Find Stillness by Developing the Witness

They say that the Buddha’s first instruction was, “Relax.”  That makes sense.  It’s hard to learn something new when your body and mind are tight.  But on many days, relaxing seems impossible.  Urgent concerns and conflicting demands weigh me down.  Small packets of worry accumulate throughout the day braiding strands of tension across my neck and shoulders, pulling the muscles into knots.

“Be still.”  There’s more advice from the Buddha.  That makes sense too.  It’s hard to stay clear when you’re surrounded by noise.  But on many days, my mind is a rolling jar of marbles, a jumble of clattering voices competing for attention.  If I slow down, I’ll drown.  Wishing for stillness seems like a distance fantasy. 

The qualities of relaxation and stillness are more than ways to reduce stress.  They are steps to connecting with yourself at a deeper level.  At your core is a natural stillness that is not dependent on outer events or psychological dynamics.  When you settle into your true self, you find that relaxation and stillness are not competing with the demands of life, they help you contend with the demands of life.

Stillness is inherent in the ground of awareness itself, in the act of paying attention.  To be still is not a thing I bring about by effort, it is a condition that arises on its own when I relax and pay attention.  When I am lost in my mind, my thoughts are swirling in frantic motion and I am caught in a script of what is happening to me.  I worry about an argument I had with a loved one, I am concerned about a noise coming from the under the hood of my car, I feel pressure about an upcoming deadline.  These are legitimate concerns that I need to attend to, but if I approach them from a frenetic state of mind, the results may be frenetic.  If I can settle and approach them from a place of stillness, from a state with more awareness, things will go better.

When absorbed in the mind, things seem immediate, intense and filled with drama.  But the container holding the drama is your awareness.  Your mind is not who you are.  Awareness is who you are.  And no matter what activity or thought or event or person it is observing, awareness itself sits in perfect stillness. 

One way to access the natural stillness that is always present is to develop your internal Witness.  The Witness is a capacity of awareness that allows you to view the mind directly while it is busy doing other stuff.  Becoming the Witness shifts you into an expanded awareness where you can pull back from the grip of your thoughts and gain perspective.  It is a shift in consciousness – you are aware that you are aware.

A prime tool for developing the Witness is to place your attention on the breath and the body.  This drops you out of the worries and thought loops of the thinking mind.  It also feels good.  Juicy good.  The breath and the body are intimately connected.  As you settle into the breath, you feel the weight and stability of your body.  Gravity takes over.  You can feel the loosening of the many small muscles that have been holding tension.  You relax.  That’s the first step in touching the Witness.

Try this simple practice to develop the Witness.  You can listen to a guided audio of this practice on the Stumbling Mystic website.  Or, you can follow these guidelines. 

  1. Sit comfortably and close your eyes. 
  2. Take a moment to arrive.  Let your body and your awareness settle together.
  3. See if there are lingering thoughts or worries that are lurking nearby.  Take note of them and let them be.
  4. Place your attention softly on your breath.  Let it ride there for a few moments as the gentle swells of breathing come and go.  Feel your chest move out and fall back.  Remember that for the next few moments, you have no obligations to attend to.  You can relax and enjoy the wonderful feeling of your breath moving in and out.
  5. Sense into your body and look for places where there is tension.  You can start at the top of your head and slowly work down, paying attention to each part of your body.  Or you can attend to your body as a whole.   Place your attention on the areas of tension and hold them in awareness.  Let the tensions stay if they want or dissolve if they want. 
  6. As you go, notice that you simultaneously aware of your body, and also aware that you are aware of your body.  Rest in this double awareness.
  7. When you feel complete, bring your attention back to the breath.  Feel whatever level of stillness is naturally present.
  8. Bring to mind any thoughts or worries you had at the beginning of this practice.  Do they look different now?  Are you able to see them from the perspective of the Witness?
  9. Take a deep breath and let it out.  Maybe one more for good measure.  Open your eyes.  Before continuing with your day, take a moment to appreciate the feeling of the Witness.

Doing this (or any) awareness practice on a regular basis builds capacity and makes it easier to return to a state of expanded awareness at any time.

Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *