Today on the beach on Maui my friends and I met a man who had a debilitating stroke that had changed his life completely. He was only 49 years old. His wish was to swim in the ocean, but he and his wife had felt unable to bring that off, and so they had stayed on the shore merely looking at the water. My friends helped this man into the water thus fulfilling his wish.
Later he spoke to us about the stroke that had totally changed his life. He was sad. He was depressed. He said that he no longer liked himself. His story was very touching.
With compassion he was advised to understand that in reality he was not the body, but rather the witness of the body, not only the witness of the body, but the witness of the thoughts which passed through his mind, including those thoughts about himself which were negative.
The witness he was advised resides in the heart.
It was at this point I began to wonder about this advice. Does the witness reside in the heart, and is the witness indeed who one is? Does one’s identity stop there? And what does the heart mean in this instance? Is the ‘heart’ the experience of love or something pleasurable? Is the witness something one has access to only from a state of love?
The advice seemed to help the man somewhat. That he was not the body or the thoughts passing through his mind was a totally new concept to him, as it would be to most people, and it might take some getting used to, and time and contemplation before it became relevant.
The Sanskrit word for the witness is the ‘sakshi;’ and in the teachings of Vedanta the sakshi is used as a pointer to that which is ultimately real. In the end it is recognized that there is no independent, separately existing sakshi, but rather there is only awareness which lights up all experience. And that awareness you are. Not only you, but everyone is that same awareness. Thus the same awareness lights up the experience of all.
The sakshi is a device, a useful device, useful in differentiating That which is ever present in every experience from the changing body and mind. But if one stops there, or if the sakshi is held to be available only from a ‘heart-space’ (whatever one interprets a heart-space to be) then one hasn’t gotten to the end of the matter so to speak. In the end it is seen that there is no separate, independently existing thing called the sakshi or witness, my sakshi different from your sakshi. There is only one awareness which lights up all experience.
Having negated from the witness the individual experiences of the body and mind, and then having resolved the witness into awareness, what is left that distinguishes ‘my’ awareness from ‘your’ awareness? Nothing. There is only one awareness which lights up everything. And Tat Tvam Assi—You are That.
One might ask, if that is so, why does this sakshi—this witness—seem so personal, so quintessentially me? Because it is. It is quintessentially you, and so too is it the quintessential identity of every being. There are no independent separately existing sakshis, witnessing each separate individual’s experience. There is only one awareness, which lights up all experience and that awareness is quintessentially you, thus it seems very personal. That which is most personal to me is also most personal to you. Same—Same. No difference.