“The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not the thinker.”– Eckhart Tolle
Many of us go through life believing that our thoughts are who we are. Thinking is so familiar to us, so much part of our moment-to-moment reality, that we can’t imagine who or what we would be without it.
Of course, we need thinking in order to navigate our lives. Reflective thoughts enable us to learn from our experiences and hopefully make wiser choices moving forwards. Thinking about the future means we can plan the lives we wish to live. As a species, our ability to think creatively has allowed us to increase our comfort, improve our life expectancy and fashion everything from skyscrapers to silicon chips.
But what happens when we are overtaken by thoughts that seem to be working against us? What happens when the same thoughts loop round in our minds on repeat and we feel powerless to stop them? What do we do when our thoughts are telling us that we are worthless, unlovable, destined to fail, or even that the world would be a better place without us?
The Secret Self
I struggled with my own thinking patterns a lot in my 20’s. I was my own worst critic, believing I was not good enough, not smart enough, not interesting enough for the world around me. Inconsequential problems would lodge themselves in my head and refuse to leave me alone. I did what I could to escape them but even if I found a temporary reprieve they were destined to bounce back more aggressively at some point.
At times my thoughts could be dark, random and even disturbing. Because I believed I was my thoughts, it followed that I must be a bad person.
Not wanting to let anyone in on this secret self, I attempted to contain it and fake normality. I tried to be nice on the outside and just hoped that no one would notice otherwise. Needless to say this was a lonely and imprisoning experience.
Awakening The Witness
I remember the first time I tried meditation in my 20’s. It did not feel at all helpful. In fact it felt like being in confinement with my worst thoughts. The experience only added to my feeling that there was something wrong with me. How come meditation could work for other people but only made things worse for me? What was I missing?
It wasn’t until I came across The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle that I experienced the ability to step back from my thoughts and observe them. Here is an exercise from the book that stays in my mind:
“Try a little experiment. Close your eyes and say to yourself: “I wonder what my next thought is going to be.” Then become very alert and wait for the next thought. Be like a cat watching a mouse hole. What thought is going to come out of the mouse hole? Try it now.”
In waiting for the next thought to come, I found that a gap opened up in my mind. In this gap there were no thoughts and yet there was something alive that felt like me. It was peaceful, spacious and clear. By practicing the exercises in the book, I continued to access this thoughtless place. With time, I found I could shift into it more readily, without needing to do anything in particular.
What I had come across in The Power of Now was ‘the witness’ – the part of us that sits beyond the thoughts, is able to observe them and know it is not them. It was life-changing for me because I now knew I was something more than my thinking mind.
The Power To Choose
As I practiced more yoga, I discovered that the concept of the witness (Sakshi) is central to yoga. The witness enables us to observe not only thoughts but physical sensations and emotions too. We discover from this observing place that thoughts, sensations and emotions come and go whilst the witness is always there, unchanging. The analogy that is often used for this is a clear open sky (the witness) with clouds passing through it (thoughts and sensations).
There are many ways that yoga helps us to access this witnessing capacity. Whether we are meditating or moving through our asana practice, focusing our attention on a particular object such as the breath makes it easier to notice when our mind wanders and thoughts arise. The more we get used to doing this on our mats, the more it becomes natural in our everyday lives.
Over time, we start to notice our habitual patterns of thinking and find we have a choice as to how we engage with them. We might, for example, choose to challenge self-criticism by reminding ourselves of our positive qualities. Other thoughts we might observe but allow them to just pass on by. And when we notice the kind of thoughts that support the vision we have for lives, we can choose to engage with them and act upon them.
This act of witnessing our thoughts also helps us to change our behaviour. So if I’ve decided I don’t want to drink alcohol every night, rather than just going along with the voice that says ‘it’s the end of a long day, you deserve it’, I can observe this as a thought that’s not serving my best interests. Then I have some space to weigh up my decision – do I actually want to have a drink tonight or might I make a different choice?
The witness gives us the gift of the gap; the space in which choice becomes possible.
Gateway To Freedom
The important thing about witnessing is that we are not trying to push anything away. Dark thoughts may arise and we notice them but we learn not to react to them. We discover that just as the sky can accommodate a myriad of clouds, we can make space for a whole range of thoughts.
In fact, difficult thoughts can even become a gift.
It’s easy to be complacent with a continuous stream of thoughts when they are mostly peaceful and pleasant, but when our thoughts start to trouble us, it can remind us to take a step back from them.
In stepping back, we release ourselves from the limitations of the thinking mind – the belief we are trapped, separate and alone. We find a gateway to our true nature which is expansive, peaceful and free.
In the words of the late spiritual teacher Ram Dass:
“Eventually, floating in that subjective awareness, the objects of awareness dissolve, and you will come into the spiritual Self, the Atmān, which is pure consciousness, joy, compassion, the One.”– Ram Dass
Putting It Into Practice
Here are a few ideas for accessing the witness:
- Take your awareness to your breath as it moves in and out of your nostrils. Feel the sensation and temperature of each breath. When a thought pops up, notice it and return to the sensation of the breath. Notice your ability to notice the thoughts
- Try free-flow writing. Write three A4 sides of whatever is going through your mind, without judging, analyzing or stopping. When the thoughts are on paper, it creates a sense of separation from them and it’s easier to see that they are not us. (This technique is taken from Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. She recommends doing it first thing in the morning and it’s therefore known as Morning Pages.)
- Practice witnessing sensations in your body, both during your yoga practice and throughout the day. Let go of the labels (‘my achey hip’, ‘my indigestion’) and bring a sense of curiosity to the sensation. Notice the part of you that’s doing the noticing and see if you can rest in it for a time.
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