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.

Transforming Suffering: Tonglen

These days, it is easy to be aware of the suffering in the world. All we have to do is turn on the news, open the newspaper, or scroll down our Facebook newsfeeds to get a clear sense of the struggle to find peace in the world—as individuals, and in local and global communities. As witnesses to suffering, it is natural to seek peace by avoiding pain and seeking pleasure. In this sense, the practice of Tonglen is counterintuitive, but it is one of the bravest and most powerfully transformative practices in the Buddhist tradition.

Tonglen translates simply to “Giving and Receiving”. The focus of the practice is not to turn away from suffering, but to connect with it, everywhere we go. As the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says, “It is a method for overcoming fear of suffering and for dissolving the tightness of our heart. Primarily it is a method for awakening the compassion that is inherent in all of us.”

Begin to familiarize yourself with this powerful practice by focusing on someone you know personally who needs some relief. Perhaps a friend or relative who is ill or suffering a loss of some kind. Once you become more comfortable with the practice, you can extend your focus to groups of people who share a particular set of circumstances. You can even practice a quick on-the-spot Tonglen whenever you notice someone suffering as you move through the world on a daily basis by breathing in darkness and breathing out light. It’s a generous way to embody the words of Gandhi and “be the change we wish to see in the world.”

Tonglen Practice as described by Roshi Joan Halifax:

  • Sit in meditation posture, relax in a chair, or lie down. Gently close your eyes and let your body and mind settle. You want to feel relaxed and open.
  • Begin by breathing in whatever you are feeling—fear, agitation, anger, resistance—and accepting it. On the exhalation breathe out well-being. Continue until you feel settled.
  • On your inbreath imagine that you are inhaling heavy, hot air. On your outbreath visualize exhaling cool, light air. Continue with this pattern—breathing in heaviness and breathing out lightness—until it is familiar to you. The heaviness is suffering; the lightness is well-being. Now imagine that you are breathing through all the pores of your body. On the inbreath heavy, hot air enters every pore. On the outbreath, cool light flows from every pore.
  • Now visualize a metal sheath around your heart. This metal sheath is everything about you that is difficult for you to accept: your self-importance, selfishness, self-cherishing, self-pity. Dissolve this metal sheath and open your heart to its natural nonjudgmental state of warmth, kindness, and spaciousness.
  • The reason you are doing this practice is that you are suffering, others are suffering, and you wish with all your heart that all beings could be free from suffering. This wish needs to be specific, personal, and sincere. Bring to your mind some being, dead or alive, with whom you feel a deep connection. You would do anything to help this one. Be with this one and feel what she is experiencing. Let your whole being turn toward her suffering and your wish that it might be relieved. See how vulnerable she is. Like a mother who will do anything to help her child, you will do anything to help your friend.
  • Visualize the suffering of your beloved as polluted, hot smoke and breathe it in through your whole body. The instant that the inbreath of suffering touches the metal sheath of self-centeredness around your heart, the sheath breaks apart, and your heart opens to the suffering. The hot smoke instantly vanishes into the great space of your heart, and from this space spontaneously arises an outbreath of mercy and healing. Send a deep, cool, light, and spacious healing breath to your friend.
  • Let this one friend’s suffering remind you of the many others who find themselves suffering in the same way. This friend is your connection to them. Breathe in their suffering. Let your heart break open. Send them healing with your outbreath. Continue with this practice.