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Can I Get a Witness?

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

 

 

One of my yoga students approached me after class. She wanted to discuss a scene from a book I’d leant her.

 

“You know how the author is teaching a yoga class, and one of his students breaks down crying and he cradles her head in his hands and acts as her witness? And then he shows her how to be her own witness?”

 

I nodded.

 

“Well I was wondering if you could that for me?”

 

Sure. No problem.

 

 

Have I mentioned I became a yoga teacher because it gave me the chance to help others at an appropriate distance? While yoga teaching by its nature involves a certain amount of spiritual advice, it’s not usually intimate to that degree.

 

Luckily, she was actually looking for long distance witnessing. We worked out a routine where I would “hold space” for her on certain days, checking in via text or email on how she was dealing with challenging emotions through meditation and yoga. 

 

In our talks, I started to introduce the imagery of the circle as a safe and neutral place from which to witness the fiery emotions at the centre. I talked about the circles —the great rounds of earth and sky—that hold us in their spacious embrace. I suggested we meditate on such imagery each morning, “setting up the circle” and remembering its presence throughout the day.

 

It wasn’t long before I started talking about “casting the circle,” and then using my meditation time to do just that: build an energetic structure that I imagined stretching out to hold her and reinforce her own ability to stay present amidst the storms of life. I cast, called the elements, and even invoked what I thought of as “the deities of witnessing” to hold the circle strong for my student. 

 

It was stealth paganism in the name of yoga, with a dash of Buddhism thrown in for good measure. I had found one of those sweet spots where all my practices met and reinforced one another.

 

In yoga and Buddhism, the Witness is that deep awareness that is without judgment, fear or desire. Finding this place of awareness within allows pure observation, a gaze from which nothing need be hidden or pushed away. It makes room for an expansive compassion that acknowledges our own and others’ suffering and the connection between all beings. It was because Buddha was “sitting in the place of the witness” that he could disarm his tempter Mara simply by saying, “I see you.” If we see clearly and completely, we see that our attackers are suffering, and their actions are more about them than us.

 

In Paganism, the Witness takes form as deity, the embodiment of transcendent awareness. We are witnessed by grand gods like Odin and Zeus, but also more intimately by watchers and go-betweens like Hermes, Agni and Heimdall. They are neutral observers, reporters rather rulers. Yet that neutrality is their own particular strength: with no agenda, no ax to grind, these figures can slip between the major plot lines of myth to play pivotal roles. Heimdall warns the world of the final battle, Agni carries everyone’s prayers to the gods, and Hermes both rescues Persephone from the underworld and guides the dying on their way. Like the angels of the Bible he is winged, and like them, he is free of the burden of judgment carried by mightier beings.

 

I think this witnessing role may mean more to us than we realize. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” God says in Jeremiah. “I have been with you from the beginning,” says the Goddess. Isn’t this our deepest desire, to be seen and known to the core? To have the deceptive outer coating of our conditioned habits seen through to the quivering, vulnerable, and ultimately innocent inner self that begs to be acknowledged? 

 

I think we desire to be seen even more than to be saved. Perhaps to be seen IS to be saved. 

 

Prayer, meditation, casting the circle and sitting in its embrace—there are many ways to connect with the Witness, however we conceive it. If we strip away the layers to get down to our naked, needy self, if we stand in that place, we will see — and we will be seen. In the light of that gaze, we may come to know ourselves, perhaps for the very first time.

 

 

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Archer has been trying to make sense of religion since her parents first abandoned her at Sunday School in the 60s. She’s a mom, yoga teacher and repository of useless bits of information on ancient religion, spiritual practices and English grammar. Check out her column “Connections” in Witches and Pagans.
 
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Comments

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Friday, 08 May 2015

    Thank you, Archer, for another excellent article. I know exactly what you mean about long distance witnessing. I'm not familiar with the book you referenced, but if I had ever cradled a female student's head in my hands, or responded in kind when a particularly luscious one threw herself into my arms at the start of one class, crying because the neighbors had kept her up all night, I could have been accused by all the others present of violating the teacher/student boundary, and my college could have dismissed me. Although I said all the right sympathetic things, it seemed cold of me to just stand there until she got herself together (and it went against all my male instincts, as well), but staying on my side of the boundary was the right thing to do - as she understood later when we talked about it. As you say, the true Witness is that deep awareness without judgment, fear or desire on either side. Copping a feel - as so many "famous" yoga teachers have done to their shame and the loss of their students' trust - would have conveyed a totally wrong message which I could never have taken back.

    Of course, if the teacher who wrote that book was gay, he would have been in a different position from mine. He could have gotten away with it. In any case, your analysis of the need we all have to be seen and acknowledged is spot-on and beautifully expressed. It's just tricky, sometimes, for the "witness" to know the best way to do that.

    I love your sentence about stealth paganism with a dash of Buddhism. Indeed, it is so nice when that sweet spot comes around!

  • Archer
    Archer Saturday, 09 May 2015

    Thanks for some thoughtful points and kind words Ted.

  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Sunday, 10 May 2015

    You're welcome, as always. Fortunately I read your first reply, so I appreciate the "in"-sights you shared; I also understand why you might have decided on a discrete revision. There's just no telling who might misinterpret our words on the Interweb these days, and take offense.

    By the way, I took a workshop from Amrit Desai at a convention after he left Kripalu, and was amazed to find what a deeply spiritual and sincere person he truly was, not to mention a great teacher. I think that's the main mind-f**k we Westerners have had to deal with; most of those fallen gurus WERE. Life isn't like a Disney movie where you know who's good and who's bad.

    On another note, I have always appreciated your interpretations of the Buddha-Mara event and have derived great insights therefrom. You've introduced a new one here - that maybe it wasn't just Buddha's inner focus and Earth-Goddess connection that kept him safe, but also his ability to compassionately see why Mara was compelled to attack him out of his own pain.

    Thank you again.

  • Archer
    Archer Sunday, 10 May 2015

    It's amazing to me how much we can pull out of our stories--about Buddha, Jesus, Odin, whomever. I marvel at how powerful the stories are and how powerful we humans are at making something out of them.

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