The Familiar Stranger: The Eternal Witness

When I think myself back into memories of childhood, I become aware of a strange phenomenon. If I focus on remembering not the actual external events but the nature, texture, quality of my internal configuration of feelings at the time, the specific way my awareness ‘watched’ or ‘looked out’ onto these events and inner feelings from somewhere ‘behind my eyes’, I realise, with a slight sense of shock and delight, that there is no difference whatsoever between then and now.

It could be argued that this is merely a trick of memory, that I am merely projecting back my current consciousness onto that of my childhood. However, I am absolutely certain that this is not the case.  I know, deeply, that despite all my many external and mental changes, exactly the same kind of ‘feeling-awareness’ was present then as it is now. Both the content of consciousness and the trappings of my social masks or personalities may have changed radically, but the ‘how’, the specific feeling-quality of the space or ‘container’ of this consciousness, within which this content and these personalities happen, has not. This core ‘feeling-identity’ has remained the same throughout all the developmental changes of ageing. What looked out of the eyes of that little boy sitting alone in the playground in kindergarten is the same ‘something’, or rather quality of feeling, that is looking out of my eyes now. In all its simplicity and matter-of-factness, this is a startling observation, for if it has not changed over time, it is, logically, beyond time, eternal. This seems an empirical observation; there is no need for any metaphysical speculation or religious belief.

So what are we to make of this eternally watching one inside, this one who always remains calm whatever is happening to or in oneself? This watcher deep behind the eyes, this unchanging one, this most basic stream of awareness or ‘self-feeling’, already there in the earliest childhood we can remember? Thankfully, despite the  general cloak of silence around this phenomenon in our modern cultures, evidence for the experience and existence of this eternal witness is manifold throughout our human transcultural history from the earliest written texts to contemporary poetry and science.

The Indian Upanishads (800 BCE), in characterising the Spirit or Self (Atman) –identical with Brahman or God – ‘concealed in the heart of all beings […] smaller than the smallest atom, greater than the greatest spaces’, speak of it as being an immortal inner driver, guard and witness watching but never involved in the events, feelings and behaviour of these beings.[i] It is the inner essence and driver of your breath and thinking, but your breath and thinking cannot know it. The same Svetasvatara Upanishad also uses the symbol of the human personality as the tree of life; in this tree sit the two birds of soul and Spirit, ‘two sweet friends’:

the one eats the fruits thereof, and the other looks on in silence. The first is the human soul who, resting on that tree, though active, feels sad in his unwisdom. But on beholding the power and the glory of the higher Spirit, he becomes free from sorrow. [ii]

Contemporary spiritual author James Thornton, similarly stresses the detached nature of this witnessing entity but calls it ‘soul’ and likens it to a deep untroubled stream always there underneath the turbulent surface of events.

A time comes when, if we allow it, the soul takes over all aspects of our lives. At this point, no matter what our difficulties may be, we recognize that there is a deep and untroubled stream flowing below all surface troubles and that we are one substance with that stream. The soul knows no difficulties.[iii]

The implication of this metaphor is that, as daily wrestlers with surface troubles and the deeper untroubled stream, we are both observers and observed, speakers and that which remains silent, we seem to be ‘both in this world but not of it’.

Although not always in this metaphysical and positive form, many writers and poets seem to have known this silent, immortal, witnessing other well. Such very different modern writers and poets as Vladimir Nabokov, Juan Ramon Jimenez, H-M Enzensberger, Gwen Harwood and Walt Whitman have found very similar words for the experience of the inner witness.

Near the beginning of Nabokov’s novel Bend Sinister (1945/46) there is a scene where the protagonist Krug finds himself sobbing while walking towards a bridge in a fog.[iv]  Then there is a split, a ‘dualism’ arises as he ‘discriminates’ in wonted fashion, the ‘I’ doubles, and ‘the one that looked on’ appears:

Tried clearing his throat but it merely led to another gasping sob. He was sorry now he had yielded to that temptation for he could not stop yielding and the throbbing man in him was soaked. As usual he discriminated between the throbbing one and the one that looked on: looked on with concern, with sympathy, with a sigh, or with bland surprise. This was the last stronghold of the dualism he abhorred. The square root of I is I.

The narrative then shifts into the first person. This other, both stranger and familiar, is always aloof and watches. He can teach hard lessons about emotions, identity, presumption, sex. He is both saviour and witness:

The stranger quietly watching the torrents of local grief from an abstract bank. A familiar figure, albeit anonymous and aloof. He saw me crying when I was ten and led me to a looking glass in an unused room (with an empty parrot cage in the corner) so that I might study my dissolving face. He has listened to me with raised eyebrows when I said things which I had no business to say. In every mask I tried on, there were slits for his eyes. Even at the very moment when I was rocked by the convulsion men value most. My saviour.  My witness.

Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jimenez’ version (1916/17) of the witness is remarkably similar to that of Krug/Nabokov. Here he is also a wise, compassionate guide for the ego, a definite ‘saviour’ of sorts, sometimes forgotten and yet eternal.

I am not I.

I am he

who walks at my side without my seeing him;

whom, at times, I go to see

and whom, at times, I forget.

He, who, composed, is silent when I speak,

he who, gentle, forgives when I hate,

he who walks where about where I am not,

he who will stand up straight when I die.[v]

Contemporary German poet H.M. Enzensberger’s early poem ‘the other’ is almost identical to the features of the other that Jimenez lists, even down to the denotation as ‘not I’.

one laughs

is worried 

under the sky exposes my face and my hair

makes words roll out of my mouth

one who has money and fears and a passport

one who quarrels and loves

one moves

one struggles

but not i

i am the other

who does not laugh

who has no face to expose to the sky

and no words in his mouth

who is unacquainted with me with himself

not i: the other: always the other

who neither wins nor loses

who is not worried

who does not move

the other

indifferent to himself

of whom I know nothing

of whom nobody knows who he is

who does not move me

that’s who I am[vi]

Australian poet Gwen Harwood ‘Alter Ego’ also contains echoes of such an invisible, omniscient, unnameable, indifferent, unmoved, eternal Other:

Who stands beside me still,

nameless, indifferent

to any lost or ill

motion of mind or will,

whose pulse is mine, who goes

sleepless and is not spent?


And this one, whom I greet

yet cannot name, or see

save as light’s sidelong shift,

who will not answer me,

knows what I was, will be,

and all I am: beyond

time’s desolating drift.[vii]

Walt Whitman’s ‘Me myself’ is both within and without self and world, totally immersed in the game and totally outside it. This Witness integrates all the necessary oppositions with all the ease of enlightened paradox:

Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful

               News, the fitful events;

These come to me days and nights and go from me again,

But they are not the Me myself.

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am.

Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,

Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,

Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,

Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.[viii]


In contrast, other literary references to there being a definite someone or ‘other’ inside, some unknown being almost parasitically living one’s life, can also seem somewhat seem less benign and have occurred in literature at least since early 19th century romanticism. A sense of dissociation and alienation from this internal other often prevails. There is German romanticism’s Doppelgänger motif. There is Rimbaud’s famous On me pense (‘I am being thought’) and Je est un autre (‘I is an other’). Pirandello’s 1933-34 diary entry may perhaps also be classed in this category: ‘There is someone who is living my life. And I know nothing about him.’[ix]

So can this interior witnessing entity perhaps be pathologically interpreted as a ‘schizoid’ version of the ‘ego’, an internalised ‘critical parent’ or ‘super-ego’ or is it rather a ‘true self’, a saviour and deep source of sanity? Is it the psychic dissociation of the modern alienated ego or our original immortal identity, neurotic defence mechanism or innermost source of being?  Or, as with many dualisms, could this be a case of not ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and’? Could these be but different versions of the same phenomenon merely seen from different angles, under differing historical, social or psychological conditions?

Like Fernando Pessoa’s various invented ‘heteronyms’ who wrote his various books, Argentinean writer Juan Luis Borges’ witnessing other is more ‘literary’, more complexly imagined. His other would seem to be an originally imagined character or Borges’ authorial voice/persona. His parable ‘Borges and I’ begins with: ‘The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.’ There is similarity and difference between the two, there is tension, critique, even hostility and this other is, unlike that of the Upanishads, Jimenez or Harwood, definitely mortal:

I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. [x]

The other’s relationship to Borges is both within, inextricably confused with and yet quite separate from Borges:

Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. (…) I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him (…) Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.  I do not know which of us has written this page. [xi]

For psychoanalyst C.G. Jung, we are also inherently double, we are made of twins, Dioscuri, similar to the two birds on the tree of life in the Svetasvatara Upanishad. Although we would ‘prefer to be always ‘I’ and nothing else’, our mortal soul has an immortal inner friend who is always present and ‘into whom Nature herself would like to change us – that other person who we also are and yet can never attain to completely.’[xii] He adds that one need not be insane to hear this other’s voice, to engage in dialogue with it, this being, on the contrary, ‘the simplest and most natural thing imaginable.’

Ernest Hilgard of Stanford University has scientifically studied what he calls the ‘hidden observer’ for years.[xiii]  This is an aspect of self that is always alert, aware of and responsive to everything no matter what our conscious ego state – even sleeping, drugged, anaesthetized, hypnotized. Even in such states it can respond with physical movements. This may be a so-called ‘causal’ system beyond the physical body observing actions of ‘subtle-physical’ systems, an unemotional, detached intelligence, more cohesive than the ego-personality. Based on work with near-death and comatose clients, post-Jungian process psychotherapist Arnold Mindell even distinguishes three further bodies interacting with and enveloping the physical body: the Dreambody, the archetypal Mythbody and the etheric Immortal Body or ‘Self’.[xiv] Countless documented near-death experiences often seem to include the experience of very dispassionately witnessing one’s own dead body and relations:

I could see my own body all tangled up in the car amongst all the people who had gathered around, but, you know, I had no feelings for it whatsoever. It was like it was a completely different human, or maybe even just an object. […]

It was like all relations were cut…Everything was just so – technical.[xv]

Perhaps this witnessing Self is also identical to that which ‘breathes’ the Tai Chi practitioner or the archer in Zen practice, moving the body without conscious or intentional control of the muscular system. According to Ernest Hilgard’s theory, we are mostly one with this hidden observer till about age seven, then the intellect splits off and we identify with the social world. Re-union with it may be a major part of true adult maturation. ‘As living creatures, we are all Maya. As witnessing selves we are all that witness.’[xvi]

However this latter construction seems a little ‘romantic’ in the sentimental sense, an example of what philosopher Ken Wilber has aptly called the ‘pre/trans fallacy’, the cognitive error of equating an earlier pre-developmental state with one that has gone through considerable development and transcended it.[xvii] Pace romantic poet William Wordsworth (‘trailing clouds of glory do I come…’), for most people childhood is certainly no simple and unalloyed state of union and grace till the age of six or seven. Ongoing and blind regression to a purported earlier stage is never a healthy option anyway; from a psychoanalytical perspective it is, rather, a defence mechanism against further development rather than a mark of maturation, individuation or enlightenment.

It perhaps needs to be stressed that despite New Age pop spirituality, the ‘intellect’ or the ‘ego’ are not an adult ‘enemy’ to be somehow magically liquidated or regressed behind but rather very necessary aspects of human development that are, in the course of human development and individuation, to be ‘lifted up’ or integrated into some form of higher unity that includes them. The subtle witness is there through all stages of psychological and spiritual development, eternally present, not something we somehow tragically lose after childhood and thus have to regress back to in order to regain. As we age and ‘the world is too much with us’ (Wordsworth) we may indeed often seem to ‘lose’ that familiar stranger, the witnessing one. But it, possibly unless we go totally and irremediably insane, never loses us.


[i] J. Mascaro (ed.), The Upanishads (Penguin Classics), p. 90 and H. Zimmer, Philosophie und Religion Indiens, pp. 329-330.

[ii] Mascaro, p. 91.

[iii] James Thornton, A Field Guide To The Soul, p. 44.

[iv] Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister, p. 17.

[v] Jimenez’ poem ‘Yo no soy yo’ is from his Eternidades of 1916/17, quoted in M. Hamburger, The Truth of Poetry, p. 124.

[vi] Poems of Hans Magnus Enzensberger, p. 57 (Penguin Modern European Poets, 1968).

[vii] ‘Alter Ego’ in Gwen Harwood, Selected Poems, (revised edition 1986), p. 3.

[viii] From ‘Song of Myself’ (end of verse 4) in Leaves of Grass (1855).

[ix] Cited in Frederick May’s introduction to Six Characters In Search of An Author, p. vii.

[x] J.L. Borges, ‘Borges and I’, in Labyrinths, p. 282.

[xi] Ibid., pp. 282-283.

[xii] C.G. Jung, ‘Concerning Rebirth’, in Four Archetypes, p. 65.

[xiii] J.C. Pearce, Evolution’s  End, p. 91.

[xiv] A. Mindell, Coma. Key to Awakening, pp. 87-96.

[xv] Ibid., p. 83.

[xvi] J.C. Pearce, op.cit., p. 95.

[xvii] K. Wilber, ‘The Pre/Trans Fallacy’, in Eye To Eye, pp. 198-243.

[The painting at the top of the article is by German Dadaist and surrealist Max Ernst (1891-1976) and is entitled The Virgin Chastises the infant Jesus before Three Witnesses: Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and the Painter (1926). The photo below was taken at Kiama NSW.]


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on May 7, 2010.

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