There is one aspect of meditation that is so important, if it is neglected, meditation can hardly be said to have taken place at all. That crucial element is the act of becoming an inner witness, a neutral observer of the mind. Like a pedestrian paused at a railroad crossing, watching a train roll by, meditators witness the mind from a distance. In the process, their awareness is pervaded by an unimpassioned relationship with whatever passes before it. Unless this basic strategy of detached self-observation is grasped and put to work, meditation will prove to be little but a daydream and our encounter with it not much more than an invention of the imagination.
Unless this basic strategy of detached self-observation is grasped and put to work, meditation will prove to be little but a daydream and our encounter with it not much more than an invention of the imagination.
The Inner Witness
A witness is a direct observer. The Sanskrit word for that is sakshi (saa-kshe), a word derived from the meanings of its two parts: sa, which means “with,” and aksha, which means “senses or eyes.” The sakshi is the capacity of awareness to disengage from its identification with thoughts, and at the same time, observe them “with its own eyes.”
We may not know it, but each of us has the capacity to be such an inner witness. We can see the operations of our mind directly—and yet remain detached from them. In order to accomplish this, however, we must learn to take on the perspective of the sakshi.
Like most Sanskrit words, the word aksha has multiple meanings. It can, in addition to its basic definition, mean “the center of a wheel.” When a wheel turns, its spokes revolve and its outer rim rotates, but its center, or hub, is still. The capacity to remain steady while events are turning around it is an important characteristic of the sakshi.
As awareness distances itself from the constantly changing panorama of body, breath, and mind, it rests in its own nature.
The word aksha also means “spiritual wisdom.” This is a reference to the insight gained from awakening the sakshi. As awareness distances itself from the constantly changing panorama of body, breath, and mind, it rests in its own nature. And this new perspective is gradually internalized over the course of time until it becomes a source of spiritual strength.
Thus, the process of witnessing has three essential components—seeing our inner experience directly but from a distance, re-maining detached and steady in the process, and, through meditation, gradually internalizing this experience in the form of a new spiritual vision.
The Process of Witnessing
It is important that you not become confused by the terms used to describe the process of witnessing. The sakshi is not some foreign or hidden aspect of your awareness locked up in a secret spot in your mind. Witnessing your thoughts and emotions is neither a distortion nor an artificial manipulation of your awareness.
The awareness you use for witnessing your thoughts and inner experience is fundamentally no different from the awareness you are using to read this article. The sakshi is the same awareness—but disengaged from its usual web of entanglements and attachments. In meditation, the process of becoming this inner witness begins by discovering how to calm the reactions through which we normally experience life, and set them aside in favor of a more detached point of view. As the rigidity of our attachments is softened and we gain distance from them, awareness acquires a different inner feel. It becomes more restful, transparent, and expansive. This is who you really are. In other words, you are the inner witness. This realization deepens with each meditation.
How does the process of self-witnessing come about? If you were to decide to watch a holiday parade, you would want to have a clear vantage point from which to observe it. Your choice of an observation point would determine how well you could see the passing floats and hear the marching bands. Similarly (but more abstractly), the news media you select to keep track of events serve as a vantage point through which you observe the world with some manner of detachment. Your daily newspaper not only sharpens, it expands your vision.
In meditation, your awareness is given a place from which to observe the mind’s activity.
Meditation provides the same service. In meditation, your awareness is given a place from which to observe the mind’s activity. This vantage point is supplied by a mental focus, and as you rest in your focus you can see the activities of the balance of your mind. That is the key to successful meditation.
The object of your focus is likely to be either the breath, or a mantra, or both. As the mind rests in this focus, its habitual activities (caused by everything from mundane involvements to deep-seated and unconscious attachments) disturb your concentration. They prompt the mind to leave its focus and to wander from thought to thought, experience to experience. Then, instead of “seeing” experience, awareness simply joins the wandering mind and identifies with it.
On the other hand, when you are concentrating, thoughts and experiences (other than your focus) stand out, in contrast to the mind’s focus, like clouds in an otherwise blue sky. Your relationship with these passing thoughts is gradually changed as you learn to see them without pursuing them. In time, the mind becomes more centered in its focus; it acquires a taste for concentration; and the process of inner witnessing, observing the mind’s activity from a distance, is strengthened.
My teacher, Swami Rama, used to point out that if your friend were to suddenly grasp your big toe and hang on to it firmly, you might be amused at first. But if the friend persisted, you would soon find it annoying. And after time, you would give your friend a good swift kick to shake the grip away.
Similarly, Swami Rama said, the mind at first responds to the process of concentration with curiosity. It is intrigued. Soon, however, concentration becomes annoying. “I have other things to think about,” the mind seems to say. Annoyance turns into distaste. Finally, with an inner kick, the mind throws off the focus of its concentration and replaces it with one of its own habitual thoughts.
Meditation teachers recognize the rebellious tendency of the mind and tell us to let distracting thoughts come and go without feeding them new energy. They must be witnessed objectively, they say, for it is through this practice that your attachments are gradually weakened. It is the process of watching over the concentration of the mind—and thus transforming your awareness.
In practice, this means that as meditation deepens and you begin to feel more relaxed, you must not lose your focus and turn to watching the stream of thoughts—at least not intentionally. Watching distracting thoughts is what you do when your thoughts actually distract you, not when you have lost interest in your meditative focus. It is in maintaining your focus that the process of self-observation and meditation is sustained.
A New Vision
Important as it is to maintain your concentration throughout meditation, however, do not approach it with too much rigidity. The reservoir of thoughts, feelings, habits, and impressions stored in the mind contains its own energy, and suppressing that energy rigidly only inevitably invites it to re-emerge, sometimes with even greater force. Thus the process of witnessing in meditation is a balancing act in which the energies of the personality are gradually collected and focused, while distractions are skillfully handled as they present themselves.
Like the ugly duckling discovering itself to be a swan, we find that our temporary patterns of mind prove not to be the final version of ourselves—that in the end, we are something more than our thoughts.
Through the calm influence of the sakshi, the witnessing consciousness, a new vision is nurtured, an experience of mind that is enduring. Like the ugly duckling discovering itself to be a swan, we find that our temporary patterns of mind prove not to be the final version of ourselves—that in the end, we are something more than our thoughts. When we see things from the point of view of the inner witness, we sense ourselves to be that witness, that we are awareness, and that awareness is, by its very nature, filled with joy.
As the poet Tagore has pointed out, our passing thoughts are more like approximations, in need of correction, than truth. The inner witness gives us the confidence to see that our imperfections and distracted thoughts do not constitute who we are. Awakened through concentration, strengthened by non-attachment, and nurtured over the course of daily practice, the inner witness brings us a new vision of ourselves.
A Simple Practice
- Try this practice to help awaken the witnessing consciousness in you:
- Establish a steady sitting posture, and breathe smoothly and evenly.
- Relax your body and observe your breath as if your whole body is breathing.
- Next, bring your attention to the breath touching within the nostrils. As you follow the breath, feel the transitions from one breath to the next. Make these transitions smooth and unbroken.
- Continue feeling the touch of the breath while reciting in your mind the sound so as you inhale, and the sound hum as you exhale. (This mantra, so-hum, is said to be the sound of breathing.) Weave the sounds from one to the next, breathing at a speed that is comfortable for you.
- Now, as you recite the mantra in your mind, sense that you are stepping back a step within yourself. As it remembers the sound of the mantra, observe your mind as if from a distance.
- Observe distracting thoughts without reacting to them. When you become involved with a train of thought, simply notice it and then return to the mantra. Rest in the sound of the mantra.
- As you continue, sense the cleansing process taking place in your mind. Like softening a tightly held grip, loosen the energy bound up in distracting thoughts. Relax your effort; rest in your focus.
- Experience the presence of your own being. As your focus deepens over time, sense that you are awareness. You are the witnessing consciousness. You are not simply your mind and the thoughts that pass through it. Consciousness is your nature—clear, joyful, and free.
- Continue meditating as long as you like. When your mind tires, it is time to end the meditation. Then, deepen your breathing just a bit, and gently draw your attention outward once more.