The Witnessing Self
This world that we perceive, experience and live in is made up entirely of thought, or thought constructs. Even the personality we believe ourselves to be is a thought construct. A thought construct is a mental formation or fabrication that has no existence outside of the mind. The world of our daily experience is made up of thought constructs.
Consider the fact that the thought of an object precedes the recognition of the object. Without the thought of the object, there would be no recognition. Likewise, the thought of a relation precedes and determines the relation. “My wife”, “my husband” or “my mother”, as much as “my home”, “my country” or “my job” are thoughts that we use for reference, for recognition and for psychological security. We do not realize it so much, but there is tremendous security and comfort in recognizing, in being able to place objects, people and relations in neatly defined psychological cubbyholes. This is the comfort of the known. In direct contrast, the unknown threatens; we are afraid of the unknown, of that which does not or cannot fit into our neat cubbyholes.
Let’s reflect on the truth of the common statement we make to ourselves: “I love my wife” (or husband, mother, father, brother, friend, job, nation et al.) What does it really mean? There are three terms involved in this statement: I and its derivative my, love, and wife. If observed closely, all three will be seen as mere thought: “wife” doesn’t really exist as a real entity; it is a thought that signifies a certain “relationship”, a certain association in temporal experience. In fact, this is true of all relationships: a relationship is real only in memory, only in terms of past experience and its projection into the future: and all that is thought-construct.
The I, the personal self, too is a succession of images, impressions, memories: thought-constructs of past experience, past associations and relations, people, places and things, events and memories of events — all these strung together like so many beads of a necklace on a thread of continuity that we refer to as “self”. If we look carefully, we shall see that this “thread of continuity” is a witnessing consciousness that remains outside the whole field of experience and has no “personality”, no sense of being someone with certain defined qualities and character: it is simply an observing consciousness — detached, aloof, equal to all that happens or does not happen.
The “personal self” that we know and identify with, is, therefore, a succession of thoughts in a causal sequence that we identify as our personal life narrative. It is this narrative that evokes in the mental-emotional consciousness such a powerful and persistent sense of being someone, an individual amongst other individuals.
As long as we are concentrated and identified with the succession of thoughts in our personal narrative, the beads strung on the necklace, we are caught up in the illusions of individuality and personality; it is only when we take our gaze off the beads and start concentrating on the invisible but ever-present thread, that we begin to discern the witnessing consciousness behind the whole play of experience and the narrative in time.
We begin to see that the narrative is something entirely outside of us, like a play scripting itself out on the world-stage and generating characters continuously out of its own narrative. We also begin to see that the narrative and the characters are fictional in a fundamental sense: in the sense that they do not abide, they do not persist beyond a few temporal frames; and even in the few temporal frames they do persist, they keep changing and moving in a continuous flux. The world and self are both impermanent. In the Upanishadic sense, reality, or Sat, is that which abides, is eternal; and conversely, asat, unreality, is that which does not abide, which changes and passes.
Thus, we see two “selves”: One, the character generated by the temporal narrative of experiences; the persona, the psychological self, the construct of thought. The other self is the witness, the observer, the spectator of the narrative: the one that is aware of change but does not change with the changing scenario of the play of experience; the one that is aware of all flow and flux of experience but itself does not move with the flow. This is the unchanging and abiding witness that watches the play but does not get involved in it.
This “witnessing self” is the opening of the passage to the true Self.