Witnessing Consciousness – Q.340

Q: What is the difference between the witness, witness consciousness and consciousness? I know myself as the witness or maybe as witness consciousness but I do not know myself as all there is which, I guess, would be knowing myself as consciousness. But how can I ever not see the world of objects? So do I not remain a witness choicelessly?

A (Sitara): Contained in your question are seven questions (which I have passed on to the other bloggers, so some may refer to them):

 1.            What is the difference between the witness, witness consciousness and consciousness?

This will be answered below along with the last question.

 2.            (implied question) Is there a difference between the witness and witness consciousness?

Answer: no, not in the way I use the terms. But there is the possibility of a flawed use of the term ‘witness’. Witness means the ultimate subject that cannot be objectified. If witnessing is attributed to the mind, the so-called witness is nothing but a thought, i.e. it is just another object. And the so-called witnessing is nothing but an experience.

 If, however, witness is used in the sense of ‘ultimate subject’, you can use ‘witness’ and ‘witness consciousness’ interchangeably. I prefer the term ‘witness consciousness’ (or simply ‘witnessing’) because the term ‘witness’ suggest too much of a personality.

 3.            (implied question) Does knowing oneself as consciousness mean knowing oneself as all?

Answer: yes, if by that you mean ‘knowing yourself as consciousness equals knowing yourself as the self of everything’.

 4.            How can I ever not see the world of objects?

 Answer: as long as eyes and mind function healthily you will always see the world of objects.

5.            Do I not remain a witness choicelessly?

Answer: yes.

 6.            (implied question) Is not this an impediment to enlightenment (i.e. to knowing myself as consciousness, as all)?

Answer: no (only in case of the, above mentioned, flawed use of the term).

 7.            (implied question) How is it possible to leave witness consciousness behind and know oneself as pure consciousness?

 The last two questions need more of a detailed answer, which will also take care of your first question. As said, you cannot stop witnessing, witnessing is happening round the clock. Even deep sleep is witnessed because you know that deep sleep is a pleasant experience to have. This knowledge is not acquired by the mind because the mind is non-functional in deep sleep. It is immediate knowledge, ‘witnessing’.

 If witnessing was an obstacle to knowing oneself as consciousness, no-one would ever gain self knowledge. Knowing yourself as witness consciousness means that you have stopped defining yourself as a body-mind-entity living in a world of objects and instead simply witness your body-mind and the world functioning. This is great but not the end because you are still in duality: here witnessing (witness consciousness) – there the witnessed. So, I do see a difference between witness consciousness and pure consciousness, which has transcended this last subtle duality.

 This duality is dissolved only when you stop seeing yourself even as the ultimate subject that witnesses objects, and start knowing witnessing and the witnessed as one and the same Self. Knowing yourself as witness consciousness means (kind of) knowing yourself as consciousness but not necessarily knowing yourself as limitlessness yet.

 As you have recognized for yourself, knowing oneself as witnessing does not yet mean that one knows oneself as all there is. So, how to go beyond the knowledge of being the witness consciousness/witnessing? Again, not by trying to stop witnessing because this is impossible.

 There are several ways of going beyond witness consciousness and arrive at pure consciousness. But first one needs to truly know oneself as witness consciousness. Only then the next (and last) step is possible.

 The teaching tradition of Advaita Vedanta offers the most sophisticated process to arrive at pure consciousness. You will have to study with a traditional teacher to enjoy it to the fullest. All those who do not have clear knowledge of themselves as witness consciousness need to arrive there first. Drg Drishya Viveka is a methodology that, if handled properly as done by a qualified teacher, will help. But even the best methodology in the hands of the best teacher cannot help if the foundation is weak. This foundation needs to be built by going through the process of removal of misunderstandings about who you really are. Parallel to that, the understanding about your true nature will increase and complete itself. So each student has to start from where he/she is. There are no shortcuts to enlightenment.

 Here I would like to offer two experiments, exclusively for those who know themselves as witness consciousness/witnessing:

 1. Withdraw your attention from what you are witnessing. Turn around, back to what you have recognized yourself to be, i.e. witness consciousness/witnessing. By this, the status of witness consciousness can drop away and, with it, the last notion of duality. What remains is pure consciousness.

 2. If you truly know yourself as witness consciousness you know that everything witnessed appears within you. Now you explore the witnessed. What does it consist of? Look closely into the relation between you as witnessing and the witnessed. Do you find a demarcation line between anything witnessed and you as witnessing? You will realize that there is no such demarcation line and will know that anything witnessed is made out of the same ‘stuff’ as you are which is pure consciousness. With this the idea of witnessing and witnessed can drop away. What remains is limitless consciousness in and through every appearance, including your own body-mind-system.

 Note: Without clear knowledge of you as witnessing consciousness you will gain nothing from doing these experiments. Even with that knowledge it is most likely that you will need the help of a teacher to exploit their full potential.

A (Meenakshi): 1.  (implied question) Is there a difference between the witness and witness consciousness?

There is no difference between the two. These are not qualities of the self. Qualities (attributes) are possible only for objects. Self is not an object but the subject.

Then why are the words ‘witness’, ‘consciousness’ etc used? These words are called lakshaNa, meaning, the words that indicate the nature of the self. A word is usually a qualifier for an object. A ‘sofa’ qualifies a form on which one reclines, sits etc. Here, the words ‘witness’ etc are doing a different job.  They bring out the nature (svarUpa) of Brahman by implication.

2.  (implied question) Does knowing oneself as consciousness mean knowing oneself as all?

Yes, the all pervading self is Me. Once the ignorance is gone, one knows oneself as the whole. “Knowing oneself as all” means, that one knows oneself as the underlying truth of all. The basis, substratum, the essence of all is one truth which is Me. Just as gold can say I am all the ornaments, in spite of all the differences in names and forms as bangles, necklace etc. The essence of ALL ornaments is ONE and that is gold. So, also the essence behind the multitude of forms( including one’s own body) is the self.

 3.  How can I ever not see the world of objects?

When the scriptures say that the world is not there; they are negating the truth of the appearing world. The scriptures say that the appearing world, which we consider the truth, is not the truth.

Post knowledge, one will continue to ‘see’ the world as before. The only difference is that one will not attach any truth to the world. Suppose, I have a $500 dollar bill and I come to know that it is counterfeit. What kind of importance will I attach to it now? A wise man will appreciate the fact that one needs to interact in the world but at the same time; it is no less than a dream for him.

4.  Do I not remain a witness choicelessly?

The word ‘witness’ is used initially for the student who is attached to duality. To bring home the point that the self is unattached to the appearing world, the word ‘witness’ is used to indicate that the self is the principle which is unattached to the dual world. Let us take the example of a book. If I am the witness of a book; it goes without saying that I the ‘witness’ am away from the book. I am the witness of the table hence I am different from the table. The law is – ‘The seer (witness) is different from the seen’.

Hence, the word ‘witness’ is used for the student to understand that the witness (self) is different from the seen (duality).

5.  (implied question) Is not this (4) an impediment to enlightenment (i.e. to knowing myself as consciousness, as all)?

Knowing, with conviction, that I am the whole is itself the culmination. The question of impediment does not come, because all that has to be attained has been attained. There is no other ‘enlightenment’ to happen.  Ignorance was the problem, the solution is knowledge. Once the knowledge is gained, the world, body and mind are known as unreal and I the self am the all pervading.

6.  (implied question) How is it possible to even leave witness consciousness behind and know oneself as pure consciousness?

The witness is the Atma (inner self) which is the same as Brahman (the all pervading one). They are not two different entities. The scriptures give out such statements to show the non difference between the two. One is not leaving the witness behind, since the witness is all. How can one leave the infinite? Where will he go beyond the infinite?

Just as the space enclosed within a pot is the same as the total space outside. The space is undivided; the inner space is not different from the outer space. The pot is temporary vesture. Similarly, the body, mind are upAdhIs (limiting adjuncts) and the inner self (like the glass space) is not different from the all pervading self (total space).

A (Dhanya): Here is my understanding of ‘the witness’ (i.e. the sakshi) as it is used in the teachings of Vedanta.  First of all I feel it is important to point out that there isn’t a difference between the witness and consciousness.

 My teacher has often said that the witness is really only a device—a device used to enable the student to differentiate the changeless (i.e. consciousness) from the changing.

The witness, being only a device, disappears and resolves into consciousness.  The saying goes, ‘There isn’t really a witness, only consciousness.’  So to make a distinction between the witness and consciousness isn’t really useful or the point, because they are exactly the same ‘thing.’

 Then what about knowing oneself (i.e. consciousness) as all? 

 For some I think jnanam can seem to occur in two steps.   First one recognizes oneself as unchanging being/consciousness, and dismisses everything changing as not I. 

 But this then leaves the seeker with two things, (1) unchanging being/consciousness which I am, and (2) everything else, i.e. those things that are changing, which are not I.

 The teachings tell us that reality is nondual, so we have to take another look at all those things that we have negated as ‘not I (consciousness)’ and recognize that they are also consciousness.

 How is that done?  I think there are those people for whom this second recognition may take place over a period of time, for whom there is period of growing clarity as it were, like watching a polaroid picture develop over time.

 I also think that one important thing to point out is that no cognition takes place away from consciousness.  The cognition of all objects takes place in consciousness itself.  The objects themselves, though changing, are changing within existence—within consciousness (consciousness and existence being one and the same).

 Where are the boundaries?  Where are the boundaries between existence/consciousness (sat/chit) and those things that appear, and change within existence/consciousness?

 Where are the boundaries between me, who am changeless existence/ consciousness and everything else?  There are no boundaries.  Initially it may seem as if there are.  But if you examine just one cognition, you will see that it isn’t actually divided up at all.

 I don’t know if this reply is helpful or not.  It is something I work with a lot myself.  I examine the world of experience using my sight, or using any one of my organs of sense perception, and ask myself where is the boundary between the objects which are being perceived and consciousness?  There does not appear to be one.

A (Peter): In Advaita Vedanta, the term ‘consciousness’ is used to indicate the only secondless Reality. There is nothing apart from consciousness: consciousness is all there is. It is not available for perception as an object because there is no place where it is not and, as the perception of a thing as an object requires a distance between the perceiver and the object, there is no different place available from which the perceiver can stand apart from consciousness.

 In common speech, we tend to use the word consciousness to indicate things like sentiency, life, self-awareness, the power of perception: we see it as a kind of very refined thought process. For example, we might say, ‘Try to act consciously’ when what we mean is keep your attention on what you are doing. Or we say a person who faints is unconscious. But Vedanta would describe this situation as consciousness in the form of a temporarily inert body and mind. There is the same consciousness in the form of stone as there is in the most sublime prayer. Consciousness is what backs all perceptible mental processes and material manifestations, whilst being unavailable for perception itself.

 At the macrocosmic level of the universe, this pure consciousness is available in the form of the existence of everything. Ask anyone if they exist and they will say that they do exist. Ask how they know and they will say, ‘I just know I exist; it is self-evident’. The human being is thereby half-knowledgeable: we know ‘I exist’ but we don’t necessarily know what that ‘I’ is. That ‘I’ is consciousness, and that’s why it cannot be perceived: from where can the perceiver perceive itself?

 In the parting words of the sage Yajñāvalkya: “When to the knower of Self, all this has become one… then what other thing is there to be known and with what… with what can we know That by which all this is known?”

 From the point of view of our transactional existence, however, we perceive many things and so we try to get back to the essential perceiver. Objects are perceived by the senses, senses are perceived by the mind, mind too is perceived and that perceiver needs a name so we call it the ‘witness’. Thus, from the point of view of the sentient and active being, consciousness gets the name ‘witness’. It is the ‘witness’ that continues its activity of observation even when the sense of ‘I’ is not there, when mind has become totally still, when sense powers are not active and when there is no object of perception: i.e. in the state of dreamless sleep. At that time, however, we do not know that we observe nothing: this is known only when we wake up.

 There are some times during the waking life too when the usual identity with the body-mind-sense complex is temporarily suspended and we are totally free from the desire for things to be other than they are. And we know that we know. This is sometimes what’s called ‘witness consciousness’: the ‘knowing mind’ is known, the act of knowing is known, and the object of perception is known. This non-identity with the body-mind-sense complex is relative: there needs to be some identity for transaction to take place. Being the witness is not merging one’s identity in pure consciousness because the status as ‘witness’, sākṣitvam, remains: one needs to cognitively drop this status for there to be pure consciousness, which is that by which this status exists. Or to put it another way, this status of witnessing consciousness is an expression of pure consciousness, though it is not consciousness itself. From the perspective of pure consciousness, there is no activity of witnessing. Just as we call the sun the illuminator despite the fact that things come to light in the mere presence of the sun and not by any activity on its part, so too awareness takes place in the mere presence of consciousness and not as a result of any act of witnessing on the part of consciousness.

 After having said all the above, here comes the caveat: words like ‘witness’, ‘witness-consciousness’, ‘consciousness’, ‘reality’, ‘awakening’, ‘enlightenment’, etc only reveal their intended meaning in the context in which they are used. And this too depends on who uses them. A teacher like Swami Dayananda is very careful with these words because the teacher using English terms is obliged to use words that have common meanings in a way that their normal meaning isn’t what’s intended. So, for example, you would never hear the term ‘self-realisation’ used by a teacher like Swami Dayananda, nor would he use the word ‘bliss’ as a translation of ‘ānanda’. Even in Sanskrit texts, a word like ātman, for example, would either mean consciousness, self, mind or even body. So context is key.

 So when you say: “I know myself as the witness or maybe as witness consciousness but I do not know myself as all there is which, I guess, would be knowing myself as consciousness” you are right in one respect: you can never know yourself as consciousness. But when you say you know yourself as witness or witnessing consciousness, what you mean by the terms ‘witness’ or ‘witness consciousness’, taken out of context, may not mean what the Vedanta teacher means. To say, for example ‘I am witnessing consciousness’: who is this ‘I’, and from what position is this known?

 When you ask: “How can I never not see objects?” the gap opens once more. In that sentence you use the words ‘I’ and ‘objects’ as though they are two different things. While there is a separate ‘I’ there will always be objects. But what is actually being seen? When you see a gold necklace, you are seeing gold. The person shopping for jewelry will only see the necklace, but the jeweler will only sell gold: the price will be largely determined by the weight and quality of the gold and less by the pattern of the ornament. So what you see will depend on who you believe the ‘I’ is. And that includes being identified with the person who is ‘awake’. ‘I am awake so I am seeing from the witness perspective’ is another dream: only here maybe the bars of the cage are made of gold.

 The one thing you should be alerted to in your question and that, reading between the lines, it could appear to be from the point of view of an experience-seeker: one who seeks to know himself/herself as consciousness, one who is concerned about being choicelessly stuck with the experience of being the witness. Consciousness, the true ‘I’ is not an experience seeker. It never will be. It is not an experience. It is not even the experiencer. But no experience is possible without the presence of consciousness. There is no ‘I’ and ‘consciousness’ as separate things that need to be equated (even though that may be how it is stated for the sake of those who are self-ignorant). There is only consciousness. ‘I’ is a superimposition on it as is ‘witness’ or even ‘witness consciousness’.

3 thoughts on “Witnessing Consciousness – Q.340

  1. For Peter

    Thank you, Peter, for your clear and elucidating comments – extensive to the others’ contributions – all of them adding up and quite helpful.

    re: “This non-identity with the body-mind-sense complex is relative: there needs to be some identity for transaction to take place.”

    Ever?; in all cases and situations? The one who identifies “him/herself” with the body-mind may be said to be a ‘doer’, if at all, but “he” who knows that he is not the body-mind complex, does “s/he” need that (even temporary) identity in order to go shopping, write a letter, etc.? There is that teaching in one of the Upanishads: ‘action in non-action and non-action in action’ (in Chinese, I believe, wu-wei: non-action, not doing). And this is not related directly, I believe, to the role of the gunas, or to vasanas, etc. If “things come to light in the presence of the sun”, as you write, do not things get done in the presence of awareness?

  2. An interesting point! I think it is a matter of semantics and pedantics (to coin a word). I would say that, to the extent that one still answers to a name, one can be said to be retaining the identity for transactions to take place.

    It’s a bit like the perennial discussions about whether there is still a world for the j~nAnI. Of course there is! As long as the j~nAnI retains a body-mind (which is as long as prArabdha has not expired), there is still SEEMING duality. He or she knows that there is only brahman but the eyes still see separate objects. Like the sun rising metaphor.

    Things get done in the presence of awareness for j~nAnI and aj~nAnI alike, according to prArabdha. The difference is that the j~nAnI knows that it is only the ‘senses surrounding the sense objects’ and that ‘I do nothing at all’.


  3. Here are some further observation following my discussion of this question with my teacher, Swamini Ātmaprakāśāndaji:

    When you say ‘witness’, know that there is no witness apart from consciousness. The term is used to indicate the knower of the knower. There is no knower of the world of sense objects without the mind – to say ‘I am the knower’ needs the ‘I’ sense. The knower of the mind, when the ‘I’ thought is there or not there, is what we call ‘witness’.

    When we wish to attribute the STATUS of being the witness upon consciousness we use the term ‘witness consciousness’ to distinguish it from ‘pure consciousness’. But we can never say that consciousness is witness.

    Terms such as ‘witness’ and ‘witness consciousness’ are expressions that indicate a status superimposed on consciousness, and are used only from the point of view of transactional existence, not from the point of view of absolute consciousness.

    In Kaivalya Upaniṣad it is said: “Jñānī Brahmaiva, na Brahmavit.” [The wise person IS Brahman alone, not a knower of Brahman.] From the wise person’s point of view, he or she IS Brahman. And it’s only from the standpoint of others that he or she is given the status as ‘knower of Brahman’. ‘Knowing oneself as consciousness’ means understanding the invisible, immortal, innermost essence of every individual to be consciousness. The word ‘innermost’ implies existence, the very truth of the individual: you can never go beyond that.

    Whenever one says: ‘I know’ the identity is with the mind. So when one says: ‘I KNOW I am consciousness, or I KNOW I am witness consciousness’ the identity is with the mind. The wise person might say, ‘I am consciousness’; but never say, ‘I KNOW I am consciousness’. In the Taittīriya Upaniṣad we find the following declaration by Ṛṣi Triśaṅku after he attained self-knowledge: “I am the enlivener of the tree of births and deaths; my glory is as high as a mountain peak; I am purity, the cause of all. I am eternity, nourishing like the sun; soaked in the nectar of immortality, I shine with the wealth of wisdom supreme.”

    This mantra might appear on the surface to be saying that Triśaṅku is declaring his identity with consciousness. This is not strictly true: it is how the Upaniṣad reveals the vision of Triśaṅku and is given for contemplation in order to establish one’s own vision to be the same. Triśaṅku is unlikely to have actually spoken these words: a wise person would not declare: ‘I am wise’. Triśaṅku’s identity here is with Īśvara, the whole i.e. ‘consciousness given the status of Lord, the cause of all’. Īśvara is consciousness alone, but consciousness is not Īśvara.

    We need to be careful how we use these words because, though they are superficially similar, understanding the subtle difference is profound.

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