Detached Witness

The topic of this post is something I have been wanting to put down in writing for a long time. It’s probably the most classic case of mistaking a description (and all spiritual teachings are descriptions!) for a prescription. What I want to discuss is the idea of the detached witness.

First of all, detached witnessing is not a state we can put ourselves into. Any willing change of state is something that we would have to do. Any doing involves effort and any effort to change how we perceive the world implies a rejecting of what already is. Trying to get into a state of detached witnessing exposes our belief in the insufficiency of our current state of consciousness and reflects our wish to transcend what we would call the ‘existential problems’ of life. This, of course, is exactly the stuff Samsara is made out of: trying to cling to bliss and reject piss. In Zen, meditators who are aspiring to put themselves in a detached witnessing state are called ‘stone Buddhas’. When life touches them, they wouldn’t react. As a consequence, they would not only be just as juicy and energized as zombies but also hopelessly trapped in an utterly dualistic point of view.

The fundamental misconception that leads to such misguided pursuits is the notion that life is painful and therefore to be avoided and decoupled of. Misunderstood meditation instructions seem to give ‘stone Buddhas’ permission to bless their suspicious stance against life with spiritual credentials.

Sooner or later, though, ‘stone Buddhas’ will end up severely frustrated and miserable. It is then that they hopefully realize that rejecting life, in the form of perceptions, feelings and emotions is not the solution to the existential ‘problem’ but the very cause of it.

When the mind neither clings nor rejects and does not ‘move out’ into the world, we enter a space of vivid ‘Now-ness’ and remain serenely unentangled with ‘what is’. This feels like being an uninvolved and benevolent witness (a.k.a. the Godhead). Hence, the detachment or ‘witnessing’ the sages talk about is really non other than a state of surrender.

Again, surrendering is not something we can do and therefore it is impossible to teach. Any attempt to surrender precludes it, since surrendering is the non-disalignment with what already is. In that sense, it is the natural state that we abandon when we want our experience to be different than it actually is. It is not something we can get, it gets us when we sincerely allow it.

There are, thus, tools and methods which can gently but surely trick our minds into submission to the ‘Now’. The way they work is by leading us to the realization that what causes our suffering is the inability to let things go their natural way and this message will become more and more obvious as we ‘progress’. Finally, all objection to ‘what is’ has to let go of.

One of the most powerful ‘tricks’ is to invoke a realization of the innate divinity of all things (called Satori in Zen). It breaks our resistance to ‘what is’ as we realize that all we ever resist is non other than ourselves in disguise. A sage knows that everything from our darkest thoughts and most painful feelings to our most lofty ideals and ecstasies are manifestations of this ‘One’ divinity. There are no wrong feelings, sensations, thoughts or states of consciousness. Acknowledging it all and embracing it all as divine bestows the sages their inner freedom which enables them to truly live from the heart beyond rejecting or grasping.

If we look deeply at life we see that it is neither so nor so. It is blissful and violent, good and evil. Since we are manifestations of life, how could we not also contain bliss and violence, good and bad within us? “I am large, I contain multitudes”, famously sang Walt Whitman to himself. He speaks about the wholeness that arises from the realization that we are part of life as much as all aspects of life are part of us: the light as much as the darkness. That way we don’t have to escape from life anymore by detaching from it but we will relax and serenely surrender into our ‘Oneness’ with it.

“He who knows not that the Prince of Darkness is the other face of the King of Light knows not me.”
~G. Manly Hall

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2 Comments on “Detached Witness”

  1. Maxi says:

    This was a *great* lesson for me and cleared many of my misunderstandings! Thank you very much, brother. 🙂


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