Taking the Witness Stand: Cultivating Neutral Observer Mind

By Swami Ramananda

Witnessing can be a spiritual practice that involves taking the position of a neutral observer to the whole range of our experience: physical sensations, perceptions, thoughts and emotions. It can be practiced as a meditation technique in which one systematically observes and dis-identifies with all that arises into awareness. Practiced with sustained and focused attention, stepping back from sensations and thinking again and again, thoughts gradually diminish and a healing silence is revealed.

Practicing regularly in meditation makes it easier to apply this same effort to daily life by having one part of the mind observing even as we engage in activities. The non-reactive awareness we cultivate gives rise to a tremendous benefit, changing our relationship to any activity, conversation or emotion. Where we might normally react compulsively lost in an emotion or a habitual pattern of thinking, we now are empowered to pause, reflect and respond mindfully.

For example, I may be able to stop myself from spinning the truth to protect my self-image if I feel compelled to hide a mistake I made. I might be able to catch myself obsessively thinking negative thoughts about someone and choose to focus instead on my part in a difficult interaction. No doubt, becoming this conscious of our thoughts is not easy, especially when we are stressed or emotionally triggered.

A practice of Hatha Yoga can be an effective way to develop this attentiveness by tuning into the raw sensations of the body. We can train ourselves to see and act with a non-judgmental response to the body’s capacity in a given moment. A mind that becomes focused on sincerely listening to what is can respond to events as they are, without looking through a colored lens or projecting onto things our hopes or fears.

In this way, we train ourselves to pause and discriminate between the anxious reactions that may be triggered by stressful situations, and the deeper, neutral voice of our Spiritual Self. This skill develops over time with steady effort, patience and without expectation for how and when results will come.

When we repeat such a practice and experience moments free of habitual thought patterns, we begin to see ourselves and our relationship to the world in a fresh way. We begin to feel our connection to each other and all of nature. A natural compassion and wisdom arise in our hearts. Over time, a regular practice of this kind will gradually restructure even the subconscious mind so that we are no longer compelled by old beliefs, and approach life with a sense of deep belonging, inner contentment and wonder.

Swami Ramananda is the president of the Integral Yoga Institute of San Francisco and a greatly respected master teacher in the Integral Yoga tradition, who has been practicing Yoga for more than 35 years. He offers practical methods for integrating the timeless teachings and practices of Yoga into daily life. He leads beginner, intermediate, and advanced-level Yoga Teacher Training programs in San Francisco and a variety of programs in many locations in the United States, Europe, and South America. Swami Ramananda trains Yoga teachers to carry Yoga into corporate, hospital, and medical settings and has taught mind/body wellness programs in many places. He is a founding board member of the Yoga Alliance, a national registry that supports and promotes Yoga teachers as professionals. 

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