Monthly Archives: December 2013

I Don’t Need Help, But I Could Sure Use a Witness

This is an excerpt from the e-book, “Activate Your Inner Physician,” available on amazon.com.

Have you ever been fortunate enough to be in distress in the company of someone who did nothing except be with you? They didn’t try to help, console, or advise you. They didn’t hug you and say, “Everything’s going to be OK.” They simply stayed with you and what you were feeling. Do you recall how rare and liberating that felt? Just experiencing that objective presence can be a healing experience.

In essence, all the person did was stand in for you and give you permission to feel. When you combine witnessing with not interfering with expression, you get humanity. It’s a demonstration of the seeming contradiction that compassion is best expressed from a neutral place.

After all, when we try to console someone, we often do so out of selfishness. Either we don’t want to be in the presence of someone who’s having a rough time because it makes us uncomfortable, or we want to be the hero who makes him or her feel better. In either case, it’s more about us than them. We’re also passively denying their feelings by telling them it’s all going to be okay. In that moment, everything is not okay with that person and they need to acknowledge it.

We are constantly involved in short-circuiting each other’s feelings with the rationalization, “that’s just what friends do for each other.” Um, . . no. Friends allow each other to vent whatever nasty-ass feelings are surfacing while doing their best not to take it personally. If you have even one person in your life with whom you can do this, you know what a treasure you have there. Of course, a friend is also someone who’ll tell you when you’re being manipulative around your emotions.

Thankfully, we don’t need another person to experience the power of witnessing. We can simply sit our asses down and witness whatever surfaces as a result being vulnerable to hearing what our mind is telling us and what we’re truly feeling. This also includes witnessing physical sensations without immediately attending to their suppression. This may sound simple, but for many of us our whole lives are designed to avoid anything but a very superficial examination of our internal state.

Witnessing is a state of suspension whose qualities can range from exquisite calm to utter terror, depending on the mind’s judgment of what’s being witnessed. The more you’re able to witness the conscious mind, the more you realize that it’s constantly judging. And herein lies a sobering recognition: as long as we’re alive we will have judgments.

Throughout this book I use the term “neutral” instead of “non-judgmental,” for a very good reason. American culture promotes a naive innocence by encouraging us to be non-judgmental, because we’re programmed to believe that it’s a quality of a “good person.” This results in widespread shame and guilt around our non-stop habit of judging (“I feel guilty about thinking that homeless people are just lazy.”) If a person doesn’t feel that it’s possible to do the right thing in the face of his prejudices, then he has no choice but to suppress his judgments (“That’s not really me. I know that it’s not right to judge homeless people.”). Now he thinks he’s being non-judgmental and he’s wreaking more havoc than before. Any act of kindness toward a homeless person is now borne of guilt and a denial of his prejudice.

By “neutral,” I’m referring to straddling the line where you can hear your judgments but not judge yourself for having them, which allows for something amazing to occur. You can smile and give that same homeless person a dollar even as your mind is saying, “Take a bath, you worthless piece of crap.” Because guess what? The compassionate person and the elitist snob are equally part of who you are. It’s neutral witnessing that allows both of these to exist in the same moment without either one being “right.” The conscious mind abhors sitting in this contradiction because it needs to be right. That’s why learning how to maintain a neutral witness state with one’s own judgments is invaluable, because it siphons off some of the energy that goes into maintaining a rigid, polarized position.

I’ve never met anyone who was not judgmental to some extent, and I’ve known some extraordinary people. I have known people, however, who knew that their judgments were nonsense even as they were voicing them.