Here is a very simple concept with profound implicationsfor our own wellbeing, and for large-scale social change. It is our capacity to observe ourselves without judgement. The part of our psyche that can do this might be called the Witness, or Observer Self. The label does not matter. What counts is our capacity for self-observation. So we might say that

The Witness is that part of ourselves that can see exactly what we do without judgement.

It is right next door to the Critic, which sees the same thing and at times gives us holy hell for it!

You may be very familiar with your Critic, even if you never labelled as such.  It can manifest as a voice in your head that says You should've done this; You didn't do that right, and the like. Activating our Witness function enables us to get some distance from the inner Critic. This reduces its power.

How do we activate our Witness? Just pause for a moment and notice what you are thinking right now.

That’s it. By the very act of noticing you are using your witness function.

There can be aspects of our emotional life that we take for granted. If we often find ourselves emotionally acting with anger, resentment and the like, then we are not masters of our own house. Our emotional reactions run us. This causes pain to both ourselves and others. Although we may accept the situation as ‘just the way things are’, we do not have to.

Our Witness function enables us to detect emotional reactions that do not serve us. There are many techniques for resolving these reactions. One of the simplest ones – and a very valuable one – is to be alert enough to catch these emotional reactions when they first start up, and not give them energy. In time their intensity reduces or disappears.

There are techniques for directly resolving our emotional reactions as well. For example, EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) is a very effective do-it-yourself technique. EFT and other techniques start with noticing ‘occasions of upset’ – inner reactions that disturb us. We become alert to these reactions. This is the first step to resolving them.

Thus our Witness is a gateway to becoming emotionally clear and happy.

Practice

It is helpful to practice using our Witness. This Object Concentration exercise is an excellent way to do this. It is a creativity exercise that sharpens our perception.

Object Concentration Exercise

Choose an attractive object to be your point of focus - e.g. a leaf, a flower, or an ornate old bell.

Observe your object for 4 minutes, following this internal instruction to yourself:

When my mind goes away I will notice that it has gone away and bring it back.

           Processing:
  • What details did you notice towards the end that you didn't pick up at the beginning?
  • Were you able to notice that you mind went away, and bring it back?"

Here we are paying attention to physical reality and to the operation of our own mind at the same time. This is an excellent creativity exercise. By attending acutely we notice things that we might otherwise have missed. I sometimes say that ‘to see reality is a great creative act’.

Introduce a friend to the Witness

The Witness is a very simple concept. You can easily introduce the idea of the Witness to a friend, and take them through the Object Concentration exercise. If you do so appropriately, this may be a great service to them.

How does this relate to large scale social change?

When a critical mass of people have cool heads and can assess threats (or absence of threats) realistically, we are less likely to be swept up in irrational emotional reactions that lead to war. For example, when the World Trade Centre was destroyed in New York, a measured response would have been to increase security. Of course. The irrational response was to invade Afghanistan, launch a ‘war on terror’, and in the United States pass the Homeland Security act, which curtailed citizen freedoms and some think moved US towards being a totalitarian state. Enormous resources (trillions of dollars) went into to this that could have been applied to community well-being and environmental restoration.