Most of the great spiritual traditions suggest that we practice the attitude of the witness both in our meditation and in our daily lives. Just what does this mean? How does this attitude change our view of ourselves and the world? How does it aid in the revelation of our essential nature?
The attitude of the witness means that we watch. Rather than to be involved as a participant, to witness means to stand apart as it were, and simply observe. How do we accomplish this? I often suggest to students that we approach it like a game. The rules of the game are these: "I" am the subject. Anything of which I can be aware, anything that is an object of cognition, is an "object." There is a distinction between the "I", the subject, and the entire world of objects. If I look at something, I am not the thing at which I am looking, I am the one doing the seeing. The subject is aware of the object. The object does not illumine itself. It must have a conscious observer for its existence to be known.
Let us examine this notion further. As I apprehend the world of objects (things seen, tasted touched, smelled and heard), this fact of subject - object distinction is clear I am not any of these objects of the senses, I am the one who knows them. If I see a bowl for example, I am not the bowl, I am the one who sees the bowl. This seems simple so far. But let us now go to the realm of the physical body. When I was a child, I had a child's body. That body changed (actually died in a very real sense) and was replaced by the body of a youth. That body also faded away and was replaced by the body of the adult. Now as I approach old age, the body again changes. Even though the body has undergone all of these changes, have not "I" been the witness of them all? In fact the body and all of its experiences and changes is an "object" of awareness, just like the bowl. "I" am the subject and the body is an object of cognition. I am not the body! I am the knower of the body.
Let us now go to the realm of feelings. Sometimes I feel sad, sometimes I feel happy. Sometimes I feel love, sometimes I feel anger. The feelings are always changing. But the feelings, like the bowl, are objects of cognition. I am aware of my feelings. What ever feelings I may have "I" is always the re as the witness of them all. I am not my feelings. I am the knower of my feelings.
Let us now go to the realm of thought. The thoughts go by so quickly. Sometimes they are in the form of words, sometimes images. They can be voices, or just impressions. It can be memory, or projection into the future. But what ever the content of our thoughts may be, they too, like the bowl, are objects of cognition. I am not my thoughts I am the knower of my thoughts.
So to sum up: "I" is the subject, anything of which I can be aware is other than "I", the Self. The subject always knows the objects, the objects do not know the subject. The subject is always conscious. W ith reference to the subject, the objects are always inert, meaning they are not self luminous, they do not know themselves. The presence of the conscious factor, the "I" is necessary for their existence to be known. In Sanskrit this is known as "Drik Drishya Viveka," discrimination between the seer and the seen.
As we practice this exercise in contemplation, some truths begin to become clear. First, we begin to see the the objects are all finite, temporary, and subject to change. This is the realm of the impermanent. The Self, the "I" on the other hand, is always there. It is the same "I" that is the knower of all the objects, all the various emotions, and of all the changing thoughts. Though the "seen" always changes, the "seer", the "I" does not. This Self is pure existence, changeless being, the place where God and the person are one. This Self is space- like witnessing consciousness. It is the knower of all, but itself cannot be known as an object. It would be like trying to see your own eyes.
The great truth in the quest for Self Realization is "what you are looking for, you are looking with!" Maintaining this viewpoint, always endeavoring to be conscious of the fact that "I", the Self, am the witness, the eternal subject, and that the phenomena, all of the objects, emotions and thoughts, are the not-Self, ever impermanent, begins to give us the sense that we are not our bodies, not our feelings, not our ideas, but rather something pure, empty and space-like, yet the essence of knowing Itself. It is the eternal consciousness in which the whole universe rises and falls.