“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. This is because after a last analysis we are ourselves a part of the mystery we are trying to solve.”
The Witness Consciousness—Pure Awareness
The innermost silent awareness that gives us the feeling that existence is and continues, even in the absence of thoughts, sensations, emotions, etc. This kind of pure awareness, free from any object, has been generally ignored in Western philosophies. It is the impartial observer of thoughts, emotions, sensations, the body, actions, etc. According to the advaita (non-dual) tradition, an action is truly conscious when the mind and, implicitly, the individual consciousness (along with all its filters) is transcended in the sense that there is no individual observer, no personal objective, no expectations, and no reference to memory or to a particular authority.
The Eastern traditions have given the Witness Consciousness a very important place. For example, the great yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein said: “Sakshin, ‘the witness consciousness’ has been hailed as the great discovery of Indian spirituality. Beyond the different states or levels of consciousness lies the transcendental Self, which is characterized as the witness (sakshin) of all psycho-mental phenomena. This witness, […] is the single most far-reaching discovery of India’s seers and sages, and undoubtedly their greatest contribution toward a universal psychology.”
Another Name for the Self
The Witness Consciousness is simply another name for atman (the Supreme Self). The very definition of yoga is associated with the notion of the Witness (or Seer, as Patanjali called it in the Yoga Sutras):
1:2 Yoga is the cessation (nirodha) of the fluctuations of the mind (chitta).
1:3 Then the Seer [i.e., the Witness Consciousness] abides in [its] essential nature.
1:4 At other times, [there is] identification [of the Witness Consciousness] with the fluctuations of the mind.
Therefore, Patanjali said that we usually ignore the background of Pure Awareness and Stillness, because we are constantly lost in thoughts, sensations, and other “fluctuations.” If we learn how to stop them, the Witness Consciousness will shine in its purity. And, this is yoga.
Patanjali also affirms that the source of all our sorrows and suffering (karma) lies in the identification of the pure Witness Consciousness with our perceptions, thoughts, and emotions. As a logical conclusion, their dis-identification is the way out of suffering:
2:16 What can and should be overcome is future suffering [agami karma].
2:17 The identification between the Seer [i.e., the Witness Consciousness] and the Seen [i.e., Nature] is the cause of what is to be overcome [the future sorrow].
The Witness Consciousness penetrates a number of layers of various depths. When we speak about a conscious action, we usually refer to the attitude of being conscious of that particular action. An action is conscious only when it is not personal anymore; when we realize that the underlying background of that action is infinite consciousness, the Spiritual Heart. In reality, the Heart is the ultimate source of any action. A conscious action is, then, an action that arises free from attachments and out of love, not as a strategy to promote our personal self-image.
How to Cultivate the Witness Consciousness
To cultivate the Witness Consciousness, we can start by cultivating the observer within us. In Hridaya Yoga, we call this the Witnessing Attitude. This Witness is not in the mind, but the most intimate “I,” the Spiritual Heart. We also cultivate the dis-identification from the personality and individual “stories.” In this way, we can gradually detach from our attachments (biases, desires, wishes, habits, etc.).
The Witness Consciousness doesn’t imply seeking to isolate ourselves from life or becoming emotionally inaccessible. On the contrary, it is the expression of the spiritual aspiration experienced at the “heart” of any gesture, action, asana, etc. Ultimately, at the “heart” of any act is the Spiritual Heart, Divine Consciousness.
Learn more about the Witness Consciousness in the 10-Day Hridaya Silent Meditation Retreat.