You are the witness—or are you

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.

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About Dhanya

Dhanya developed an interest in Hinduism and Eastern philosophy in the early 1970s. In 1973, she traveled to India in search of a guru to guide her on the spiritual path. While there she encountered disciples of Neem Karoli Baba and his teachings of bhakti and karma yoga which influenced her life from then on. She studied Vipasana meditation for some time with S.N. Goenkaji beginning in 1974. In 1991 she met HWL Poonja, whose words sparked a desire in her to understand the teachings of nonduality. Subsequently she met other advaita teachers, including Jean Klein and Sri Ranjit Maharaj, who were great sources of inspiration to her. In 2002 she met her current teacher, Dr. Carol Whitfield, a traditional teacher of Advaita/Vedanta and a disciple of Swami Dayananda Saraswati. Having found a teaching and a teacher with whom she has a deep resonance and who clearly and effectively elucidate the means for self-knowledge, Dhanya now lives in Northern California, where she studies Vedanta and writes on the topic of nonduality.

9 thoughts on “You are the witness—or are you

  1. Dhanya,

    The witness and awareness are not apart from our experience of life. There is no witness that resides inside of us. There is just thinking and other mechanical activities, and thinking has little to do with experiencing life directly. Thinking is a filter. The flow of experience, without any interpretation of what it is, without any struggle against its force, reveals that you and the world are not separate. In other words, you ARE the world and what you experience is life without thought separating you from it. There is no other Reality than the one that we have right here and now. All our thinking takes us away from this simple realization and creates that separation that we feel. To see this is a very powerful thing. No words can ever take us there. There is Here.

  2. Dhanya Ji,

    A good story that walks one up the Advaita path of inquiry.

    “There is only one awareness which lights up everything.”

    Advaita Vedanta, as you are aware, goes further than that.
    There is no “Awareness” somewhere up there remote and to be dis-closed,
    as the above quote seems to vaguely indicate.
    What you are aware of right here right now at the moment is (your) Awareness.
    And what you are aware of is your own projection.
    But the projection is not different from you.
    You are your projection.
    The projection is you.
    You are the beach, the waters, the lame man, the helpers and the thoughts —
    the manifest Hiranyagarbha of the moment.
    You heal that world with a new thought, a new Hiranyagarbha, a New Creation.
    No-thing personal. There is no other.


  3. Dear Dhanya

    Thank you for showing the process of mananam through example: i.e. starting with the teaching of Vedānta and testing experience against it. And then moving beyond the place where most people get stuck. Many seekers, as you will have known from the early years of your journey, place a high value on experience. They cannot see that experience can only be an experience if it is witnessed. Remove the witness and the experience is as good as non-existent.

    As the Kaṭha Upanishad says: “The self-existent Lord destroyed the out-going senses. Therefore one sees the outer things and not the inner Self. A rare discriminating person turns the eyes away and sees the indwelling Self. (Ka.Up.II.i.1).”

    The journey to true understanding starts as your self-examination does and proceeds along the three steps of understanding to total advaita:
    1. “I, the Self, the knower, am consciousness.”
    2. “I, the consciousness behind the mind, is one and the same in all minds, and behind everything in the universe.”
    3. “I, the consciousness, alone am satyam, and everything apart from consciousness is mithyā [‘as though’ existent]. Everything that’s mithyā is ultimately nothing but consciousness. There is only consciousness.“

    Apart from that…? “Unintelligent people follow external desires. They get entangled in the snares of far-reaching death… (II.i.2).”

  4. Hi Unknower,

    Apart from the fact that you cannot expect to see an arboreal shrew while visiting an Antarctic beach of Penguins, you seem to be missing an important point.

    Advaita does not come with, forget ten, not even one commandment of do’s or dont’s. It does not claim what it says as provable or should be believed in by faith. What it offers is an alternate “Model” for one who is ‘seeking’ freedom from the life of ‘bondage’. So the question is what is bondage? To what a ‘seeker’ feels bound?

    The bondage refers to the inevitable experiencing of the results of the actions taken by a person. If the result is good, one is joyous. If the result is unsavory, one feels miserable. Is there a way that one can live (yes, it is about LIVING) without being necessarily subjected to the inevitable consequences of the actions?

    Please notice that Advaita is not about stopping actions or erasing the effects of actions or even channelizing actions to conform to some behavioral attitudes. The Model provided by Advaita is about “staying unaffected” by the effects of actions. Advaita Seers investigated the nature of ‘experiencing’ itself as a part of their inquiry in the development of their alternate Model and arrived at strange ‘counter-intuitive’ conclusions. One of such conclusions is there is no ‘me’ who thinks and feels as the “experiencer.”

    The normal model of our operation in the world is that an individuated and separate ‘me’ is there facing and experiencing a world out there. The alternate Model that Advaita comes up with on actual inquiry is that
    (i) there is no separate ‘me’ in each of us,
    (ii) the world that you take to be really sitting out there external to a ‘me’ is unreal and a mere mental projection comparable to a hallucination; and
    (iii) (this is the MOST important point) that the True sentient ‘sensor’ that is aware is not a fragmented thing in each of us but one continuous, seamless unchanging eternal infinite entity.

    Modern day Neuroscience and Physics pretty well agree to the first two statements. The third is yet not firmly established in science but coming fast there (see G. Tunoni’s “Phi” (2012), T. Metzinger’s “Ego Tunnel” (2010).

    So what Advaita asks you is: You have been living with the model of a separate ‘me’ here and a ‘world’ out there. Well, here is an alternate Model. In this Model, a ‘me’ is not different from a ‘you’ there. Just live by this Model and see the difference by yourself. There are no compulsions; no promises of Heaven or hell; no punishments and rewards. YOU HAVE EXAMINE IT BY YOURSELF AND FIND OUT.

    Following this Model, another unexpected outcome THAT COMES ALONG is a True morality, not a feigned or IMPOSED one but one that comes naturally and effortlessly. But let not this auxiliary effect be the goal.

    Now fora like the one here (not Bible thumping) try to help answer the questions of a committed ‘seeker’ investigating on his/her own the alternate Model supplied by Advaita. THIS IS NOT A RELIGION. IT IS AN INQUIRY. Such people explore, inquire, share and cross-check their findings in these Fora.

    So what’s the problem?


  5. When you wave assumptions and beliefs in front of someone, and say that this is the way it is, this is how you have to go about seeing and understanding an Ultimate Reality that has no existence apart from your thinking and what you’ve decided to believe, that is the problem, Ramesam. It is not that I stand apart from this and speak from the pulpit. Mind-made beliefs and models cannot be successfully followed by assuming that they are true and somehow, once you’ve ‘understood’ it, you will get what you think you are looking for. It’s not going to happen. All these catch words like ‘morality’ are just ideas you’ve gleaned from the culture you’ve lived in. That’s all we are, Ramesam, a collection of do’s and don’ts. Yes, I know, it’s hard to accept because you are still looking for something that you ‘think’ exists and you can experience. Am I making this up? You are right, it is not a religion but it is made into one by bible thumping advaitins who quote and gloat and think this is understanding. Your whole identity is based on your beliefs of what’s been taught to you. But there is no unlearning because you only exchange one set of beliefs for another. Then you go about trying to prove the correctness of the new belief system.

  6. If someone says: “there is no truth, or truths, only belief; all philosophies, creeds and religions are merely systems of belief”, is it true what s/he claims? (if so… ).

    It is the same as the Cretan (inhabitant of the island of Crete) who once declared: “all Cretans are liars” (known as the Cretan’s, or liar’s, paradox).

    The pronouncement: “everything is relative”, is related to the above..

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