Can I Get a Witness?

 “Learn to watch your drama unfold while at the same time knowing you are more than your drama.” —Ram Dass

Suffering is part of the human condition—especially for those of us living out our dharma in the fast-paced, urban trenches of Los Angeles. Sometimes, when we are highly emotional about something, we say we are “really in it”, as if we are submerged in the suffering itself. The most powerful—and perhaps, essential— ways to navigate emotional suffering is to develop the ability to be simultaneously SUBJECTIVE and OBJECTIVE—to observe ourselves in this state without judgment. In other words, we can have our feelings, but we are not our feelings.

The greater our ability be our own witness, the more adept we become at acknowledging, recognizing, understanding, accepting, and releasing our suffering.

Here are 6 ways to cultivate your witness:

1. Slow Way Down

Stillness is the prescription for bringing consciousness to anything. Rushing through the experiencing of anything, including feelings, means that we miss subtleties and nuances that feed our understanding of it. The first step in separating ourselves from our drama is to slow down and be with it. Resist the urge to DO. Simply BE.

2. Invoke Your Third Person

It may feel silly at first, but when you are in the middle of an emotional reaction, stop and say, “This is Zoë having an emotional reaction.” Or, “This is Zoë feeling angry.” Work your way through it until, “This is Zoë accepting what is and knowing that all will be okay.” If you don’t get all the way there, don’t worry. This is a practice in distinguishing yourself from your emotions, first and foremost.

3. Checkpoint: Mindfulness

Set an alarm at regular intervals four times a day. When the alarm sounds, do a brief mindfulness practice. Notice your physical presence in its environment. You might articulate it like this: “Feet on the floor. Feet on the floor…Hands on the keyboard. Hands on the keyboard…” Repeating it twice gives the mind and extra beat to become fully present and objective.” Interrupting the flow of the day with Mindfulness develops our ability to discern between emotional and physical experience.

4. Take a Nature Walk

The muscles we use to observe the world around us are the same ones we use to witness ourselves. The way the clouds drift in the sky, the palm fronds rustle in the breeze, or birds fly in formation, gives context to our suffering, by reminding us that we are one small part of something much greater than ourselves.

5. On the Arc of a Rainbow

Just as connecting with nature can set a context for a difficult moment, stepping back and considering how that moment fits into your life story can set a different, and equally powerful context. We tend to assign undue urgency or importance to our experiences—especially when they are emotionally-charged—when they are really just one small chapter in the arc of our entire story.

6. Lighten Up

There is a not-so-fine, and fairly blurry line between pain and self-pity. Denying or burying our emotions can be hazardous to our health. At the same time, so can taking ourselves too seriously. Holding things lightly can go a long way in cultivating grace in the dancing with our feelings.

Shut Up and Listen

 

“Within you there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” —Hermann Hesse

Life can often feel like an act of survival. It’s a hyper-connected, multi-tasking, texting-tweeting-downdogging-180-degree-latte kind of world, and it’s easy to get so caught up in the juggle that we forget we can simply put down the balls and breathe. Simply stopping the motion periodically provides us with an opportunity to redirect our attention inward, shifting the focus back to ourselves. Developing a stillness practice helps us tune in to our inner voice, so that we may remember who we are and reconnect with our own personal power.

Here are five practices to cultivate stillness in your busy life:

1. 7-in-Heaven

Begin each day by sitting in silence for seven minutes. Take advantage of the moments in the morning when outside stimulation is at a minimum and your mind is clearest. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed and slow your breath. Pause at the top of each inhalation and at the bottom of each exhalation, creating a moment of stillness. This sets a baseline for inner peace and connectedness, which we can return to throughout the day.

2. Alarming Presence

Set an alarm to go off four times during the day (for example: 10am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm). Whenever the alarm sounds, bring your focus to what you are doing. Take a mental inventory of your physical presence and articulate it something like this: Feet on the floor. Feet on the floor. Thighs on chair. Thighs on chair. Hands on keyboard. Hands on keyboard. Repeating each item twice gives your mind a moment to really become present to the simple mechanics of what you are doing and encourages the transfer of energy from the mind to the body.

3. Quiet on the Set

Sometimes I feel like my life is like a huge movie production with many people hustling around. It is noisy—figuratively and literally. Take steps to reduce the noise level in your day. Turn down the music, turn off text and email alerts, and stop talking! Silence is not the same as stillness; lowering the overall volume of your life will keep you from getting so over-stimulated that you spend the better part of your stillness practice recovering from auditory overload.

4. Dirty Feet

Chaos in our lives is almost always reflected in our physical energy. We get caught in our heads as we try to manage many things at once and regain some sort of order and control. Even at moments of critical stress, stepping outside and putting our feet in the dirt (grass or sand will do) has a calming effect by drawing the energy down through the chakra system. When someone we know is level-headed, we say they are “grounded.” Feeling connected to and supported by the Earth is a path to instant stillness.

5. Time-Out from Technology

Take one hour each day to be completely off-grid. Schedule this time at a regular hour, just like “Happy Hour.” This works not only to foster stillness in the moment, but also to counterbalance and recalibrate your participation in the chaos that can result from perpetual accessibility through multiple technology-enabled information streams.

As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Author of The Distraction Addiction, says, “It’s not about forsaking the digital life for ‘real life’; it’s a way to discover a richer life where your devices, your social world, and your rediscovered, unburdened self can coexist. Like any practice, you need to do it regularly, work past the hurdles and uncertainties, to see the benefits flower. And while you’re cultivating them, don’t worry about your phone or Facebook. They’ll be there when you get back.”