There’s a lot of talk in the self-improvement world about being self aware. We are exhorted to notice our thoughts, feelings, experiences. Maybe even keep a journal. Sometimes the purpose is to record it all, get it down somewhere in our memory, and perhaps be ready to make a report. Often we want to reference it later, and maybe look for answers, with a therapist, as part of a meditative exercise, or in the company of a trusted friend.
In fact, we watch ourselves all the time, usually from a viewpoint that is either critical or self-referential. We monitor ourselves, because we want to put our best face on things and get others to think well of us. When we succeed we are rewarded with a sweet splash of dopamine, but if some wayward awkwardness seizes us or heaven forbid we say something silly, we berate ourselves and beat back embarrassment and shame.
We only do those things because we think it will make us happier. But watching ourselves for the purpose of fixing or criticizing ourselves or puffing ourselves up, has the opposite effect of what we intended.
Without a bigger view of things, we will only feel worse.
Real self awareness is what Buddhists call “witness consciousness” though it has other names as well. This is a dimension of consciousness that is aware of everything, noticing and watching and always present, always accessible. It exists alongside our normal consciousness and is very easy to activate, just by thinking about it. It can even be found while we are asleep, where it is called “lucid dreaming.” It is a state of consciousness we become very familiar with as we gain greater awareness of our bigger selves and ultimately experience our connection to all that is.
Ram Dass says, “Witnessing yourself is like directing the beam of a flashlight back at itself. There is your experience and there is your awareness of it.” What makes the witness different from other types of watching ourselves is its gentleness and absence of judgment of any kind. It is like a layer of supportive insulation, a place of safety. When we access it, one part of us stops being one of the actors in the performance, steps off the stage, and takes a seat in the audience.
From there, the witness helps us see our unconscious patterns as they play out, and shines a soft light on our reactivity. Where normally we fall mindlessly into our emotions and pain, the witness helps us to keep perspective. We still feel, but do not get lost in the storm. When calm returns, there is no residue of self criticism, or blame or a command that it must never happen again, because we know we can hold it.
We have found a way to hold steady.
This is a process that takes time and patience. Even with a well developed witness, there are times when we lose our footing and fall into the cauldron. We may still lose our temper, or freak out in fear. At those times, when we recover our mindfulness, we realize that it was temporary, and not a big deal. The witness, with it unconditional acceptance, is imbued with compassion, and tells us that painful emotions and reactions are part of being human, and that being human can be very hard. It does not take us to task or expect us to be anything other than who we are. We don’t have to improve or change anything in order to have value.
That does not mean that we stop developing ourselves. Unlike other ways of watching ourselves, the witness provides valuable information that can help us grow and mature. From it we learn to see a bigger perspective, and other points of view and insights we didn’t expect. And with that comes ease and a greater sense of well-being. Most importantly, we understand more fully that it is ok to be us, exactly as we are.
What a happy relief.