This follows from the previous piece, The Spiritual Bypass Operation
It can be read on its own too.
With or without troublesome emotions, it is quite common in the progress of meditation that the practice of observing all aspects of our experience gives us the feeling of being this observer, as though that is now who we are. Before we began meditating, we were not this person, we were owning our experience, we were it.
From what I have heard of some non-Buddhist meditations, taking this role of a “witness-consciousness” is encouraged as being something real. Is consciousness something separate from itself, watching itself? It’s a good question, worth exploring in our experience. On the other hand, in Buddhist practice I have heard this process of becoming your own Watcher discouraged as being a dead-end, a mistake to avoid. I take a different view from both of these approaches.
I think it can be most useful to make this mistake. We can learn something important from it. Perhaps it is wise to have the guidance of a teacher, to ensure we do learn, and not just get stuck here.
The magic of it is that we have just created a self we did not have before! We identified with our experience, good and bad as we saw it, and then we meditated and sat with the experience but now watching it with interest. There’s a knife-edge here, of whether we split our view into watcher and experience (subject and object), or whether we took an inclusive view and did not disown the experience in the noticing of it. If we find that we are tempted into the role of a separate witness, subtly disowning the experience we were caught up in, then we have made a new and ‘safe’, onlooking self.
We could observe that we have done this, in other words, to take the part of a Watcher of the first Watcher – which opens us to an infinite regression. If it’s that easy to create ‘watcher-selves’, does that call into question this last watcher? The one before? Even the self we started with? Is making selves that easy and natural to us? And how does making a self relate to our experience of suffering?
It is a tricky road, though one which can lead us to useful revelations. Just how arbitrary are the boundaries of this ‘I’ which we were previously so sure of? To err is human: to notice this, could lead to the divine.
2 thoughts on “The Watcher, or Witness”
How true! Thank you Five for this easterly awakening!
A useful perspective on how to work with this sense of the watcher and an interesting and potentially fruitful way to practice with it, to “play” with it, rather than getting frustrated and seeing it as a problem or a trap. Thanks