Why do we start with witnessing?

Several years ago I went with the UCC youth group  to the Oglala Lakota Reservation in Pine Ridge, S.Dakota for a Mission Work Week.  The intentions we went with were totally changed by the time we had been there for 2 days because our intentions were to provide “work” for these Lakota peoples and that they would want our missionary help.  Well, this second day was when my eyes were opened to what that experience needed to be and I worked really hard to change my intention in that moment.  This is an example of  Bearing Witness with the intention of compassionate action.  What happened is the Lakota just wanted us to sit with them and hear their stories and open our hearts to their suffering.  They didn’t want us to fix them, or do a work project for them, they wanted us to hang out with them and witness them, in their brokenness. Period. And when we did, they warmed up and shared their dances and their drumming and their food with us.  Their women came and taught us their crafts and cooking, and we sang songs and held their babies.  By midweek, it was clear we were there to sense and experience their lives and their hearts —that was a deep respect and loving response they hadn’t gotten enough of from us whites.

I’ve learned now that what they really needed is called “Bearing Witness”. If our minds and hearts were more focused on Witnessing, or just sensing without judgment and with empathy whatever was arising and allowing a mutual exchange in that relationship, we could have let go of our belief that they wanted us to do a work project.  When we can open our minds and notice what is really happening in the present relationship, this is called “Not-knowing Mind”. These first two steps come from Roshi Joan Halifax’s description of the Zen Peacekeeper Order and the three steps are:  1) Not-knowing Mind: Letting go of fixed ideas about ourselves and the world, 2) The Practice of Bearing Witness (as defined above) and 3) Compassionate action, or an appropriate response and action that arises out of steps 1 & 2 and what is right in that relationship right there in the moment of witnessing.

Another word for Bearing Witness is Attunement.  Daniel Siegel, M.D, an attachment specialist, has written at length about attunement.  His definition is “how we focus our attention on others and take their essence into our own world.” (The Mindful Therapist, p. 34).  But in this process of tuning into someone else, we also encounter our own perceptions about what we are experiencing.  These personal biases, expectations, experiences are coming from inside of us and yet they can deeply impact the relationship we are trying to have with the other person.  He calls this “top-down constraints imprison us from experiencing the bottom-up flow of incoming data.”  So, in order to truly witness or attune to someone else, we have to know how to navigate our own prisons of memories, thoughts, and biases and be in a more open state of presence.  This takes some focus and work in Stages 1 & 2 skills of the Midlife Voyage.

Mindfulness, or self-witnessing, teaches us how to do this.  When we desire to witness or attune to another, we must also tune into our own internal shifts in our body as well—our own ability to get self-awareness.

The compassionate response is  learned from witnessing or attuning to ourselves.

When we direct our attention inward with curiosity and non-judgment, with an openness to what is there, we can see what lies beneath the surface.  Maybe it’s our desire to help others that makes us feel better inside when we want to offer witness to others, but is that what the relationship desires?

When I sat with the Lakota women, they did not want me to help them with their pain by hugging them or saying “I’m so sorry.” In that relationship as an outsider to them, they wanted to be seen in their totality, respected and allowed to share their sorrow and joy just as it was right there naked and real.  They wanted me to witness their wholeness as a Lakota People, because that was what they desired.  When they felt witnessed by outsiders like us, they felt more humanized, more healed by our witnessing.  It was all there — the joy of their lives was intertwined in the mystery of how they faced difficulty and worked with it —something I wasn’t familiar with at all at that time.  The challenge to me was letting it all be there without wanting to take it away from them or make it better.  That was my desire, not theirs.

Witnessing is what we do when we come together as a woman’s group or woman’s retreat. 

This is the first step of our Stage 3 on the Midlife Voyage: Deep Diving.  When we learn to self-witness in Stages 1 & 2 with mindfulness and self-compassion, we are then ready to witness others as we go deeper into our own ocean of compassion and wholeness.  We see the deeper capacity of ourselves to truly “see” our bare reality,  and we see the bare reality of others with this same clarity and openness.  We see a full mandala of who they are because we have expanded ourselves first.

Finding an open state of presence from which to Bear Witness takes a bit of practice and the self-awareness to see how to open your capacity for truly compassionate action— not just reacting with empathy or a need to fix.  And, not reacting out of your need to help others so that you feel better when you notice someone is suffering.

When we learn to witness others in this way, especially people who are different than us, we expand what I call our “Compassion Container.”  This container grows when we truly tap into our own suffering and Deep Dive into our own pain enough —to truly witness ourselves.  Self-attunement is a skill that can be learned from deep practice, yoga or mindfulness, or nature practice where you can develop a keen sense of what you are holding inside and investigate it.  It is an important Mooring, or tool for Stage 2 on the Midlife Voyage:Finding a Mooring.

When you see yourself more deeply in this way, in compassionate self-witness, first see your wholeness as a person, your full mandala.  In IFS we call this the Compassionate SELF, the greater sense of you and this is also your Goodness, the Divine sense of you.  Then, from this Greater SELF,  you turn towards your parts and invite the parts of you that are broken to speak out.  You are ready to witness them.   When we learn to do this for ourselves, we have expanded our compassion for ourselves, we have opened up to self-love and self-forgiveness so that we can release our suffering and find peace inside.  From this self-witnessing comes the ability to follow these three steps of taking this compassionate action into the world to witness others. 

This witnessing is the way we can all begin to acknowledge that we are all in this world together and can respect each other compassionately connect with each other.