How to cultivate the state of witness consciousness(Saksi-bhava)

Yoga is the process of shifting the center of our consciousness from the empirical self  to the eternal Self.  The first step required in this endeavour is to separate the eternal from the empirical, the Purusha from Prakriti, the Being from Becoming.   This is achieved by following a process of detachment which is normally referred to attaining the “state of the witness” or Saksi-Bhava.   This post is an excerpt from a talk by Kireet Joshi, a direct disciple of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother, in which he discusses the gradual process by which we can cultivate this state of witness-consciousness.

(In the words of Kireet Joshi, with a few edits, highlights and reformatting)

This process of developing the sense of witness is in the beginning quite difficult because of our tendency to become engaged in activity. So it is normally suggested that at least there are three moments when it should be easier to be a witness to your activity.

  1. First is at the beginning of an activity. Before you start an activity there may be some pause. It is a favourable moment when you can withdraw from activity and realise that you are the witness to the activity which you are going to perform.
  2. The second is when you finish an activity because then also it is easy to have this witness consciousness; you can say, well, I was doing this activity, I have done it and now I can take account of it, I can watch it from outside as it were.
  3. These two are easier but there is a third moment and that is in the midst of activity, at the middle point of activity. For example, now you are engaged in listening, it is an activity, it is in the midst of activity. Now at this moment to be aware that you are listening is a very good exercise, that you are not only engaged in listening but you are also witnessing that you are witnessing that you are listening. So, this sense of witnessing of witnessing of witnessing of witnessing of witnessing can go on deeper and deeper and deeper, and when this increases, then a point comes when even while doing any activity this witness consciousness is present throughout so that the entirety of our being is not lost in the activity, we are not absorbed in the activity.

Now psychologically it is true that sometimes when you are absorbed in the activity, our activity becomes very proficient for e.g. while acting. When an actor forgets that he is acting and becomes completely engaged in the activity of acting, and he forgets to witness that he is acting, his acting is most powerful. He becomes one with his activity and that gives a very powerful proficiency. The moment he becomes aware that he is acting, his acting begins to flounder.  So it is true that this witnessing consciousness may (negatively) affect the effectivity of action. But that is true only for the time being. As you develop this witnessing consciousness more and more, you can have a double consciousness and by witnessing you can actually modulate your activity even much more powerfully, then what you can do by becoming completely identified with activity. One who is very aware that he is acting, throughout his acting, can be a much better actor than one who forgets that he is acting. So that is another state, another capacity that one develops.  Although in the beginning there is a kind of deficiency which one experiences, that is, when you begin to try to be a witness-self.  Gradually you find that the greater the continuity of witness consciousness, the greater is your force of activity, so that you are not swallowed up by your activity and whenever you need something more you can always draw from your witness consciousness that what you need in your activity. So one should not be worried if in the beginning the effectivity of action is slightly reduced. It is by continuing to do it and gathering more and more power of witnessing that this capacity is generated and actually increased.

Now this experience of witnessing can be done at three normal levels.

  1. Level of the Mind(manomaya purusha):  The easiest is at the level of the mind because our normal experience is that of our mental activity. There the mind is constantly bubbling and the mind is occupied with various kinds of thoughts, sensations, perceptions. Rush of action is felt most by the mind. We do things basically in the mind; whenever mind is absent we do not do anything, so to say. Therefore it is easier to begin at the level of the mind and try to develop a witnessing consciousness behind the mind, that is to say, to become aware of the thinker. Thinking is an activity, to become aware of the thinker is the first development of this witnessing consciousness, and when you begin to become aware of the thinker, an experience of great quietude also begins to come when you think very quietly, because there are many kinds of thoughts. The highest thought is one in which you try to think very impartially and without any bias and without any great impatience. When you have time to consider pros and cons and then try to arrive at a conclusion based upon all the facts which are given before you and try to make a judgement without any bias, then your witnessing consciousness also becomes more powerful and you can also be more quiet.  This is the experience of what is called manomaya purusha, the mental purusha, the mind purusha, the mind being, which is aware of all the activities of the mind.
  2. Level of the Life-Force/Vital(pranamaya purusha): Now similarly there can be an awareness of the pranamaya purusha which is aware of the vital activities. The activities of desire, the activities of joy, of emotions, activities of suffering, activities of struggle, activities of acquisition, of possession, of relationship, of mastery, of influence, all these are vital activities.  And when you begin to witness them — this is more difficult but it can be also done — that in every activity of vital being you witness that you are now possessed of a desire, you are possessed of an emotion and even while you are suffering you know that you are suffering, that you are different from suffering, you are witnessing that you are suffering. Even when you are absolutely happy, you are not excited so much that you are overtaken by happiness, but there is a self in you which stands behind and is withdrawn from the happiness; one witnesses that one is happy. So this is the experience of pranamaya purusha.
  3. Level of the Physical(annamaya purusha):  Similarly with regard to bodily activities also one can become aware, then one can have the experience of annamaya purusha.  All our physical activities are similarly witnessed. One becomes aware of all the activities of the body and one is not identified with the body. Normally we are so much identified with the body that we think that we are the body. So in the annamaya purusha we become the witness of the body and we are separated from the body.

Now when you are aware of all the three successively or together then there is a possibility of becoming aware of the Self which is apart from manomaya, pranamaya and the annamaya, and then can come about a possibility of withdrawing from all activity altogether. In some of the paths of jnana yoga  (Yoga of Knowledge) this is what is proposed: first by witnessing all your activities at different levels you arrive at a point when the purusha is felt to be quiet and then the gulf between the activity and your purusha becomes so great that you can easily withdraw from all activity, and when you enter into that state, you are near the immobile Self (akshara purusha). And sometimes we are told that if you are in that consciousness and sufficiently if you remain in that consciousness you become liberated and you may not even come back to the activity at all.  This is very often described as liberation (moksha). You become completely free from activity, of the pull of activity, so there is no worldly bondage. The pull of activity is lost, you do not feel any obligation at all, there is no necessity of entering into activity.

(The last stage of witness-consciousness occurs when we reach the psychic being….)

Now this kind of liberation into immobility described above is certainly something which is very precious for the individual but then it may not be so very useful to the others or for the world, because the world continues to remain in activity and others continue to be in the activity and therefore in all kind of sufferings.  So if you want to return back to the activity of the world, then you have to have a very stable equilibrium whereby you can be all the time above the activity and yet engaged in activity.

This becomes easier when apart from the manomaya, pranamaya, annamaya purusha — witness consciousness — you also have an experience of Chaitya Purusha, the psychic being.  This is the part of yoga which is not often found except in the Veda, Upanishads and to some extent in the Gita — to become aware of the Chaitya Purusha , of the psychic being.  Now psychic being is even deeper than the mind and actually it is that which contains the possibilities of the development of the life, mind and body. The secret of the life, mind and body and their formations, their developments, their rhythms, the way in which they are shaping out, even without our knowing are contained in the psychic being — just as a river always flows in a particular direction — similarly the river of our mind, life and body has a tendency to move in one direction. Now if you inquire as to why it moves in one direction, the rationale of it is to be found in the psychic being. The psychic being is there in which the latency, the potentiality of the movements of the body, life and mind are contained. It is you might say the reservoir of potentialities in which all the possibilities of body, life and mind movement are contained and also the direction of it, i.e. in what direction they will flow. Therefore psychic entity is called the soul, the soul is the source. Whenever you use the word soul, it has two meanings — it is the source and it is the stuff of which things are made. The very material of which I am constituted springs from it.

Through these various phases, the process of cultivating this witness-consciousness enables us to reach and activate the psychic being or soul within us.

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24 thoughts on “How to cultivate the state of witness consciousness(Saksi-bhava)

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  6. SS Lahiri

    Prof K Joshi’s analysis, as aways is indepth.bringing forward our psychic being is the answer.

    Very good article published. Thank you.

    Reply
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  8. y r

    “…you have to have a very stable equilibrium whereby you can be all the time above the activity and yet engaged in activity”

    Can you perhaps reference this in Aurobindo’s writings? I am interested in reading more.

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      Check the Chapter XXV on Triple Transformation in the Life Divine, where the psychic transformation and the spiritual transformation are described in detail .

      Also check Chap 22-24 on Gnosis in Part 2 of the Synthesis of Yoga http://surasa.net/aurobindo/synthesis/part-2.html#ch22

      Another probably relevant quote

      Disciple : What happens when the human consciousness is replaced by the Divine Consciousness?

      Sri Aurobindo : One feels perpetual calm, perpetual strength, – one is aware of Infinity, lives not only in Infinity but in Eternity. One feels the immortality and does not care about the death of the body, and one has the consciousness of the One in all. Everything becomes the manifestation of the Brahman. For instance, as I look around the room I see everything as the Brahman – it is not thinking, it is a concrete experience, – even the wall, the book is Brahman. I see you not as X. but as a divine being in the Divine. It is a wonderful experience.

      Reply
  9. amsha

    Is it possible to have a witness consciousness simultaneously as Jivatman, Cosmic Consciousness and Psychic or you could do it only from Supermind?

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      Besides the three realizations (realizing the psychic in the heart, realizing the Timeless Self as Nirvana, and realizing the Self in the cosmos through cosmic consciousness), Sri Aurobindo spoke of a fourth realization which is that of the Transcendent or Supreme outside manifestation. If you unite with THAT, you get everything. In fact, that fourth realization is only possible for Avatars. In Christianity, this distinction is defined through the trinity of Father , Son and Holy Ghost. This is a letter from Sri Aurobindo on the subject:

      The distinction between the Transcendental, the Cosmic, the Individual Divine is not my invention, nor is it native to India or to Asia – It is, on the contrary, a recognised European teaching current in the esoteric tradition of the Catholic Church where it is the authorised explanation of the Trinity, – Father, Son and Holy Ghost – and it is very well-known to European mystic experience. In essence it exists in all spiritual disciplines that recognise the omnipresence of the Divine – In Indian Vedantic experience and in Mahomedan yoga (not only the Sufi, but other schools also) – the Mahomedans even speak of not two or three but many levels of the Divine until one reaches the Supreme. As for the idea in itself, surely there is a difference between the individual, the cosmos in space and time, and something that exceeds this cosmic formula or any cosmic formula. There is a cosmic consciousness experienced by many which is quite different in its scope and action from the individual consciousness, and if there is a consciousness beyond the cosmic, infinite and essentially eternal, not merely extended in Time, that also must be different from these two. And if the Divine is or manifests Himself in these three, is it not conceivable that in aspect, in His working, He may differentiate Himself so much that we are driven, if we are not to confound all truth of experience, if we are not to limit ourselves to a mere static experience of something indefinable, to speak of a triple aspect of the Divine?

      In the practice of yoga there is a great dynamic difference in one’s way of dealing with these three possible realisations. If I realise only the Divine as that, not my personal self, which yet moves secretly all my personal being and which I can bring forward out of the veil, or if I build up the image of that Godhead in my members, it is a realisation but a limited one. If it is the Cosmic Godhead that I realise, losing in it all personal self, that is a very wide realisation, but I become a mere channel of the universal Power and there is no personal or divinely individual consummation for me. If I shoot up to the transcendental realisation only, I lose both myself and the world in the transcendental Absolute. If, on the other hand, my aim is none of these things by itself, but to realise and also to manifest the Divine in the world, bringing down for the purpose a yet unmanifested Power, – such as the supermind, – a harmonisation of all three becomes imperative. I have to bring it down, and from where shall I bring it down – since it is not yet manifested in the cosmic formula – if not from the unmanifest Transcendence, which I must reach and realise? I have to bring it into the cosmic formula and, if so, I must realise the cosmic Divine and become conscious of the cosmic self and the cosmic forces. But I have to embody it here, – otherwise it is left as an influence only and not a thing fixed in the physical world, and it is through the Divine in the individual alone that this can be done.

      Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – II: The Object of Integral Yoga

      You will find this distinction discussed in the works of Ramakrishna Paramahansa, who was asked by the Divine to remain in a state of consciousness called bhavamukha which is border between the Transcendent and the Immanent.

      The Divine Mother asked Sri Ramakrishna not to be lost in the featureless Absolute but to remain, in bhavamukha, on the threshold of relative consciousness, the border line between the Absolute and the Relative. He was to keep himself at the “sixth centre” of Tantra, from which he could see not only the glory of the seventh, but also the divine manifestations of the Kundalini in the lower centres. He gently oscillated back and forth across the dividing line. Ecstatic devotion to the Divine Mother alternated with serene absorption in the Ocean of Absolute Unity. He thus bridged the oulf between the Personal and the Impersonal, the immanent and the transcendent aspects of Reality. This is a unique experience in the recorded spiritual history of the world.
      source; http://www.ramakrishnavivekananda.info/gospel/introduction/kali_and_maya.htm

      Reply
      1. Sandeep Post author

        Sri Aurobindo: It is, on the contrary, a recognised European teaching current in the esoteric tradition of the Catholic Church where it is the authorised explanation of the Trinity, – Father, Son and Holy Ghost

        The concept of Trinity in Christianity originates in the work of Theophilus of Antioch.

        In his work, the Ad Autolycum, Theophilus discusses the Creation of the World and it is on the fourth day that he says various types of trinities were created – and one of them is the Trinity of God, Logos and Sophia.

        Chapter XV says: On the fourth day the luminaries were made; because God, who possesses foreknowledge, knew the follies of the vain philosophers, that they were going to say, that the things which grow on the earth are produced from the heavenly bodies, so as to exclude God...In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries,are types of the Trinity(Greek:Τριάδος), of God, and His Word, and His wisdom.

        See page 157 of the translation by Rev. Marcus Dods available online
        http://www.dcoi.org/03d/0165-0183,_Theophilus_Antiochenus,_Ad_Autolycum_%5BSchaff%5D,_EN.pdf

        This text is part of the book “Anti-Nicene Fathers” edited by Philip Schaff available at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf02.html

      2. Sandeep Post author

        Geza Vermes in his book “Christian Beginnings” traces the origin of the Holy Trinity to the work of John (not the Apostle, not the Baptist but the one who wrote the Gospel of John). He says John may have derived it from Hellenic mysticism.

        The Prologue of John chronicles a new creation….However, John introduced an unprecedented novelty into the Genesis imagery when he identified God’s supertemporal creative Word with Jesus of Nazareth, whom he presented as Son of God incarnate born in the fullness of time and living for a short period in a human body to reveal to men God the Father. ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us … The only Son who is in the bosom of the Father has made him known’…The key term in the Prologue is the Greek noun Logos, which has a rich Hellenistic past but possesses an important Hebrew and Aramaic background too. Moreover, the Logos concept is pivotal in the thought of the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 20/10 BC….. after AD 39/40) as well as in Hellenistic mysticism known as Hermeticism, contemporaneous with the Fourth Gospel. Hermes or Hermes Trismegistos – Hermes Thrice-Greatest – was the Hellenized reincarnation of the Egyptian deity Thoth, the source of wisdom, who was believed to deify man through knowledge (gnosis). The influence of Philo and Hermetism on Hellenistic Christianity is generally acknowledged. In Hermetic literature the Logos is identified as the ‘Son of God’ and in Philo it is also a mediator figure, the instrument of creation in God’s hand. In the Platonic philosophical language the Logos is the Demiurge, the Craftsman responsible for the creation of the world.

        The pointed message of the Prologue consists in the identification of the divine Logos in action since all eternity with the historical personage of Jesus in whom the Word became flesh. This preface to the Fourth Gospel, together with the subsequent teaching about the Holy Spirit, is the principal source of the developing
        ideas of the Greek church regarding the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Without John, the Christian message would have been quite different and would have lacked some of its true poetic dimensions.

        (Geza Vermes, Christian Beginnings : from Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325, London; New York : Allen Lane, 2012, pp 128-130)

  10. ashok z

    Thank you for the excellent distillation of Sri Aurobindo’s work, and great sources for further reading. I’m certain that I’ll be referring to your blog for quick and digestible references Sri Aurobindo material in the future. Would love hear more about your background in practice, too.

    Best regards.

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      Ashok : Would love hear more about your background in practice, too.

      There is not much to say. I prefer to be discreet about my background because it keeps the ego in check. It is easy to get carried away talking about the ups and downs of one’s trivial life. In a way, the blog is an exercise in “Surrender” whereby I transmit the inspiration I receive with as little distortion as possible.

      Consent to be nothing and none, dissolve Time’s work,
      Cast off thy mind, step back from form and name.
      Annul thyself that only God may be.”

      Sri Aurobindo, Savitri – II: Nirvana and the Discovery of the All-Negating Absolute

      Reply
  11. Pingback: How do movies affect yoga practice? | Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

  12. arya

    In manomaya purusha, it says be aware of thinker. Normally it is said be aware of thoughts. What does being aware of thinker mean?

    Reply
    1. Sandeep Post author

      The Manomaya Purusha (like Pranamaya or Annamaya) is a projection of the Supreme Purusha, so the above statements means one can become aware of the latter. On each plane of consciousness, the Purusha and Prakriti are present and can be experienced. But beyond it, one can also experience the “thing” which stands behind it all.

      If you don’t think about it, you will see what I mean 🙂

      Reply

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