Where do you experience emotions such as joy, fear, anger and sadness? And what about sensations like pain, pleasure, cold and warmth? You feel them in your mind and body.
Notice that they are in “your” mind and body. Yet, when you feel joy, anger or pain you say, “I’m happy,” “I’m angry,” and “I’m in pain.”
How is it that you have become what you are feeling?
In truth, you are always the inner witness because if you are aware of something, it cannot be you.
Claiming the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that you are aware of to be who you are is as absurd as saying that you are the screen where you are reading these words right now.
You may think that this is not a fair comparison—the screen is an object outside of you while your thoughts, feelings and sensations are in you.
Whether you experience something in the outer world or in your inner world, it is nevertheless, still an experience known to you. And so, it cannot “be” you.
You are the inner witness who is always aware of the changing thoughts, feelings and conditions of the body.
Vedanta, the spiritual science of life tells us that there are two entities—one is the personality “I”, and the other is the inner Self.
The Self is the real “I”. It is unaffected by the vagaries of the mind and body which are part of the personality “I”. It is the unattached inner witness of them all.
We take ourselves to be the body with a mind and say this is “I” or “me”. But this is a false identity that brings us constant sorrow because it keeps changing.
The Self is the changeless inner observer that is without any parts, functions or qualities.
It is an existence that is the great “I am” mentioned in all spiritual cultures of the world.
When we identify with our true Self, all mental disturbances and sorrows disappear, and we experience inner peace.
And so, the spiritual discipline that is to be practiced is detachment from the personality and identification with the real Self.
Untouched like light
The Self can be compared to the sun. The sun shines its light on the entire world, illumining everything and being.
Whether it illumines a dirty gutter or a pristine lake; a happy parade or a funeral procession, the sunlight remains untouched by the scene it illumines.
Sunlight doesn’t get polluted by the dirt in the gutter or purified by the clean waters of the lake. It doesn’t rejoice while shining on the parade or mourn during the funeral procession.
The light merely illumines the scene on which it shines.
Similarly, the Self, the inner witness is the illuminator of the changing thoughts, feelings and conditions of the body. It remains unaffected by what it is conscious of.
While we may understand this analogy, it’s still hard to practice. We are conditioned to identify with the personality “I”.
Here are some ways to rectify our mistaken identity and identify with our real nature.
How to identify with the inner witness
Let’s begin with your identification with the body. Gently close your eyes and take a few slow, deep breaths. Become aware of how the air enters your nostrils and fills your lungs, making your chest rise and fall.
Acknowledge that you are the inner witness observing the chest rising and falling. Tell yourself that what is happening in the body is known to you, and thus cannot be you.
After a few minutes, slowly open your eyes and become aware of the first thing you see. Rest your gaze on this object. Be aware that your eyes cannot see on their own; you are seeing through the eyes. The eyes are merely windows through which you see.
You are the detached inner witness of your body, your senses and the world around you.
Next, examine your feelings. Think of someone or something that annoys you. As you think of this person or thing, become aware of the sensations brought on by these feelings. Observe what happens to your breathing…does it become shorter and quicker? What’s happening to your face? Are you scowling? Has your mouth or jaw tensed up? What’s happened to your neck and shoulder muscles?
Negative feelings set off a series of changes in your breathing and body. You are aware of these changes and thus cannot be the feelings and resulting sensations.
You are the detached inner witness of your feelings.
Now, close your eyes again and take a few deep breaths to relax and calm your emotions.
Become aware of the thoughts in your mind. Try not to engage in them, but simply watch the contents of your mind. As you watch your mind, notice that you are witnessing the changing thoughts.
You are the changeless inner witness that is aware of your thoughts and unaffected by them.
Practicing detachment in meditation
The practices above can be done at any time during the day when things are quiet around you and you’re not tired. They will help to shift your attention to the inner witness.
To imbibe these observations, it may be a good idea to include these practices as a lead-up to your meditation practice.
The best time to re-program your mind and set up new patterns of thinking is in meditation. The early morning, and particularly the pre-dawn hours are very conducive to meditation. This is when the mind is malleable and can be charged with new ideas and patterns of thought.
Here’s a short meditation practice you can follow to being the detached inner witness:
- Sit very still, place your hands in your lap, relax your body, especially your face, neck and shoulders.
- Close your eyes and begin taking in slow, deep breaths.
- Be aware of the cool air entering your nostrils and the warm air leaving them.
- Watch how your chest rises and falls with every breath that you take. You will notice that you mind has become much quieter. Read, How to use your breath to calm your mind for meditation. Continue breathing deeply and slowly. Be alert to any thoughts that come into your mind.
- When you are aware of the thoughts, gently turn your attention from them to you, the Self who is witnessing the thoughts. As soon as you do this, you will find that the thoughts die down and the mind becomes quiet. Thoughts are sustained by your attention on them. So, when you take away your focus from them and place them on the one who is observing them, they die away from lack of attention.
- Enjoy the inner silence. When thoughts come up, shift your attention away from them onto you, the detached inner witness again.
- Keep repeating this practice until you begin to tire.
- Then slowly open your eyes and come out of your meditation.
The practice of shifting your attention from the thoughts to being their witness in meditation is a very powerful practice. You are programming yourself to remain detached and calm as you go about your day.
Inner journey to the Self
We are spiritual beings on an evolutionary inner journey to the Self, our true nature.
Training ourselves to be the detached inner witness of the experiences of our life is a vital practice that will take us closer to living identified with the real “I”—the Self that is the source of all peace, goodness and bliss.
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Thank you for the very nice article Manishaji. I am concerned about an endless regress of witnesses-what is the inner witness of the inner witness, the inner witness of the inner witness of the inner witness, and so on…. Isn’t the inner witness just another mind function?
Hello Ramesh, Thank you for your interesting observation and query. We don’t have to make it complicated. There’s only one inner witness.
When a thought comes up, ask, “Who knows this thought?”
Question: Who knows the “I”?
There’s no further questioning who knows the “I” who knows the thought because that is the final “I” who knows.
The nature of the inner witness, “I” is Consciousness. Consciousness is not a function of the mind. Consciousness illumines the thoughts in the mind just as light illumines the scene on which it shines.