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Witnessing Consciousness- The Development of Mind Beyond Diagnosis. By Galeet Farrow (Gollan), LPC

Often, psychology as a field, gets bogged down in its focus on the sickness in human beings. In its attempt to help heal the world, it has created model after model of human understanding that accounts more for our dysfunction than for our potential. The myopic view of human sickness has led to the expectation of a healthy baseline as simply not suffering with extreme symptoms. Yet, humans are wandering, looking for something more, something that will truly fulfil them. As we become increasingly curious about higher states of consciousness, we begin to tap into the wonder of what being human could be. The Superhuman if you will, beyond the animal mind but also transcending the mundane human mind- a state of complete embodiment of pure consciousness. While this particular article is not going to go into great depths on the highest states of consciousness nor the differing human minds, there is a very important shift between the third and fourth chakra which must occur for humans to begin the upward journey.

Prior to this shift, consciousness is stuck in the first three chakras, which are stages all human consciousness has to develop and move through. Specifically, the first chakra is a state of survival, which in excess can turn to greed and a sense of constant insecurity. The second chakra of relating can become incessant wanting and desire and shows up in transactional styles of sex. The third chakra, the seat of the ego, becomes preoccupied with its perception of a separate self and its drive for personal power and control; in its self-importance, it believes it has the right to own all and to have unmitigated power over others. If left underdeveloped, we will simply keep circling through these states of being in a self-perpetuating pattern. The major shift of the ego, as it realizes a higher state of being in the fourth chakra (heart), is this shift to the witnessing consciousness. This eventually allows for true compassion to arise. As the ego surrenders its capabilities in service of this higher consciousness, the individual will begin an upward unfoldment. This critical shift is necessary for the development of all higher consciousness, and, in reflection, has a lot to offer in its understanding of human suffering and how to alleviate it.

Our development through the Chakra states of mind is natural and necessary, and of course begins at survival consciousness (1st chakra), as it is necessary to exist here on earth and in these bodies. We must have food, shelter and safety. The understanding of the importance of meeting basic survival needs first and foremost is reflected in most developmental theorists’ understanding of human development. Next, we create relationships, broadening our understanding to include the “I-We” axis of life (2nd chakra). Here we learn how to work together, make exchanges, and live in groups. As we continue to grow and show competency in the ability to survive and have interactions, we develop a sense of personal pride or a sense of our separate self- an ego (3rd chakra).

Through ego, we feel capable of going into the world and fulfilling more and more of our wants and needs (the 3rd chakra, ego, then continues to feed Chakra minds 1 and 2). In fact, the more wants and desires we fulfill, the more desires that will arise- it becomes a never-ending cycle of desire. Satiation is temporary as the next desire begins to form. Think about a craving for sweets, you may satiate it in this moment by eating chocolate, but you’ve added to the sugar/yeast balance in your body and dopamine response in your brain, creating a higher likelihood of also fulfilling the next sugar craving. This is well illustrated in the Epictetus saying, “Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it”. This cycle can continue throughout the lifespan and no further development will occur. Something has to invite us to go beyond this consciousness of life. Sometimes it is an outside force, exposure to new information or the individual’s own self becomes tired of this endless hunger. Something occurs which forces us to develop further, beyond just survival and want and the power to fulfil them. If not, the excess of survival becomes greed and/or insatiable insecurity. Exchange in excess becomes meaningless transactional sexual arrangements which do not touch the heart, intensified fears and/or lack of integrity. Finally, excess of ego becomes a power-hungry individual focused on their self-importance and having control over others and the shared resources.

A major step in the evolution of consciousness is the development of the Witnessing Consciousness. The witness is the one who watches life, the one inside of us who recognizes what is occurring and observes without judgment. It is the ever-present consciousness within.

Often, the introduction to meditation is the beginning of engaging the mind in a new way. In order to develop the witnessing consciousness, we must learn to observe without judgment. In mindfulness, an individual may be instructed to notice the sensory input, sounds and physical sensations (clothes they’re wearing, chair they’re sitting in etc), to notice what is around them without judgment, without the desire to change it. As mindfulness deepens, the individual is asked to notice their breathing, the inhalation and exhalation along with its physical movements of the diaphragm. The person may be pointed to subtlety of breath such as the coolness of air entering the nostrils upon inhale versus warmth of breath upon exhale. This is drawing the awareness of the person to their immediate experience without a judgment about the goodness or badness of the experience, without preference needing to rule the way we have such an experience or insist upon changing it.

Some mindfulness techniques teach this awareness when walking or eating. Thich Naht Hahn often brought attention to the food we are eating, like a piece of fruit, and noticing everything it took to be right here with you. He noted the soil and the sun, the water and the farmer, the truck and the store and the clerk- everything it took to get to you. This sense of inter-connection, or as he called it “inter-being”, between all of us and the foundation of life is in everything we eat.

As a person engages in these practices designed to connect them with their breath, they begin to have a different kind of awareness of the present moment. Breath is truly the only thing in this moment. Everything else, by the time our brain registers it, is already past. The sound you’re hearing is past, you’re picking up the waves, but the delay from the sound origin to your ears still exists. Learning to be present, to this moment, through attentiveness to each part of the breath, opens the door for witnessing consciousness to emerge.

Witnessing consciousness is an aspect of Mind that is ever present and without judgment. It is a detached observation which can allow us distance from the immediacy of experience. Learning to witness one’s thoughts creates a space between the thought and the identification with it. Witnessing one’s emotions creates a space between the emotion and the re-action. Through witnessing, we begin to tap the higher reality of Self.

Questions to ask oneself:

Who is it that is witnessing?

Who is it thinking the thought?

Who is witnessing the thought?

Is the thought me? Or am I the witness?

We can begin to create a distance between the experience of the senses and resultant thought formations and emotional reactions. With this distance, we can see the Self and the thought-emotional machinery are not one and the same. We can see that our machinery, our physical equipment, has five senses, and it is through these senses we experience the world. The one inside, witnessing the experience, is different than the immediate sensory reaction.

Often, something occurs in the outside world, which we experience through our senses; we then have an immediate thought, and an emotional reaction to this experience. We believe this body is us, whatever was experienced is us and the reaction to the experience is also the self. This makes sense if there was no witness, we would be only an input-output organism, and would have easily predictable reactions to external stimuli. As a person develops the witness, it creates a pause between stimulus and response. This pause allows for new, unpredictable, and novel responses, because the one responding is able to pause and witness the event, without judgment, and choose a response that is motivated by internal intention rather than sensory reactivity. This ability is essentially what sets us apart from other biological beings in evolution. It is the human ability to witness ourselves and life without a judgment or reaction.

Am I this body? Or is this body the vehicle my consciousness is currently navigating through? To think we are the body is to miss the consciousness inside. If we are a highly reactive being, who has not yet developed this internal pause, this ability to witness, then yes, in confusion we may think we are this body.

Am I these emotions? No matter how strong the emotion and reaction may feel, there is the ability to witness it. To pause in the midst of the emotion and say, my heart rate is high, I am experiencing adrenaline and cortisol flood my body, the experience of fear is very high, I am shaking and afraid. This ability to witness points at the Self within, a self beyond physical and emotional reactions. A calm amidst the biological storm.

Am I these thoughts? Cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the most popular psychotherapies with lots of research behind it, is essentially based on the fact that we are not the thoughts, and that the thoughts can be changed. People with excessive negative thoughts are asked to identify the underlying belief and challenge if this is true. They are asked to change their thought to something more positive and more accurate. Many people struggle with automatic thoughts, some fearful, some negative and some memories or self-hating repetitions. These thoughts are a groove in the mind, a set of neurons that commonly fire together, which makes it feel automatic. We have essentially learned to think this way very well, as the brain is doing what it does best- getting the everyday things down to an automated system. However, these thoughts can be changed, challenged, and paused. You can think of something completely not true. You can have weird and uncomfortable thoughts. The good news is this is not you! Who is the one noticing the thought? Usually, we judge ourselves as if we are the thought, we may try to banish it or are disturbed by it. However, through the practice of staying with the breath, we can learn to witness it without judgment- to simply watch and observe its existence without identifying with it. We do not have to say, this thought is mine or me.

This shift out of complete identification with the body-mind system allows for a new driver of the vehicle. Instead of the immediate sensory reactions, there is a witness and then a choice. Instead of an emotional reaction there can be an emotional response. In lieu of existing here as this body, we can begin to see we are the consciousness inside.

This is one of the most important shifts in humanity, as it signifies the beginning of a shift out of ego and into a greater collective consciousness. Through this act, the development of true compassion can begin, and thus real choice. Authentic life requires the ability to choose, to separate the Self from the physical-emotional-mental reactions. Without this pause, this detachment from the immediacy of our physical existence, we cannot make choices, only reactions. Who is the Self who witnesses this life, not the reactive one, but the one without judgement, the pure observer. Can you begin to touch this space within yourself?

It is this development of consciousness that can begin to address the symptomatic states of our fellow humans who are suffering. From here, many higher states of consciousness exist, yet this is the one that shifts us into the beginning mastery of this material vehicle. Self-mastery is the necessary initial growth, which begins the long journey home to our true Selves.

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