Note: This is part 2 of a 3 part series. For context and links to the full series, check out the introduction.

The Witness
Looking closely I can notice the experience that I am the one looking through my eyes; I am the one listening or thinking; I am the one all of this is happening to. I feel calm and comforted by this connection. In a world of continuously changing phenomenon I rest, safely held, in the solidity of the witness. What a relief!

The experience of the Observer, also called The Witness or sometimes The One Who Knows is exactly as its name implies, an experience of some entity sensing the world through my physical faculties. The Witness is ever-present; according to some traditions it continues even through dreams and deep sleep. Often the Ego identifies with the experience of witnessing and enhances it with an aura of agency. I’ll describe how to recognize this egoic clinging in a later section.

Just as Ego is neither good nor bad, there is nothing inherently wrong with the experience of witnessing. The problem begins when we identify with it. This ongoing process of identification supports the illusion of separateness. It keeps us apart from the world and prevents us from recognizing the true nature of experience, which is ever changing and empty of inherent solidity. Challenging this identification, therefore, can be liberating.

One way to begin unraveling the apparent solidity of the observer is by simply resting in the experience of witnessing itself. When embodying this experience as completely as possible we give up the illusion of solidity and see reality in its luminous, ever changing, ever present existence. We also begin to notice that those sensations we so often split off from the rest of the field of experience are an integral part of the field, just like every other sensation.

Another way of working with the witness is asking the question: “Who is having this experience?” By continually asking ourselves this question we can notice that the observer is not as solid as we imagine it to be. We see it moving around in the body, shifting between different senses, and yet the mind insistently claims that all those different experiences are the same thing. Can that be true?

Atman

No discussion of the concept of self would be complete without discussing “true-self” and “not-self”. These two views of the self originated in ancient India and are now becoming more influential in the West mainly though the influence of Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta. In this section I will introduce these two perspectives in the hope that this will serve as a starting point for further exploration and as a background for exploring the sensations of self as described in the next section.

The sanskrit term Atman (sanskrit: self, breath) as used in several ancient traditions from India refers to the true self, the soul or the spirit that animates all life. Some Hindu traditions point to the feeling “I Am,” a realization of being, of presence, that goes beyond the body and beyond mere concepts. This experience, it is taught, is contact with Atman, one’s true self.

Non-Dual traditions such as Advaita Vedanta (advaita, sanskrit: not-two) develop this teaching further to the realization that the practitioner is one with everything, that there is no separation between Atman, the true-self, and Brahman or Godhead, the essential creative force, Divine, All. Since Atman and Brahman are not two but one, it follows that our essential nature is oneness with everything.

The Buddha’s teaching of Not-Self (Sanskrit: Anatman, Pali: Anatta) came about in direct reference to the search for Atman that dominated the spiritual environment in India during the Buddha’s time. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk and scholar, explains that the Buddha’s teaching of Not-Self is not to be understood as a doctrine or dogma but as a strategy to reduce suffering. Through recognizing that any phenomenon that arises in consciousness is not worthy of being clung to as self, we dis-identify with all phenomena, thereby moving beyond suffering.

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