The “Paper Witness”
Nonduality’s “witness” teaching is sometimes misunderstood as an effort to create a witnessing position and occupy it 24/7. As in “Be the witness.” The idea is to hang out there and know that you are the master of all you survey. We may even understand the teaching to say that this witness can stay on the job, and that this vigilance will somehow merge into enlightenment. I’ve never actually heard a teacher or teaching say this, but I’ve encountered this interpretation among students who are working with a “witness” notion. To me, this interpretation sounds laborious and a bit bossy. No wonder some people don’t like witness teachings!
Sri Atmananda’s direct path calls this kind of constructed position a “paper witness,” or a “videocam operator.” In Zen they call it “a head on top of your head.”
It’s impossible for this kind of witness to persist 24/7. It’s just a subtle object, and can’t even see anything. Nothing appears to it. And for ANY object, even if you get it to stick around for a long time, it will get interrupted by deep sleep. Sooner or later this “paper” witness will fail at the job of remaining continuous, unbroken and vigilant.
The direct path’s witness teaching is very different. Instead trying to be a witness, one tries to see how witnessing is already the case. You are nothing other than witnessing awareness, the brilliant clarity to which appearances appear. You can’t make a witness like this! You can’t behold it either. It is pure happiness, love and open clarity. Objects may appear, or they may not. Either way, you are this same open clarity.
Sri Atmananda distinguishes between being a witness and knowing that you are the witness – a huge difference.
He talks a little more about it in NOTES 120, 6th April 1951.
120. ‘TO KNOW THAT YOU ARE THE WITNESS’ AND ‘TO BE A WITNESS’ (NOTE 120, 6th April 1951)
These are entirely different things. But you should not try to know that you are the knower. Both together are impossible. Your knowership is objectless and can never be objectified.
You are always the witness. But you need not attempt deliberately to take the role of a witness. Only take note of the fact that you are always the witness.
You are asked to strengthen the conviction that you are the knower, in order to counteract the old samskaras that you are the doer, enjoyer etc. Though the substance of doership and enjoyership is effaced, the samskaras might still remain as shadows.
You are only to argue in your mind how you are always the real knower, and repeat the arguments over and over again. The time will come when the arguments will become unnecessary, and a mere thought will take you to the conclusion. Gradually, you will find that even when you do not think about the Truth, and whether you are engaged or not engaged in activities, you will feel without feeling that you are always the witness and that you are not affected by any activity or inactivity of the mind and senses in the relative sphere.
Witnessing is silent awareness. Do not try to make it active in any way. Consciousness never takes any responsibility for proving the existence or the non-existence of an object.