the Court present in my mind, my skill becomes concentrated, and all disturbing elements from without are gone.  I enter some mountain forest, I search for a suitable tree.  It contains the form required, which is afterwards elaborated.  I see the stand in my mind’s eye, and then set to work.  Beyond that there is nothing.  I bring my own native capacity into relation with that of the wood.  What was suspected to be of supernatural execution in my work was due solely to this.” — Chuang Tzu.

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§ 2 Responses to the witness

  • Kai says:

    Great stuff, Mai’a, lots of choice quotations from canonical sources. I disagree with the notion that there’s any particular standard sequence through which one proceeds as one awakens (e.g. “you will feel a loss of zest”, because for some people it could be the opposite, they were previously listless and suddenly become insatiable for experience). As I see it, that sequence depends on the particular construction of each individual, no two being quite alike; but that quibble aside, Yes to This. 😀

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