The Eternal Witness

[This is a considerably revised version of a key essay I published here a few years ago. It is an attempt at a literary exploration, using quite a few quotes from poetry and prose, of our unconditioned, true ‘witnessing’ identity beyond our everyday conditioned personas or egos with which we are usually almost completely identified. The magnificent photo of the mountain is courtesy of the generosity of Chris Czermak.]

The Eternal Witness

My third poetry collection Cut a Long Story Short contains the following poem:

 

The Witness

 

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am…

     – Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’

 

My life flew through me

like a loud white bird

 

clouds of people,

factories, continents

inter-were, producing

passing thunder, rain

 

air breathed its space in me

looking on, a mind blown

child at the circus

of its mind, my life

 

flew through me

like a silent black bird.

 

 

 

The following essay attempts to explore, or circle around, this core notion of The 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 nor any thoughts I may have had at the time but the nature, texture, quality of my internal configuration of feelings at the time, the specific way my sense of I or awareness ‘watched’ or ‘looked out’ onto these events and inner feelings from somewhere ‘behind my eyes’, the specific sensibility, ‒ then I realise, with a slight sense of shock and delight, that there is no difference whatsoever between then and now. My thought, ideas, beliefs may have changed but my basic sensibility, felt sense, my sense of I, my sense-of-being-in-the-world, has not.

It could be argued that this is merely a trick of memory, that I may be merely projecting back my current adult 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 internal mental changes, exactly the same kind of interior ‘feeling-awareness’ or sensibility was present then as it is now. Both the content of my thought streams and the trappings of my social masks or personalities may have changed radically, but the subjective (or ‘objective’?) how’, the specific feeling-quality of the ‘space’ or ‘container’ of this awareness or consciousness, within which this content and these personalities happen, has not. This core ‘feeling-identity’ or sensibility or sense of I has – in contrast to my ‘thinking/speaking identity’ ‒ remained the same throughout all the developmental changes of ageing. Who- or whatever ‘looked out’ of the eyes of that little boy sitting alone in the playground in kindergarten is the same being, or rather quality of feeling/awareness, that is ‘looking out’ of my eyes right now.

In all its simplicity and matter-of-factness, this is a startling observation. If it has not changed over time, it is, logically, beyond time, it is eternal. Logically, it has thus never been born and will never die. This seems a phenomenological, empirical observation; there is no need for any metaphysical speculation, complicated theory or religious belief. The same goes for the simple internal experience of stepping back from and watching one’s breathing process and thoughts or feelings arising and moving during ‘just sitting’ meditation.

So what are we to make of this eternally watching one or I inside, this one who always remains calm and dispassionate no matter what may be happening to or within oneself? This witness 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 (Alan Watts speaks of a ‘taboo’), evidence for the experience and existence of this eternal witness or sense of I is manifold throughout our common transcultural history, from the earliest written texts to contemporary poetry and science.

The Indian Upanishads (c. 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.[1] It is the inner essence and driver of your breath and thinking, but your 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.[2]

Contemporary spiritual author and engaged environmental lawyer 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. [3]

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 and out of the game’ (Walt Whitman), ‘both in this world, but not of it’.

Even such an emphatically secular philosopher and historical materialist like T.W. Adorno, the doyen of neo-Marxist Critical Theory, can speculate on the eternal spectator within:

Reflective people, and artists, have not infrequently noted a feeling of not-being-quite-here, of not-playing-the-game, as if they were not themselves at all but rather a kind of spectator. Others are often disgusted with this attitude. […] The inhumane moment in this attitude, the ability to distance oneself and rise above, is, in the end, precisely the humane moment which the ideologues of the humane resist. It is not implausible that the part of oneself that behaves like this is the eternal part.[4]

Although not always in this metaphysical and positive form, both meditators and many writers and poets seem to have known well this silent, immortal, witnessing ‘Other’. Such very different modern writers and poets as Vladimir Nabokov, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Luigi Pirandello, Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, Gwen Harwood, Walt Whitman, William Bronk and Jorge Luis Borges 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. [5] 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’ 1916-17 version 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, serene, is silent when I speak,

he who, sweetly, forgives when I hate,

he who roams where I am not

 

He who will remain

upright

when I die. [6]

 

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 [7]

 

Australian poet Gwen Harwood’s ‘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. [8]

 

Similarly, 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. [9]

 

 

In a similar vein, American poet William Bronk (1918-1999) in his late poem ‘The Seeing Eye’, in which the watching eternal Witness is personified as ‘our life’:

 

The lives we live have little to do with our life

which watches those performances as those

of someone else it doesn’t need. It needs

nothing; it has us it doesn’t need.

It lets us, though, see wonders through its eye.

 

Bronk expresses a similar distance between our true witnessing Self and the dramas of our finite daily self in another late poem ‘Who’s There’:

 

We need to separate ourselves from ourselves

to be ourselves. All that pain and power:

that isn’t us. All that busyness,

the alienation and hate, those love affairs.

 

Such literary versions of the phenomenon of the inner ‘Other’ find similar expression in such personal testimonies as that of nineteenth century French writer Alphonse Daudet who writes of his own felt sense of being a dual character, a homo duplex, a duality, however, which he finds quite ‘horrible’, both in its detachment and critical nature:

Homo duplex, homo duplex! The first time that I perceived that I was two was at the death of my brother Henri, when my father cried out so dramatically, ‘He is dead, he is dead!’ While my first self wept, my second self thought, ‘How truly given was that cry, how fine it would be at the theatre.’ I was then fourteen years old.

This horrible duality has often given me matter for reflection. Oh, this terrible second me, always seated whilst the other is on foot, acting, living, suffering, bestirring itself. This second me that I have never been able to intoxicate, to make shed tears, or put to sleep. And how it sees into things, and how it mocks! [10] 

 

Other literary references to there being a definite someone or ‘other’ inside, some unknown being almost parasitically living one’s life, can also seem equally less benign and have occurred in literature at least since early 19th century romanticism. As with Daudet, 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’). Italian dramatist Luigi 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.’ [11]

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 one’s ‘true self’, Self or ‘no-self’, a ‘saviour’ and deep source of sanity? Is it the psychic dissociation of the modern alienated ego or our original, timeless identity as Witness, is it neurotic defence mechanism or our ‘original nature’, innermost reality and being?  Or, as with many dualisms, could this be a case of not ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and’? Could these be but different sides of the same coin, 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. [12]

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. [13]

For psychoanalyst C.G. Jung, we are also inherently double, we are made up of twins, Dioscuri, similar to the two birds on the tree of life in the Svetasvatara Upanishad quoted above. 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.[14] 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.’

Even objectifying science has attempted to research the phenomenon of the witness. Ernest Hilgard of Stanford University has scientifically studied what he calls the ‘hidden observer’ for years. [15]  This is an aspect of the 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. From a more traditional esoteric perspective, this may be a so-called ‘subtle-causal’ system linked to but 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: what he calls the ‘Dreambody’, the archetypal ‘Mythbody’ and the etheric ‘Immortal Body’ or ‘Self’.[16]  Countless documented near-death experiences often seem to include the experience of very dispassionately witnessing one’s own dead body and personal 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. [17]

Perhaps this witnessing Self is also closely allied to ‘that which breathes’ the Tai Chi practitioner or the archer in Zen practice or any artist or musician in the creative ‘flow’ or ‘zone’, moving the body-mind without conscious or intentional control of the muscular system. According to Ernest Hilgard’s developmental theory, we are mostly one with this hidden observer till about age seven, then the intellect splits off and we identify with the peer group and social world. Thus social dis-identification and re-union with it may be a major part of true adult maturation and spiritual quest. ‘As living creatures, we are all Maya [illusion]. As witnessing selves we are all that witness’(J.C. Pearce). [18]

However, this latter construction may seem a little ‘romantic’ in the sentimental sense, an example of what philosopher Ken Wilber has aptly called the ‘pre/trans fallacy’, i.e. the cognitive error of equating an earlier pre-developmental state with a later one that has gone through considerable development and negated, incorporated and transcended it. [19] 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 psychodynamic 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, ‘transcended’ or regressed behind but rather very necessary aspects of human development that are, only in the course of human spiritual development and individuation, to be transcended ‒ in the dialectical sense of ‘lifted up’, negated, preserved, transformed and integrated (Hegel’s Aufhebung) ‒ into some form of higher unity that includes them. In this view, in order to transcend the ego, you first must have a strong, well-developed one. The inner witness, however, being changeless, being beyond time, is there through all the temporal stages of psychological and egoic development, eternally present as the Now, 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. Or, vice versa, its presence may increase. In any case, it never loses us because, as we know in our saner moments, we are, in reality, it.

Let us finish as we began, with two more poems.

 

Pulling the Plug on Experience

 

the older I get the more

this personality of mine

is getting just a little                       out

                                   of

                                                                      hand

 

it keeps acting and speaking

in ways that                                               surprise

me

 

standing next to it

as I’m in it

like next to your kid

 

in a bathtub

watching with amusement

and boredom

 

how it’s having fun

just being

so utterly predictably

 

full of itself

as the tub

empties

 

 

 Who am I, or: Why all language is a beautiful lie

 

As the Old Sage said, the experience that can be named

            Is not the experience itself

 

Is silence experienced by saying the word ‘silence’?

 

                                                                            When we say ‘I’

do we mean this feeling, thinking thing

      we have identified with since we were named

           and told what to be, lovingly, harshly,

                by others who also didn’t know,

                      or had forgotten, who they really were?

 

Maybe we need to forget

Maybe we need to remember

 

Maybe we need to beautifully lie our way to the truth

Maybe words need to point at the moon

 

And then stop

 

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

 

[2] Mascaro, p. 91.

 

[3] James Thornton, A Field Guide to The Soul, p. 44.

 

[4] T.W. Adorno, Negative Dialektik (1966), p. 354 (own translation, PL-N).

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

[10] Quoted in William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 144.

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

[17] Ibid., p. 83.

 

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

 

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

 











~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on April 30, 2021.

3 Responses to “The Eternal Witness”

  1. Just reading a critique of Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” where the author pointed out how Maslow placed self-actualization at the pinnacle of the hierarchy. The author compared this to the Blackfoot (North American indigenous tribe) ,with whom Maslow actually spent time , understanding that infants are born fully “actualized”. That there was no process of passing through levels or transcending “lower” stages. These two distinct models of human development seem to coincide with problems explored in your essay and by some of the thinkers you reference.

    Of course actualization is not the same as absolute integration but it seems to me a culture which realizes community actualization- as opposed to cultures based on alienated individuality- might have a different experience of dualism. Just guessing.

  2. Always such a pleasure to read your thoughts and words, Peter…helps to clarify the things i feel.

  3. Thank you Kristi, and do hope you are well. Peter

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