Last week we stepped into the subject of Bearing Witness.
We began with the first part “to bear”. For this all to work we must be willing to show up in the first place. To arrive. To be open to the moment and not scared to step into places we might feel scared of. We must be able to “bear” or hold what we witness. Not tolerate or withstand, but be willing to carry if it’s required of us.
This week we look at the second half of this practice. To Witness. Again if we look at the trusty dictionary we find that “witness” or “witnessing” holds the definition “to see, hear, or know by personal presence and perception.” Often this seeing involves some form of expression, such as speaking to what we’ve seen. The word usually connects to witnessing a crime or other bad event.
When we Bear Witness however, something else happens. In our willingness to step into a situation, we take on the willingness to truly “see” what arises before us. Since what we step into might scare us, being able to see that fear is crucial. From there we can work with it. Welcome it.
Personal Presence and Perception
The notion of “know by personal presence and perception” plays a key role to being a witness. By stepping into the situation with awareness and openness, we begin to understand what a person might be going through in that situation. We touch into their experience. We are not removed and cold like an uninterested observer. We see the good, the bad and the ugly of the situation without judgement. If we’re there to support someone, then that support benefits from our engaged presence.
Last week I mentioned those retreats at Auschwitz. (See Part One) Part of taking time each day to sit in various areas of the camp to meditate involves taking time to see and feel the place. To get a tactile, visceral experience so that the place moves from something abstract to something real. We touch into what those people 70 years ago experienced, if even for a moment. We feel the ground, the cold metal of the railroad tracks, the hardness of the bricks. When we do it takes us out of our intellect. That kind of grounding helps us touch into something more primal and base. It gets us into our body, rooting our feet to the ground.
We need this to witness. I can’t stress this enough – we become engaged. We do not take on the distant approach, detached to the scene before us. If we willingly get our hands dirty we can arrive more fully in the way I mentioned already. It helps get the sense of “ourself” out of the way. It helps us to see all the points of view present in an place like Auschwitz, because they all shared the same space.
Bearing Witness asks us to pay attention. To keep our minds clear of distractions. To turn off our cell phones and stop Tweeting. To truly “see” we need to be attentive.
A few years ago I joined a homeless retreat in Denver. Not surprisingly Bernie Glassman created this style of retreat years ago. (He knows where to place people to get them out of their comfort zone for sure!) For a week a group of us lived homeless, each day looking for food and shelter. Each day sharing our experiences with each other. We carried with us an ID but no money. We also never took a bed from someone who was actually homeless. We slept outside. We slept at a church.
One important component became taking time to talk with other people who were truly homeless when we ate at a soup kitchen or shelter. We took time listening to the experiences of those on the street. The challenges, the good and the scary. We did this as friends, not to get some kind of “story”. We did this to learn, to understand better the place we walked. We learned their stories. How they got there and where they wanted to go. They were not a curiosity. They were people with a story. A story that could be ours. After all, life can change in an instant.
One day we spent the morning near a popular coffee shop downtown. For me the experience of “knowing by personal presence” became real that morning as I received some horrid looks from people going to work with their lattes. We watched the body language shift as people walked by. We looked a little ragged. We looked like we slept on the street. One woman, when seeing us, pulled her coffee drink to the other side of her body as if we planned to grab it from her hands.
It hurt when she did that. Then I remembered something. Walking the streets of New York City growing up, I had similar reactions to homeless people in places like Penn Station. She helped me see myself and my reactions. I was not different from her.
I needed to step into the place I feared to see this clearly.
Witnessing is like this. We see ourselves and we see others. We see how fear drives us. How it separates us. If we can Bear Witness to this then maybe we can start to let that fear go.
Speaking To What We See
The other part of the definition for witness involves this notion of speaking or sharing what we’ve seen. In Bearing Witness we do take the time to speak to what we see. To share from a place of open heart, without critique. We do this with others willing to sit with us and listen, not correct or judge, but actually witness because they can “bear” our feelings.
Bearing Witness is a communal act. We benefit from speaking and from listening. Here we do not swear in front of a judge recounting the details of a crime we witnessed. Instead we swear to be genuine humans. We recall feelings and emotions. We remember our senses and what we learned about the place we stepped into. We willingly share our fears and confusions and in the space of Bearing Witness they are accepted. We can give and receive compassion.
Can you imagine what would change in the world if we did this with each other? Can you imagine what we could change? Heal? Transform? The practice of Bearing Witness pulls us out of “thinking” and into more genuine interactions with each other. As Gandhi demonstrated many times, true peace came when each side in a conflict took the time to truly understand the other. To see how the other person lived and struggled. To see that each side generally wanted joy and happiness just like anyone else. Only then could they find resolution to the conflict.
What a concept.
The question now becomes what situation will you bear witness to? Whose story will you listen to? What viewpoint will you be willing to understand, feeling the texture of the ground around you? Step into their shoes.
It can be simple. Just try it – as we like to say here at Organic MD.
Then let us know what happened. Leave a comment.
Also check out Bernie Glassman’s book Bearing Witness. It’s a great read.
To Your Health.