I’m often asked why I meditate, and there’s a lot of hype right now in popular media around all the good meditation can do for you. I don’t disagree with all the mental and physical health benefits, and I’ve experience many of these benefits first hand. It would be the first to say though that, while some of those benefits drew me into it, they most definitely are not what has kept me coming back.

So now you’re probably wondering, if it isn’t the freedom from stress, the mental clarity, etc. that keeps you practicing what more can there possibly be? For me, it was coming to the realization that there really wasn’t anything broken or needing fixing in the first place because it helped me to start seeing past my judgments of myself.

I am definitely not going to profess that I’m free of judgement. There’s certainly a lifetime’s worth of work there for me. Some days I’m in ‘the zone’ and I’m find myself just being with the mystery that is me, and others I’m caught up completely in self judgement and wondering if I’m good enough or just enough. However, I’ve found my practice has gotten me to a place where I’m catching myself at it more and learning to release my judgments, of myself and others, more readily as well.

When you question your thoughts, the thing that was the matter with you begins to show up as nothing.

Byron Katie

This practice has been huge for me because it woke me up to how much time I was spending in judgement of myself and by extension others. And really, a lot of my judgement of others stemmed from judgments I had initially passed on myself, and was using it as a yardstick to see how I ‘measured up’.

 

I also began to wake up to the realization that everyone was dealing with this judgmental voice in their head. I was at a conference once where the speaker (and I sincerely apologize because I can’t recall her name) called it the ‘itty bitty shitty committee’. Realizing we all have this committee commentating on our every move, no matter how beautiful/well-off/smart/sexy/skinny/etc. we are, was massively insightful because I felt like I wasn’t in it alone any longer. Also, that having any of those things was never going to make shut of the committee. The biggest insight for me though was that I didn’t have to listen to or, more importantly, even believe the committee.

Resilience to this committee is built up by meditation through what is often referred to as ‘the witness’. While meditators have known this ‘witnessing’ capacity was there for centuries, modern neuroscience can now demonstrate that there’s actually a portion of our prefrontal cortex devoted to this mental activity. It’s the portion of our brain that knows there’s a doer that is in engaged in activity. And as far as we know, this is a very human trait.

The witness is like a movie camera, it captures the actions or the thoughts in a still frame with out any commentary. When there’s no commentary on your thoughts or actions there’s no judgement. You just say ‘She is getting noticeably angry’ or ‘He is sitting on a sofa eating chips’. There’s no good or bad attached to it, it’s just noticing what is happening right now.

This may seem cold and detached at first, but so often we’re caught in such a net of our own drama we lose all perspective. We can’t ‘see the forest for the trees’ so to speak. Taking a big giant step back and looking at life without all the judgement eliminates a lot of the drama, and allows the necessary space and perception for clarity.

While this perception shift doesn’t always stop me from getting sucked into the drama at least I don’t feel the need to beat myself up about it later. When I’ve become overwhelmed and angry or frustrated or sad or whatever emotion and drama is coming up, later I’m able to step back and say, ‘Ok, that’s not how I’d hoped things would go. That’s all right though, today just wasn’t the day and there will be many more opportunities for me to choose differently next time.’

Meditation does not give you any character directly. It does not say what to do and what not to do. It never gives you any commandments. It simply gives you a technique for becoming more aware, for being more alert, watchful, witnessing.

Osho

While this perception shift doesn’t always stop me from getting sucked into the drama at least I don’t feel the need to beat myself up about it later. When I’ve become overwhelmed and angry or frustrated or sad or whatever emotion and drama is coming up, later I’m able to step back and say, ‘Ok, that’s not how I’d hoped things would go. That’s all right though, today just wasn’t the day and there will be many more opportunities for me to choose differently next time.’

Building the witness is only one piece of the puzzle though, the other is simultaneously working at building compassion for yourself. Tara Brach, a psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher, always says that radical self-acceptance has two parts like the wings of a bird: awareness (build through the witness) and loving kindness. You must both see what is there without judgement and accept yourself as you see it with all the lumps and bumps. The way a mother loves her child and accepts the child as a whole person. Actively building awareness and loving kindness into my practice has been profound, and certainly given wings to my soul.

As Susan Piver points out in her book Start Here Now, the act of sitting down with the willingness to simply be with yourself as you are, whether you show up in your most brilliant or feeblest form, relaxes the inner critic and gives space for self-acceptance. This space allows for the realization that it’s not so much about finally becoming the person you have always wanted to be, but instead it is about constantly affirming your allegiance to who you already are and what you’re becoming. We can begin to recognize we are on a journey to becoming our fully authentic self, and that it is not really a race. True exploration requires time and patience.

By regarding ourselves with kindness, we begin to dissolve the identity of an isolated, deficient self. This creates the grounds for including others in an unconditionally loving heart.

Tara Brach

We also can begin to distance ourselves from engaging so much in comparisons. We begin to realize that we hold ourselves up to unfair standards when we are constantly comparing our insides to everyone else’s outsides. We can never truly know what is going on inside another, so even when people seemingly have it together, the truth is that it can be a false.

 

As it chips away at your concepts, stories and judgements, meditation opens your heart for to yourself. When we can give up stories about ourselves and our life, we are left with things as they are. One day you may even find you no longer need to take refuge in the stories, and you begin to forgo unexamined projections and biases. When you’re open, unguarded and inquisitive, you begin to sense that not only are you incredibly vulnerable, so is everyone else.

When you have a sense of gentleness toward yourself and others, something quite extraordinary happens. You relax. Whether things go well or poorly on any particular day, you can deal with it because you know how to remain soft and open. You are right here, open to your life and this world in this present moment where you’re connected into the present, natural wisdom, beauty, and peace of your own mind.

From this place of wisdom and beauty insight arises, and a level of clarity and understanding seem to arise seemingly from nowhere. You perceive patterns and connections you had not noticed before.  It feels almost as though your mind is expanding and you are one with the flow of your own life because you’ve finally stopped trying to win the war of changing it to be something other than what it is. 

The greatest thing you can do for another human being is to get your own house in order and find your true spiritual heart.

Ram Dass

In this way meditation doesn’t ‘fix’ you, it allows you to awaken to the beauty that is the mystery of you and embrace it all. That is the root of beating all dis-ease. 

I’m not at a place where I live in this experience constantly every day, but I’ve had enough glimpses into it and enough tastes of it to know it’s definitely where I strive to be. And that is what keeps me coming back to the cushion at the crack of dawn every morning.

Meditating on Witnessing

For the next two weeks take 5 minutes each day to soak into just noticing what is happening around you and inside you with out judgement. Find a space where you can sit in relative comfort and quiet. A little background noise is fine, and for this meditation may actually be helpful.

Sit up in a comfortable yet alert position. Close your eyes and bring your attention inward and begin to scan your body from head to toe As you are scanning noticing an areas that may be tense, tight, sore, sensitive, etc. and use these simple labels to take note. If there is an area that is particularly uncomfortable, you may need to spend a moment relaxing it before moving on. This is fine just keep with the simple labels of what you are doing in that moment – relaxing, releasing, adjusting, leaning into, etc. Just keep all your focus on noticing and simply labelling what you are doing in the moment with no judgement.

That scan might be enough for you and you can stop there. If you want more, try to then move your witnessing outside you. Notice sensations of sounds, smells, touch and tastes, and continue to use simple labels for what you are noticing without bringing in any judgement – honking, sirens, yelling, cooking, sausages, dry, cool, hot, tangy, etc.

If this is comfortable for you, you can sit in this noticing for longer and longer periods. You can also turn your witnessing back inward to your thoughts. Labeling your thoughts at they arise without judgement. You can simply note thought, image, imagining, etc. and as each arise just gently release them like you were releasing a balloon into the sky and watching it drift away.

You can stay with this exercise for as long as it is comfortable for you or for the length of time you have available that day. When you’re done, slowly come back into the space and daily activities around you, but see if you can continue to hold onto or step into that sensation at different points in your day. If you’d like to try a real challenge, see if you can step into that witnessing space when you are emotionally triggered by something.

As you practice your witnessing, notice what that does for you during the course of your day and week. Do you feel greater clarity in places of your life? Is there a sense of spaciousness that begins to open up for you? Do you sense an ability to open up more to yourself and accept what is coming up?