An Excerpt From "In Touch" by John J Prendergast

image by Kathryn Solie

image by Kathryn Solie

Witnessing Thoughts

Some years ago I had the good fortune to befriend Suzanne Segal, a delightful psychologist based in the Bay Area who had experienced a deep opening of awareness several years before we met. A year before she died from a brain tumor, she gathered around her a group of friends whom she called her “playmates in the vastness.” Sometimes she would invite us to “see thoughts as thoughts.” At first this was a puzzling instruction for me; it seemed so obvious—of course thoughts are thoughts. In time I realized the importance of this simple invitation. To see thoughts as thoughts means to see that they are not reality; they are maps of reality. Some maps are more accurate than others, yet none are reality itself. It also means to see thoughts as objects in awareness, rather than awareness itself. It was her way of describing the witnessing of thought.


To witness something means to see it clearly, without judgment, as a scientist would during an experiment. If you are a marine biologist observing the habits of a rare sea cucumber or a physicist at CERN (the European Center for Nuclear Research) observing possible evidence of the Higgs particle, you will want to see things as they actually are, not as you want or expect them to be. Similarly, it is very liberating to witness your thoughts without judgment and without any agenda to change or get rid of them.


Some meditative practices try to quiet the mind and even stop the process of thought through concentrating on a particular object, such as the breath or a mantra. In fact, thinking can be quieted and even briefly stopped during meditation; however, it always reappears. There is a humorous teaching story about a highly accomplished yogi who asked his student to get him a glass of water. Before the student could return with the water, the yogi slipped into a thought-free samadhi that lasted for days. When the yogi finally came out, the first thing he said was, “Where’s my water?” Desire and fear will continue even if thoughts temporarily stop. It is the nature of the mind to think as long as we are alive. An overly constrained mind becomes dull.


As we begin to observe our thoughts, we will discover that they conform to certain familiar patterns. Many of them are about things that we think we need to do—our inner to-do list. The first thoughts upon waking are usually “What day is this, and what do I have to do?” This is the completely normal function of the mind that is concerned with orienting in time and planning for the apparent future. This mental tendency is not a problem, just something to be observed.


Sometimes thoughts are about what has already happened—the apparent past. In this case, we may be savoring an experience or trying to make sense of it. In both cases, attention shuttles between the apparent past and future. I say “apparent” because the past and the future exist only in our minds. If we take a moment to observe our actual experience, we will discover that it is only happening right now, including memory of the so-called past and imagination of the so-called future. See if this is true in your own experience.


Contemplating “right now” is an intriguing experience. When exactly is it? As soon as we think about it, it has already passed. When we try to look for “now,” we discover that it is also an idea. “Now” does not exist on some time line between the past and future. This contemplation, a classic one in some meditative traditions, can catapult attention into timeless awareness. Sometimes it will happen spontaneously. I first had this realization one afternoon when I was twenty-one; I briefly saw that everything is happening during a now that it is not localized in time. This insight was hard to put into words, but the impact was palpable. A veil briefly lifted, allowing for a “peek” experience.


Many of our thoughts are arguments with reality—judgments that something should or should not be happening. Have you noticed that reality never conforms to an ideal? Often these arguments are with other people. We usually don’t argue with the weather; we see how it is and adjust to it. If it is raining, we take an umbrella. If it is cold, we put on a coat. On the other hand, we tend to inwardly argue with people at great length, particularly if we feel hurt or misunderstood. It is fascinating to see all of the judgments of others that arise during these inner arguments. As we saw earlier in this chapter, it is freeing to withdraw these projections and see how they may apply to ourselves.


Thinking is associative; one thought will lead to another in a train of thought. It is useful to observe this associative process and see how easily attention unknowingly boards this train. As soon as we see it, our attention is off the train—it spontaneously disembarks. Daydreaming is a form of inner train-hopping.

Most of our thinking is repetitive. It is as if attention follows a familiar groove, like a needle on a vinyl record. There are almost certainly neurological correlates—networks of synapses that correspond to these habitual thought patterns. Occasionally our thinking is new and creative. We make new connections, learn new things, and are sometimes inspired by what feels like a higher source. Some of the greatest scientists and artists, including Albert Einstein, Johannes Brahms, and Rumi, have described this process of receiving spontaneous insights through words, images, symbols, or sounds.


Awareness: The Witnessing of Thoughts

So far I have been describing different kinds of thoughts. But what is it that is aware of thought? What is it that is witnessing? Something is aware of thought that is not itself a thought. Some call it awareness; others call it bare attention. The name is not important. When attention either purposefully or spontaneously turns away or steps back from thoughts, it relaxes into its source.


Attention is like a wave of awareness. It arises to focus on a thought, feeling, or sensation and then resolves back into an open state, much as a wave subsides into the ocean. Attention has also been compared to the lens of a camera that can focus when needed on an object and then defocus back to a panoramic overview. At some point, as you simply notice thoughts, allow your attention to shift to that which is noticing. What is the nature of this awareness?


It generally takes time to discern thought from awareness since we are so identified with thinking. The mind tends to dismiss silent openness as an absence of something, since awareness is not an object. With some attention, however, this background awareness comes more into the foreground. We can’t force this way of seeing.

One of the subtle traps of observing thought is to take on the role of being a separate witness. I remember an early talk I attended with Jean Klein when he was describing the quality of openness that was inherent in pure listening. I asked him about being a witness to thought, and he responded, “Don’t fornicate with the witness!” With this colorful phrase, he was strongly warning me to not become attached to an identity as a separate witness. This is a common dead end for long-term meditators; they are able to watch their thoughts, feelings, and sensations and yet still retain a sense of being a subtly separate observer. This was true of me after fifteen years of regular meditation. Jean could sense this fixation in my attention. Even as witnessing happens, there is no separate witness.


Attention may move back and forth between the foreground of thoughts and the background of unbounded awareness for some time. At first, experiencing this background can feel like visiting a very restful getaway. We may briefly touch this quiet openness for a few minutes and then return to our busy lives. It can feel like renting a beautiful vacation house for a week and then returning home for the rest of the year. At some point there is a shift of identity, and we realize that the vacation rental is our true home and what we thought was our home—our

conventional identity as a separate being bounded by space and time—is the temporary rental unit. This happens when we are deeply convinced that our true nature is infinite, empty, open, wakeful awareness. The trance of identifying with thought lifts, and an awakening from the mind occurs. This critically important step brings a sense of great peace and freedom. It is a tremendous relief to realize that we are not confined by any story. It is the beginning of a new way of life.


A common pitfall with this initial awakening is to take it on as a new identity: “I am the awake one.” In this case, we now have a new story of being a special someone—someone who knows that he or she is no one! The illusion of separation continues in a subtler form if we identify with this view. It is important to recognize this identification, see through it, and continue in our inquiry into the nature of reality.


Copyright 2015 by John J. Prendergast, PhD. Excerpt from "In Touch", published by Sounds True, Inc. Used with author's permission. 


John J. Prendergast, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in private practice and a recently retired professor of psychology at CIIS. He is the senior editor of The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy and Listening from the Heart of Silence. He was asked to share the dharma by Dorothy Hunt in 2012. Find out more about John here.




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