Does it ever happen to you that you are working on an important assignment and you begin to think about something else….maybe about the upcoming holidays or about some recent argument with someone?
Wouldn’t it be great if you could schedule a time when thoughts are allowed to “disturb” you rather than them distracting you every now and then from your task at hand. It is like setting up an appointment time when these thoughts can come in and you will not try to chase them away!
Such a practice is the art of witnessing your thoughts.
In a prelude article to this, I wrote about the liberating power of witnessing our thoughts. After reading that article, some have asked me if watching thoughts is possible at all. Obviously such questions can only be answered through one’s own subjective experience and more importantly, through self-experiments. So in this article I shall attempt to explain how thoughts interact with us and what is the main challenge in remaining a witness to our thoughts.
Let us consider if someone were to place an apple in front of you.
How would you know that there is an apple in front of you?
The obvious answer would be through your eyes, isn’t it?
Science tells us that our eyes, or any sense organs for that matter, are merely gathering and relaying information. Clearly, this information about the outside world is communicated to the mind through thoughts. We rely on some form of thought to inform us about the perceived object and it is also through thought that we actually relate to our experience as being either good or bad.
For instance once we know our thought (about something), we evaluate if we like it or don’t like it & if we need to act on it. Hundreds of thoughts go on every minute in our minds that seems to need no action at all. But many, if not all of them, leave a trace within our mind that contributes to the everyday roller-coaster effect. We are either riding higher and higher or are being tossed downward — mentally and emotionally. In other words, the objective world is perceived subjectively through the medium of thoughts. And thus thoughts are not just passing on information but also making judgments and evaluations.
This process of thinking — knowing — evaluating is going on at such a rapid pace in our minds that we believe it to be a natural background activity that we have no control over. Although we might be oblivious of its impact, it is obvious that this mental activity colors our experiences and how we interact with the world.
The world of our thoughts colors not only our outer world but is also the very basis of life experiences itself. That what we hear is biased by our selective listening; that what we see is colored by our judgments; that what we taste is predominantly driven by our likes and dislikes….so on. Immersed in these thoughts, which are running amuck in the mind, we are essentially confined to this self-created world and disconnected from reality.
So, we might ponder if it is really possible to be a witness of this thought process without being affected by it? And if yes, what does the role of a detached witnessing accomplish?
In my example above of an apple being placed in front of you, if I were to substitute it with a chocolate or your favorite sweet, you would most likely not find it easy to remain a witness of what happens in your mind (ofcourse even more difficult would it be if it were to substituted it with the presence of your spouse or your boss)
Thus we can conclude two things from this:
1. Any reaction within our minds — positive or negative — will most certainly draw us away from being a witness of our thoughts.
2. When we are no longer a witness to our thoughts, then it means that we have become the thought itself and have shaped it with name, color, form and sound, etc., which is nothing but the world we live in.
What is difficult to know however is at which point the thought transforms itself into these forms that we further invest emotions and feelings with?
What is it that adds the dimension of self-reference to an otherwise passing mental blip? In other words, what makes us identify so strongly with the thoughts that it becomes “sticky”?
It is worth taking time to consider these questions as understanding the underlying process of these is what contemplatives from varying traditions have dedicated themselves toward. And with a little effort in this direction, one can glimpse into the great promise that it holds in our lives. Because when we can shift at will from being the thought to being a witness of a thought, it is like watching a bird fly up away at a distance in the sky. You can enjoy it but remain unaffected by it.
This ability of witnessing our thoughts thus has a practical benefit in that it keeps us grounded when the strong winds of everyday life threatens to sweep us away!
(In my next article, I shall go into the “who” or “what” in us enables us to doing the witnessing — an key step in undertaking this practice and how the detaching identifications with world, objects, people, situations can come about, mentally. Do leave your comments below.)