‘You are not your thoughts.’ The first time I heard this idea I was lying in Savasana. My yoga teacher was urging the class to observe our thoughts - drifting through our awareness like clouds drifting across an open sky…without judgment…without trying to control anything…just noticing. ‘You are not your thoughts’ she said. ‘There is a you that is separate from your thoughts; that can sit back and observe yourself thinking.’ Hearing this and feeling the truth of it in that moment made me feel so … relieved.
The truth is, on the average day, I have A LOT of terrible thoughts and urges … from wanting to slam on the brakes when someone is tailgating me on the highway to wanting to throat punch anyone that makes loud slurping & chewing sounds when they eat (see misophonia)
If I was my thoughts, I would be a horrible human being.
Thankfully, we live in a world where only the thoughts we actually act on have an impact on the world (Phew! Ammiright?). It’s also fortunate that we have the ability to step outside of our thoughts and choose which ones to act on. This ability is called Witness Consciousness or Sakshi, in Sanskrit. Developing Sakshi is a key part of a yogi’s spiritual development.
BECOMING A SAKSHIN
We often equate ourselves with our thoughts. This is part of a Western philosophical idea passed down to us from a man named Descartes who famously asserted ‘I think therefore I am’. However, the yoga tradition regards the true Self as a level of consciousness that exists outside of our thoughts. Sakshi (saa-kshe) is the true Self. The root words Sa means ‘with’ and aksha means ‘senses or eyes’. A Sakshin is a person that is able to get outside of their thoughts and look at them ‘with their own eyes’. They see their thoughts as transient; just passing through their awareness. Not as the source of their identity. Like many Sanskrit words, the root word ‘aksha’ has multiple meanings and when we dig into other definitions, we get a more nuanced understanding of this concept.
Aksha can also refer to the center of a wheel. When a wheel turns its spokes revolve around a central hub, which is still. The capacity to remain steady while events are turning around us is another way of think about the meaning of Sakshi – like being the still eye at the center of a storm.
Aksha also means ‘spiritual wisdom’. Wisdom begins with the recognition that you are not your thoughts. Your internal landscape of thoughts, feelings, urges and sensations is constantly shifting and changing. The true Self is a consistent, unchanging level of awareness that is conscious of these transient experiences moving through you.
Everyone has the capacity to be a Sakshin – to observe what’s happening in our minds directly and yet remain detached.
WHY WITNESS CONSCIOUSNESS MATTERS TO YOUR EVERYDAY LIFE
You’ve gotta be able to get outside your thoughts and urges in order to evaluate which ones are worth acting on and which ones are worth letting go. This directly relates to your ability to make choices that enhance peace and well-being.
Obstacles, unexpected circumstances, and annoying people are 100% guaranteed to manifest themselves in your daily life (dammit!). When you inevitably bump up against one of these uncomfortable situations, it’s easy to get swept up into a reactive state. Trouble often starts when we simply react - without taking a pause.
A lot of the work we do in yoga relates to widening the gap between stimulus and response. So we can consciously choose our choices instead of being reflexively reactive. That’s how you successfully construct a path toward peace in your life and relationships.
HOW TO TAKE A PAUSE
In Kripalu Yoga, they use a technique called ‘BRFWA’ (pronounced burf-wuh) – a clunky acronym - and a useful technique for cultivating witness consciousness. BRFWA stands for:
BRFWA takes practice because it goes against our natural instincts when we feel threatened. For example, when someone cuts you off in traffic there’s a really strong instinct toward your fight/flight/freeze response. You can slip into reactive mode in a blink. That’s not always a bad thing. When you react to being cut off in traffic by swerving out of harm’s way your amygdala momentarily highjacks your brain so you can reflexively do what you have to for survival.
It’s a problem when your amygdala is frequently in the driver’s seat of your life. When your partner is late (again), or they cut their toenails in bed (and just leave them sitting there) or in any conflict situation, there’s the potential for your brain to get highjacked by stress chemistry. THAT cuts you off from your ability to choose your reactions and conduct yourself from a place of wisdom, freedom and compassion.
If you review your personal history of bad behaviour you’ll notice those actions were frequently the result of reflex rather than reflection.
BRFWA teaches you HOW to take a pause and observe powerful mental and emotional experiences moving through you - without reacting. Tuning into your experiences this way gives you the tools to diffuse potentially catastrophic reactions – like giving in to road rage and running other drivers off the road, drinking to numb negative thoughts/feelings and picking fights over toenail clippings on the bed … BRFWA practice trains us to navigate sticky situations with more grace and intelligence.
MORE PRACTICES TO HELP YOU TAP INTO WITNESS CONSCIOUSNESS
1) Breath Awareness
Practice being a passive observer of your breath. Can you just watch your breath come and go without anticipating or controlling anything? Give this 60-second awareness practice a try.
2) Yin Yoga
Yin yoga is quiet and still. Poses are held for long periods (like, 2 – 10 minutes). In those long periods of stillness, lots of things can come up – physical sensations, feelings of restlessness, boredom, annoyance, the urge to fidget... As you sit and observe the changing inner landscape of your thoughts and sensations, you learn how to sit with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. You train yourself to widen the gap between stimulus and response. In the space between stimulus and response, you BRFWA. Yin yoga practice is a wonderful training ground for learning how to witness yourself.
This is one of my all-time favourite Yin poses. Pigeon at the wall. Set a timer for 2 - 4 minutes.. Once you've settled into a comfortable position, observe thoughts and sensations without moving until the time's up. Then do the other side.
This video by Headspace nicely illustrates how to detach from the thoughts and feelings moving through you and shift into witness consciousness.
One of the most useful aspects of Witness Consciousness is that it shifts the way you relate to your thoughts. It helps you recognize that indeed, you are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are fleeting - like clouds that drift across the sky. Here one minute; gone the next.
Your brain is a random thought generator. It’s going to spin stories because that’s what brains do.
When your brain is operating in its default mode, you’re subject to a near-constant stream-of-consciousness narrative that interprets and makes up stories about your experiences. Mindfulness practice develops your ability to step outside of the mental chatter, allowing you to recognize the difference between what is objectively true (present moment awareness) and what is story telling and judgment (your thoughts about what is happening). When you can recognize the difference between thoughts about reality and reality itself, you can decide which thoughts are worth paying attention to and which to ignore.
You don’t have to believe or listen to every thought your mind conjures up.
When you cease to identify with your thoughts you can identify with Sakshi, a wiser part of your consciousness that allows you to choose actions that lead to peace and well-being.