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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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