Imagine that you are standing under a waterfall. The water pounds down on your head and shoulders and pins your feet to the ground. The steady rush of water feels good. At times, it feels ecstatic.
But often the force of the water is too much. It hurts. You want it to stop. You tilt your body slightly, hoping to find a gap in the sheets of water cascading down on you. You do, and for a moment the pain lessens. But then the full force of the water finds you again. The pain is intense. You feel trapped.
Now imagine that one day, for no reason you can think of, you step back from the waterfall. You had no idea there was a space behind you the whole time, a cavern cut into the rock that easily accommodates your frame. The relief you feel is immense. Your body feels light. You witness the water pouring down inches from your nose. The inches seem like miles. Now the water begins to flow from you. Tears of joy are streaming down your cheeks. You have stepped away from the steady rush of water, from the endless cycle of pleasure and pain you’d been experiencing for as long as you can remember.
We spend our lives immersed in a flood of thoughts, unaware that another dimension of consciousness is available to us. It is a dimension in which we come to know ourselves as something other than thinkers. By taking a step back, we become the witness of our thoughts. Of the millions of steps we’ve taken in our lives, this subtle but radical step may be the most important because it leads to a profound sense of peace.
We cannot think our way into this witnessing dimension. It only emerges when thought subsides, hopping like a bunny from the bushes when the coast is clear. The thoughts that pleaded for our attention gradually recede in the presence of our steady, witnessing gaze. In this transformative moment we have stepped back from the flow of thought into the serene space of our awareness.
This space is not as mystical as it might seem. Haven’t we all experienced moments when we’ve witnessed the thoughts flowing through our minds without getting dragged into their current?
Have you ever quarreled with someone and refrained from expressing a hurtful thought that surfaced in your mind? How were you able to perceive that thought? Was it illuminated by the light of your awareness?
Have you ever sat on an airplane, minutes before takeoff, fearing that it was going to crash and that you’d never see your loved ones again? What stopped you from unbuckling your seatbelt and bolting for the door? Was it because you were aware, if only vaguely, that the thoughts parading through your mind were a bit farfetched?
We experience these brief but revealing glimpses of our witnessing capacity without recognizing their value. We move past them inattentively, the way we might a Rembrandt at a yard sale. But to spend one clear-eyed moment in this space is to observe that the territory of thought is limited, that it is easily contained within the greater space of our awareness. This flash of insight will awaken us to a new identity. By observing thought, we are born as its witness.
If we wish to dwell rather than dart in and out of in this vibrant dimension, we must do more than simply change the way we think; we must change our relationship with thought. We must become its ever-present witness to avoid being its ever-suffering accomplice. Helpful one moment and devious the next, thought is like a petulant child requiring our constant attention.
As thought’s witness, we are its master. We can summon it if we wish to bake a cake or split an atom, and dismiss it when it shows up uninvited. But for this cozy relationship with thought to last, we must keep it permanently in our sights. This will take every ounce of energy we have, and at first even that won’t be enough. We have been thought’s servant for so long that we’ll continue to obey it by sheer habit.
But in time our tolerance for suffering at the hands of thought will lessen. The pleasure will no longer seem worth the pain. And those isolated moments when we glimpse the chains and pulleys driving our thought process will begin to connect like stars in a constellation. As we step further and further back from the realm of thought, we will see it in its entirety and know that we exist beyond its borders.
John’s essays explore the unquestioned assumptions that limit our capacity for happiness. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife.