The Witness: Turning the Light Around

The Witness: Turning the Light Around

“If we consider the knower independently of the known, it reveals itself as pure witness. When knower and known are not-two, there is no place even for a witness.” – Jean Klein

Kenneth Folk: If we want to go to the next level (and we do), we are going to go to 2nd Gear. We are going to turn the light of attention back on itself, and we are going to ask this question: “Who am I?” Or “Who is looking?”

So, look at how smug we have been so far. It is as though we have been looking down from on high at this odd creature, saying “Ha ha. See how it does this? See how it does that?”

We are looking down on it, but what we have not done is to wonder, “Wait a minute. But who is looking?” At that moment where you turn the light around and you bust this supposed watcher, that is 2nd Gear. It is a completely different category of practice, and this needs to be explicitly understood. This is not vipassana as I learned it in Burma. They never told me to do this. They do not talk about this, so you can do vipassana until the cows come home, but unless you understand that the idea with 2nd Gear is to turn the light around and look at the supposed knower, you are not making the leap to the next level.

So let’s do that. Let’s say “Who am I?” Now with this, it is very likely that the yogi will be embedded at this level, the level of the Witness. And in fact they are so likely to be embedded that they will convince themselves that they are looking at the Witness when in fact they are not.

So I like to make the point that when you really get this Witness, it is very clear. It is a very distinct experience where the knowing mind is clearly looking back at itself in a kind of mirroring way.

There are various ways to get in touch with this. The simplest and most practical and consistently effective way is to ask the question “Who am I?” When you do that, you keep inquiring even though it appears at first that you are not getting anything out of it. At first you might feel that there is this hall of mirrors phenomenon where it just keeps rocketing back into your head: “Who am I?” “Yeah, but who is watching I? … but who is watching I? … but who is watching I?” Each one of those is seen, and you’re just going from one to the next in this apparent infinite regress.

Well, what I’ve just described is actually at the level of the bystander, which is still 1st Gear. The “hall of mirrors” effect is not yet the Witness. There is a way, though, to turn the light around and to see “I.” Ramana Maharshi talked about this. He said “dwell as the ‘I am’” as in “I…I.” So this is what it feels like: You are asking this question “who am I?” and at some point the answer actually comes back, “Well…I.” “What do you mean ‘who am I?’ … !”

Okay, that is the Witness. It is possible to become absorbed in that Witness or that witnessing consciousness. It is a good idea to become absorbed in that witnessing consciousness because you are objectifying this very subtle sense of the watcher. It might take a long time. It might take years.

Joel Groover: Are we talking about a felt sense of ‘I amness’ that is in the body? In other words, not just in the head.

KF: There are body sensations that accompany this particular perspective.

JG: When I ask the question, I seem to feel it—I almost take the awareness into the body or something.

KF: Well, when I do the Witness I feel a lot of subtle tension around the eyes and third eye area. My eyes are doing something. The way your eyes focus physically is intimately related to the way your mind focuses. One of the ways to recognize various mind states is to notice what your eyes are doing. In this particular perspective of the Witness, the eyes are locking in to a particular position. They’re looking straight ahead. They are not rolled up into my head at the moment. I’m looking at the back of my eyelids and what I’m seeing looks a little bit like a mirror. [Kenneth is describing the Witness with his eyes closed. The Witness is equally accessible with eyes open.]

So it is not entirely clear as I look at this kind of bright mirroresque quality of the back of my eyelids—it is not clear whether I am the one in this head looking at this bright, mirror-like quality or if this bright, mirror-like quality is looking back at me. That’s why it has this mirror-like quality.

JG: That is helpful because I think I was embedded in body sensation. But what you’re describing, more is being objectified there.

KF: As you become absorbed in this, you get this sense that there is this “I”, which is not the little self; this is not Kenneth as I am used to thinking of it. It includes Kenneth and it includes everything else. So basically this is not “no-self,” this is “big self,” where everything is experienced as an aspect of this Self, with a capital “S.”

JG: OK. And you can see the bystander there as being part of…?

KF: This is a different situation in that it feels very different from the bystander. The bystander is transcended and included, in integral-speak, but the only thing that is interesting to the Witness is the Witness. All the Witness wants to do is make love to itself. Everything else that comes up—and things do come up, so seeing and hearing, tasting, touching, smelling and thinking and going through your day and doing your business—all of this happens, but the Witness has no stake in any of it.

It just wants to be absorbed in itself and feel aloof from and dissociated from those other things, which are just unimportant aspects of itself. So this is a big subject [as opposed to object]. This is a big subject here. Nothing is really perceived as object; it is just a lot of subject.

JG: I’m not going to pretend to get it. I have got the 1,000 hours [of practice] to do [first]. Conceptually I believe I understand what you’re saying.

KF: Now in my experience, after having been absorbed in the witness for several years, it began to soften. And a more subtle sense of knowing became apparent. This is where Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Who is watching the watcher?” Well, that is a helluva question. Who knows the Witness?

There is a subtle sense of knowing that transcends and includes the Witness. That subtle sense of knowing comes up—it arises with the objects that are known. Now this is still consciousness. We are talking about compounded phenomena that arise according to conditions; it just so happens that whenever an object of consciousness comes up, the knowing consciousness comes up at the same time. The knowing consciousness knows the object, from this perspective. They arise together, and can’t be separated. This is a very high perspective and this is one of the fruits of Advaita practice. When you do “who am I?” and become absorbed as the Self you eventually transcend the Witness and get to this place where the kundalini energy comes back down from the head: it actually goes out the top of the head—you can actually feel this and see this—and circles back down to the body and comes to rest primarily at the heart center but also at all of the chakras along the way. It forms this kind of circuit, this kind of cocoon of energy, kundalini energy.

At this point you are no longer dissociated from your experience the way you were when you were dwelling as the Witness. I tell people when they are dwelling as the Witness, you have to let that down when you are dealing with people. Whenever you are talking with your loved ones, for example, you have to let the Witness down because they can see that you are aloof and dissociated from them. They can see that you have no stake in your own life, let alone theirs. This is toxic to interpersonal relationships. But once you transcend and include the witness with this next level, which I call the transcendent, this is the opening of the heart. [Kenneth is describing one of the highest attainments of enlightenment, which is not to be confused with what we would normally think of as “heart” or compassion.]

So from this perspective it is again possible to be with your loved ones and it is obvious to them that you do care about them. You are with them in an intimate way. There is no aloofness or dissociation whatsoever; this is the full-circle perspective of enlightened living.

Now what happens when you dis-embed even from the subtle sense of knowing?

You go beyond these compounded phenomena to the unconditioned, where there is just absolute awareness. In order for that to happen, I just have to go away. I have to surrender entirely. I cannot objectify the Absolute. Because that is where all of this awareness is coming from in the first place.

All of this awareness, by the way, it is not anything separate from or other than all of the phenomena that arise within awareness; this is all a package. Now if I were to say to you that there is some facile way in which to conceive of this without actually looking at it in real-time, I would be lying. And if anyone says to you that there is some way to conceive this—“Oh, don’t you just understand…?”—that is baloney.

It is not a concept and can never be conceived, which is why throughout the ages sages have insisted that you cannot think your way through this. But there is this remarkable experience of the integration of the absolute and the relative. So to be enlightened is to objectify everything that is arising and passing in the mind and to let awareness recognize itself.

And while we are talking about this in this very stratified way, in this very picked-apart way, the truth is it is a seamless whole, and the only reason we are doing it in this systematic way is to make it accessible so that it is possible to learn step-by-step how to dis-embed from each stratum of mind and how finally to surrender to things as they are.

JG: And so the last part of that, the 3rd Gear, you have mentioned that people have access to that [even before Theravada-style enlightenment], people like your wife?

KF: Yes.

JG: Could you talk a little bit about that?

KF: Because awareness is always operating … I should say “because in any moment awareness is operating.” You cannot even say “always” because awareness is prior to the arising of time. Awareness Is, with a capital “I”, in this moment. But to say that awareness goes on from moment to moment, that is meaningless because awareness is not about time. So what I call 3rd Gear is this Awareness, when Awareness recognizes itself. Because awareness Is, in this moment, anybody can see it. Or anybody can surrender and let it recognize itself. That is not attainment.

It is happening all the time anyway to everyone. Now the reason it often isn’t recognized is because we are distracted, and we are distracted by being embedded in the contents of our mind.

JG: So I think I’m understanding this better and I apologize if I keep beating a dead horse.

KF: No, no. Beat that horse. I’m the one who wants to hear the questions.

JG: But you know, I think this is why the “chronic yogi” thing [1] can happen also to people who are not strivers. I think they can sit down and they can access this. I don’t think they access it at the level that you might call fruitional or something, but they can sit and they can be with whatever is and they can have this equanimity where they aren’t doing anything, but then they get up and they are just totally embedded in everything else because when they are off the cushion they have not made it a—they haven’t really, really looked at pleasant, unpleasant—just in the moment—pressure. They have really not objectified phenomena to the level and extent you talk about.

KF: Right.

JG: And so you have a chronic yogi because you have hooks, hooks, hooks everywhere, right? Pulling them back down into embedded consciousness or an embedded way of being?

KF: That is right, and that is precisely why I believe Adyashanti, after teaching yogis to recognize the Absolute, then teaches what he calls advanced practice. He says, “now find out what is pulling you back into ignorance.” In my terminology, that would be “now do the developmental practice that we have been invalidating the whole time.”

Now there is a reason why he has been invalidating it the whole time and that is because you cannot simultaneously worry about your development and surrender to the absolute.

JG: Yes. If you’re going to start from 3rd Gear, you cannot do that.

KF: That’s right. So if you are going to start from 3rd Gear, people really have to buy in. They’ve got to understand that there really isn’t any other moment than this. If it does not seem good enough, nonetheless, this is it. And so there is kind of a “fake it ’til you make it” phenomenon to pure 3rd Gear teachings, where the teacher will keep insisting that this is it and the yogi will get a hint—“OK. I feel a little bit of a … something.” And then this understanding grows over time. As they learn to surrender more and more, as you say, maybe they are not really getting it at first. But maybe eventually they will. So if you’re going to be a ruthless 3rd Gear teacher you have to accept this ”fake it ’til you make it” understanding and encourage people—“Yeah, you are getting it”—when maybe they really are not getting it.

JG: Yes. Or the whole thing falls apart.

KF: Yeah. Or you have to teach people to make the clear switch in their mind between developmental practice and realization, which is what I do. I like to have people be able to turn on a dime. “Okay, a minute ago we were talking about development, but right now we are going to acknowledge that there is no development; there is no time. There’s just this.”

And so you completely give up all hope of development and notice what is always already the case. Most 3rd Gear teachers don’t do that. They just continue to invalidate development, and that also works. But then you are in a situation where you have to come back later if you want to be a good teacher—and I think Adyashanti is a good teacher—and say, “Alright, now we are going to do this work that some people call development. I’m not going to call it that, but hmmm…”

JG: Or even in just Zen. What is it, “carry water, chop wood”?

KF: I don’t think of that as being quite the same. I think of that as just being the understanding that life goes on after enlightenment. Because there is a tendency to want to romanticize this and say “OK, as soon as I get enlightened, my life is going to be a cosmic bliss-out and I’ll be good to go forever.” Well, actually what happens is that after enlightenment you do your life.

JG: I hope this is not too academic a question, but I have been wondering where subtle objects fit in here. So for example in the Visuddhimagga there are situations where people are taking very subtle objects like different consciousnesses or, like, “the base of boundless space” is listed. It makes me wonder if there are not some approaches in the Visuddhimagga anyway, if not all of Theravada Buddhism, that are getting a little bit closer to 2nd Gear than we might think?

KF: In fact, the base of boundless space—the jhana of boundless space—is the fifth of the jhanas. It is the first of the immaterial jhanas and corresponds directly in my system to “the bystander.” Now the next jhana, the sixth, which is the “jhana of infinite consciousness,” corresponds to the Witness. This is one of the things that I find so interesting, being able to marry the Theravada and Advaita. That point of sixth jhana is a crossroads because at the sixth jhana of infinite consciousness, the most important thing, the most relevant thing that is going on there when you experience that jhana is the sense of the watcher.

So this is how I teach people who can do jhana but who can’t yet do 2nd Gear practice. They don’t understand what the Witness is. I have them go to the sixth jhana, notice that the predominant sensation there is this sense of the watcher or Witness and then find that they can also identify that sense of Witness in other jhanas, and they can identify that sense of the Witness in their daily lives and all day long. From there, they can learn to cultivate this Witness all the time. That is the place where Theravada and Advaita come together. Then beyond that, Advaita is mainly about 2nd Gear but it goes also all the way to 3rd Gear, which I want to say is as important to the Advatists as 2nd Gear.

Because as Ramana Maharshi says, this dwelling as the “I am” is the stick that stirs the fire and is eventually consumed by it. So you are dwelling as the Witness and it eventually just kind of burns away and at that point you recognize this subtle sense of knowing, which is the transcendent. Even that eventually goes away, leaving just the Absolute. So this is the Grand Unified Field Theory of Dharma.

JG: We all know on some level that these distinctions that we draw from tradition to tradition ultimately are BS.

KF: Yes. Everybody is holding onto one part of the elephant thinking that they have the whole beast. If we put all of it together and see where they intersect, the elephant is there for us in all of the various traditions, as long as we don’t become attached. “Well, I am a Tibetan guy and the Tibetans say this and therefore I am going to be sectarian about that.” That is a self-limiting approach. You want to look at everything that is out there and see the whole beast.


1. “The pre-4th ñana yogi who repeatedly fails to penetrate the object and proceed to the Arising and Passing Away of Phenomena is what Sayadaw U Pandita calls the ‘chronic yogi.’ This yogi can go to retreat after retreat, over a period of years and never understand what vipassana practice is all about. He will, upon hitting the cushion, quickly enter into a pleasant, hypnogogic state, maybe even discover jhana, but go nowhere with regard to the insight knowledges. U Pandita’s frequent exhortations to greater effort and meticulous attention to detail in noting the objects of awareness are aimed at this ‘chronic yogi.’ ”—Kenneth Folk

Bill Hamilton expanded upon this definition to talk about the “chronic achiever,” a yogi who has penetrated the object and attained the all-important Knowledge of the Arising and Passing Away of Phenomena (A&P), but seems chronically unable to attain the 1st Path of Enlightenment. In these interviews, Kenneth has merged the two terms and is using the phrase “chronic yogi” to describe yogis both pre and post A&P who are having trouble attaining 1st Path.