Not everyone resonates with the idea of “witnessing awareness,” but it’s a very important part of the direct path. It’s not that the witness “exists.” It can just be thought of a way of going about your direct-path inquiries.
The teachings of Sri Atmananda have been called the “direct path.” Many have been inspired by these teachings, including Jean Klein, Wolter Keers, John Levy, Francis Lucille, Rupert Spira and myself. It’s called “direct” because there’s no goal to become progressively better or purer or more spiritual or more insightful. Also because attending to direct experience plays a great part.
These teachings are similar to Advaita Vedanta, and resonate with those who feel intuitively that our nature is one with all things. Global awareness is this “one.” It is the nature of knower, known, self, love and being. This setup won’t appeal to everyone, for sure. It’s nice that there are so many paths in the world! I like lots of other paths myself!
In my own treatment, I rely on witnessing awareness and global pure consciousness. But I do not say that these things really, truly exist, and by the end of your inquiry, they “depart” of their own accord.
Witness vs. Mind
I define witnessing awareness as the unseen seer, as that to which appearances appear. It is not the mind, or anything like a mind. It has no functions or psychological characteristics. It doesn’t come or go.
Why exactly is witnessing awareness different from the mind?
- The mind is itself apprehended. The mind itself appears. The witness doesn’t appear. Rather, it is that to which the mind appears.
- There are many minds, but not many awarenesses. There is a sense that the witness, as seer, is not only unseen, but non-physical. We may think of the mind as being associated with the brain, and there are many brains. But we don’t think of awareness in that way. We can’t make out borders in order to separate awareness(es).
- Witnessing awareness is not inside the skull. If the witness as the unseen seer is not physical, then it can’t be located inside the cranium. How can the non-physical be contained within the physical? This is revolutionary.
That’s why this teaching uses a “seer” or “knower” or “witness” which is said to be global and non-personal. This is a starting characterization, and it gets highly refined and thinned out to nothing, the farther through the path you go.
Other Reasons to Use the Witness Model
- The path of Advaita uses something very like it, and Advaita has successes.
- The model of witnessing awareness vs. objects arising and being seen by witnessing awareness – this model takes advantage of our everyday intuitions that we are somehow the seer of objects, and that objects arise and are seen. We feel more on the “seer” side of things than the “seen” side.
- The teachings of witnessing awareness utilize these everyday impressions and use these impressions to help us overcome them, to help us experience directly that there aren’t gaps or areas of separation in experience.
- The model is deconstructed at the very end.
But of course, not everyone feels this in a deep way. If you have already spent time in a path that doesn’t use the awareness notion, then this teaching might not resonate. And if you have undergone a deconstructive inquiry into awareness, then this teaching might not resonate.
If you don’t feel a sense of this global presence/awareness thingy, then it is hard to hook into this teaching. There are many other teachings. I have found that for many people who don’t want a Big Daddy Awareness model, the radical emptiness teachings are a very good fit. They use no notion whatsoever of a global witnessing awareness, and are still nondual in their way.
A Very Important Step
I’ve found that the deconstruction of physical objects (including the body) to be the single most important step. People want to rush past this step to get to the sexy things like thoughts, feelings, free will, etc. But here’s the catch. Almost invariably, we think of thoughts and feelings and free will with the help of physical metaphors. We can’t help it. So we attribute positionality, containment and spatial relations to these subtle, non-physical things. (e.g., “thoughts in the mind,” “mind in the body,” “thoughts causing emotional pressure,” etc.) As long as we do this, we will feel limited in an almost physical way by the non-physical. This is unnecessary, and largely a trick of language. The book goes into this in great detail.
But if we work with the book in order, and begin by deconstructing physicality completely, we will no longer think or experience in physical terms. We will then no longer think of mental things along the lines of physical things. It is then that we begin to understand witnessing awareness much more clearly, and amazingly enough, witnessing awareness begins to become less and less real and substantial at the same time. Our global experience is much lighter and freer as our notion of physicality and awareness together become thinner and thinner.
To help with the deconstruction of physicality, you can read one of the most sustained critiques of physicality ever written: George Berkeley’s Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous (1713). A philosophical acquaintance of mine, and former teacher, Jonathan Bennett, has laboriously updated Berkeley’s 18th century English into more contemporary English for modern students. I was rigorously trained on this text with one of the world’s greatest Berkeley scholars, and it really, really worked to make physicality vanish!! Here is the collection of his modern renditions of Berkeley: