Four Levels of Witnessing During Meditation by Jan Esmann
“Witnessing” designates a special state of consciousness or pure awareness where you are detached from something and observe it from a place that is untouched by it. Usually this something is a state of consciousness with which you were hitherto identified. The value of witnessing is threefold: First witnessing is the natural stance of the enlightened one, so temporary witnessing is a short experience of what it is like to be Self-realized. Second it is liberating from the drama of life to stand outside of it and witness it. Third there is catharsis in witnessing some drama one was hitherto identified with and thus, with the witnessing, has become free of with a release of emotional charge.
First type of witnessing concerns the mind. It is not necessarily first in a hierarchical epistemological order, but because it is often the first kind of witnessing people become conscious of experiencing; so it is merely the first worth mentioning in the order of how witnessing presents itself to a typical meditator. Once this kind of witnessing sets in, you will observe thoughts and impulses in the mind, that you would normally have taken to be you, as distinctly not you. The mind may become quiet, or it may become agitated, but that matters not since you are a detached observer to its contents and stirrings. The content of the mind may be banal or profound, it matters not in the least, for it is definitely not you and the important part of the experience is not the content of the mind, but the fact that you so distinctly experience it is not you. It is similar to looking in a mirror: You recognize yourself, but know it is not you. In witnessing even the notion that it resembles yourself is lost. You recognize that you once assumed it was you, but also that you no longer assume that at all. You are a witness, neither more nor less. One other significant aspect of this type of witnessing is that you become a witness to the observer of consciousness. Yes, the observer is not the witness! The observer is a natural stance the mind can adopt, but it is still within the mind, or rather, based on identification. The point from which you witness is devoid of any kind of identification what so ever. So first you step into the observer, then you witness the identification inherent in the observer and step into pure being, which is the only true witnessing stance.
Second type of witnessing concerns the emotions; the heart. This for some reason often comes after a period of witnessing the mind. Suddenly you become detached from some emotion and simply observe it (witness it). Such an emotion may be the ecstasy of immature samadhi, or it may be any banal emotion such as fear or joy. Usually detachment from the mind precedes this type of witnessing, but I am not sure it should always be so. You may witness the mind, or at least part of it, and there may be some joy in this witnessing, some pride perhaps. It takes a little experience of mind-witnessing to suddenly step out of this subtle pleasure and witness this pleasure also. It is for some reason more acceptable for people to admit they are not the thoughts in the mind. After all, anyone can think contradictory thoughts and thoughts they do not agree with; thus they can easily realise they are not their thoughts, but rather are the master or observer of the thoughts. But when it comes to emotions, people are more reluctant to disidentify from them. People are less in control of their emotions and they are generally driven by unconscious impulses. Thus there is something terrifying to many in witnessing emotions: Not only do you distance yourself from the manifest emotion, but you implicitly distance yourself from the unconscious sense of self from which the emotions spring. Distancing oneself from the mind is fairly easy, but distancing oneself from emotions is a little more difficult.
Third type of witnessing concerns the body. Not only the flesh, but in particular the field permeating and surrounding the body, which any experienced meditator will recognize immediately as a truer sense of presence in time and space than the physical body alone. The sense of being the body is more deep-rooted than the sense of being the emotions. After all: the emotions can change and be manipulated: you can change boredom to happiness and anger to love, but the body just stays the same (more or less). So it is easier to witness emotions than to witness body-identification. Just as it is easier to witness thoughts than to witness identification with emotions. Yet it is clearly possible to be a witness to not only the physical body, but to the field that permeates the body and reaches beyond it. Identification with the body first is identification with this field, then secondarily identification with the flesh. However, people generally have it the other way around since they don’t sense this field and only know the flesh. Most peoples field is no larger than the body, but any experienced kundalini-kriya meditator will instantly recognize what I am talking about, when I say your bodily presence is a field that permeates the body and extends some distance around it. This field can become very large, as in the case of a kundalini shaktipat master, where it can easily fill an entire room, or it can just be an inch larger than the body as in the case of a neophyte meditator without an awakened kundalini. Once your kundalini is awakened, if you meditate daily on shakti, your sense of this field will soon expand to about two or three feet around the body. Witness this. It is one thing to witness the physical body. In fact that is quite easy: anyone can imagine having lost a hand or a leg and still observe their presence in time and space. But to witness this metaphysical presence in and around the physical body is something quite different altogether. We are talking about being detached from your physical body and being detached from your metaphysical presence in time and space. This usually comes after detachment from the emotions and detachment from the mind. When this detachment and witnessing comes, you are literally located nowhere. There is no point anywhere at all which you can refer to as you. You are a witness to everything. This state is by nature very serene; though it may also be either just empty void or bliss; that depends on how far one’s meditation has progressed. With more experience it becomes more blissful. Only to the neophyte is it a scary void.
A fourth level of witnessing comes when you begin to see the Self in everything as Shakti and lovebliss. You then witness the physical universe as an overlay on the Divine. You sense the impersonal Divine creative impulse or intelligence or love behind everything, and this is of course Shakti and you sense a oneness with this. That makes you a witness to creation, to everything manifest, in fact to everything around you. This is the beginning of non-duality, of advaita. The plurality of creation begins to go away and you sense a oneness of Shakti in and as everything. There is still a duality of Self and other, but other is seen as one. In Self-realization, or what the neo-advaitins call “non-duality”, there is a duality between inner and outer and outer is seen as a plurality; so is the mind. In bliss consciousness, where this fourth kind of witnessing belongs, there are only two, two and nothing but two, no plurality: There is the unmanifest, which you are, and then there is the Shakti which appears as many outside you. Hence you witness everything. You are a witness to creation. Creation sustained by one Divine principle, which is love, bliss and Shakti in one.