bearing witness to what scares you

A few weeks ago I mentioned the practice of Bearing Witness.

What does this mean really? Bearing Witness?

Let’s begin with the first part of this. To Bear. The dictionary poses several possibilities. To accept or endure (something), to be worthy of (something), take responsibility for, to assume or accept (something such as cost or responsibility). To carry. To hold.

In these definitions willingness plays a part. Acceptance. I bear this task and I accept what it means to bear it. A resolve is present. Sure we might bear something because we have no choice – like an illness or a difficult time in our life. We push against it because we feel forced into it. Acceptance can be hard if I feel I did not have a choice.

Not the same.

Bearing Witness talks of something else. Bearing Witness requires an openness, not a toleration. It requires you to arrive, I think. Half the battle right there – to arrive. This can be harder than it sounds. Sure you can get in the car, drive to someone and arrive at their door. Your body arrives, but what about the rest of you? Your attention? Your mind? How often have you received support from someone and felt they would rather be somewhere else? Yes they stand in front of you, maybe out of obligation, but without focus.

Bearing asks that you arrive, actually arrive, with your whole self. You can focus and be right there. You can step in fully – even if you are unsure the landscape. It might be joyous, anxious, confused, angry. All of the above. Yet you step in. That is Step One. Am I willing to show up fully? No auto pilot. I am willing to pay attention – attention to the other and attention to myself.

This attention requires that I hold, that I bear, what I experience. It requires that I support. The act of bearing is not to experience burden, at least in the negative context. You help hold the burden of another, but you do this with clarity. It is clean – without guilt. There is no “this better be worth my effort” energy at all. You do it openly. Willingly.

Because it is needed.

We let go of the notion of “putting up with.” Of tolerating. To “bear” leaps far beyond this limitation. It pushes us to relate to our ego, our self. To bear is ultimate generosity. We give simply to give. We bring our full self. Clear. Open. Grounded. No agenda. No fixing. Just silence and space. Just a deep breath and a steadiness.

When the ground of bearing is this way – then the witnessing arrives differently. We see in a different way.

After all, what are willing to see? Pain? Suffering? Can we look and stay with this? So often we move away from these situations in our culture. I’m ok with good things, good times. Someone sick? Move away. Someone emotional? Move away. Someone dying? Move away. Someone disabled?

You get the idea.

I’ve spent time with many whose loved one died suddenly. No warning. A year later they still struggle to make meaning of the loss, to understand what happened. To let go of guilt and shame. They also find that their friends and family become bothered that they still hold on. They do not understand why this person can’t just move on – get on with their life. Fear drives these expressions. Fear that they too might be like this if a loved one dies. Fear of death. Even fear about how to be, how to act. For a little while it was alright, but long term exposure becomes challenging.

To bear requires no cut off date.

What scares you the most? What situations do you step away from? I ask because you can step towards these situations. Step closer to them, so that you touch shoulders. Nestle in and stay awhile. Past the fear and discomfort. Bearing Witness requires you to stay awhile. To settle in and see it through. To work with your confusion of how to be and stay anyway, even if it feels awkward. Bearing just needs you to be honest.

Bernie Glassman, one of the great teachers of Bearing Witness, spent the last 40+ years encouraging people to step into difficult situations and push through their fear and resistance. He brings people into places of suffering, like Auschwitz in Poland. This year is the 19th year of doing this retreat. He gets descendants of the Holocaust, survivor and perpetrator, to sit in a room at Auschwitz and listen to each other’s stories. Not arguing or yelling, but really listening to the pain each side holds. Then during the day these same people go and sit in various parts of the camp. They sit and meditate. They bring their attention to the place, to what happened there.

“What is this process of witnessing, or bearing witness, that is more than just seeing? When we bear witness to a situation, we become each and every aspect of that situation. When we bear witness to Auschwitz, at that moment there is no separation between us and the people who died. There is also no separation between us and the people who killed. We ourselves, as individuals, with our identities and ego structure, disappear, and we become the terrified people getting off the trains, the indifferent or brutal guards, the snarling dogs, the doctor who points right or left, the smoke and ash belching from the chimneys.

When we bear witness to Auschwitz, we are nothing but all the elements of Auschwitz. It is not an act of will, it is an act of letting go. What we let go of is the concept of the person we think we are. It's why we start from unknowing. Only then can we become all the voices of the universe – those that suffer, those that inflict suffering, and those that stand idly by. For we are all these people. We are the universe.” -Bernie Glassman (1996)

Auschwitz may feel far away and of another time. Yet look at the news. We harm each other every day. We kill each other everyday. The experiences of Auschwitz repeated still in various ways despite the lessons. This November the retreat is happening again for those who might want to go. Here is a link:

We don’t face our fear, our indifference or our anger. We don’t step away from our comfort zone. We look from a distance. But can we step closer? Can we expose ourselves to what we avoid?

You can start this slowly. It can begin with just paying attention to your neighborhood. Perhaps you have a friend who needs support. Would you be willing to show up for them no matter how long it took? Even if they got stuck or lost in their process, could you still be there for them?

Only by trying will you build this ability to “bear” for others. It’s like strengthening a muscle. It takes time but each day you work to build it until its strong. Then you can challenge yourself to face those fears that truly scare you.

Here is another example.

Someone is dying. Slowly. Breath labored. When they move they wince in pain. The medication helps a little but the tumor on their back makes lying in bed a challenge. Their lips parched, they ask you for a sip of water. They can only take a few drops otherwise they choke. They share the room with another patient and the television loudly announces the next reality show. With staff coming in and out the activity in the room is brisk. The person grabs for your hand and does not let go when they do.

Are you still in the room? Are you inching away?

Let’s say this person is alone. The room is quiet, so if you do go in it’s just you there. You alone with a dying person. The person is 80 years old. Does that make it easier? How about 60. Or 40. Or 25. What if this person is a child? 10 years old. Perhaps that tumor I mentioned is pushing out of the skin. The smell of it fills the room. A smell hard to describe but distinct. Maybe this is a stranger, maybe it is someone close to you.

Are you still there? Still in the room?

What can we bear? Sometimes imagining our fears and practicing there first can help. Then volunteer at a hospital. Sit with someone who is ill. Go serve food at a shelter. Step out of your routine. Arrive somewhere and offer your generosity. Without agenda. Without trying to get something.

Take time tonight or tomorrow and ask yourself this. What can you “bear”? What can you hold?

Then leave a comment and share what you think.

Next we will look more into the second part of this – Witnessing.

Until then – To Your Health.

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