If You Are Not Your Body, Who Are You?

- November 13, 2012

"...we are here to accomplish things, and our bodies are the vehicles we have been given to make change happen"

Originally posted on Huffingtonpost.com 

Growing up, I viewed my body as a trusted friend. No matter what was going on or how I was feeling, I felt that I could always count on it to not let me down.

As the years rolled on, this sense stayed with me. One night while practicing an open-handed sparring technique with an advanced tai chi student at my teacher's school in Boston, I knew my timing was off. As the intensity of our practice built, I felt myself overwhelmed by my partner's strength and skill. Suddenly, I made a mistake. I opened my left hand into his attack, exposing my pinky finger to the full force of his oncoming strike. The result was a painfully dislocated finger. What happened next shook my view of my body as a trusted friend, and myself.

I calmly observed the dislocated finger. Without any thought, I grabbed the end of it and pulled it back into place. In that moment, I knew that my finger was not me. I knew that my body was not me. I knew that —God forbid-—if I lost part of my body, I would not lose me. Who was the "me" that was not subject to what happened to my trusted friend?

Unknowingly, I had entered what is known in the yogic tradition as the "witness state." This state of consciousness is usually achieved through meditation or some spiritual practice. As I learned, you can get there in other ways too!

Deepak Chopra describes the witness state in terms of Cosmic consciousness:

This is the state when Soul consciousness stabilizes and the witnessing awareness is present all the time in waking, dreaming and sleeping states. This state of consciousness is sometimes described in traditions as being both local and nonlocal simultaneously. The silent witness Self is unbounded, but the body and the conditioned mind are localized. In the Christian tradition, the phrase "to be in the world and not of it" describes this flavor of Cosmic consciousness. In this state, even during deep sleep, the witnessing awareness is fully awake and there is the realization that one is not the mind/body, which is in the field of change, but rather an eternal spirit that transcends space and time. The most remarkable aspect of this state of consciousness is the knowledge of one's nature as timeless and, therefore one has no fear of death. Although Cosmic consciousness is not the pinnacle of enlightenment, it nevertheless marks the critical transition from an identity bound to a conditioned life to a life of freedom in self-knowledge.

My experience of the witness state was transformational. Even though it only lasted for a few seconds, it broke me out of a set of beliefs about myself that were limiting and fear-based. Yet if we are not our bodies, they are certainly a major part of our lives. The fate of most people is not to sit in a meditative state and merge into oneness. To the contrary, we are here to accomplish things, and our bodies are the vehicles we have been given to make change happen.

The opportunity in connecting to the witness state while being present in your body is to understand that we do not have to be trapped in the drama associated with how we relate to our bodies and to life. We can use the signals we receive from our bodies and emotions as clues to help us grow and make wiser decisions from this state of consciousness. You can even watch the thoughts constantly passing through your mind with that part of yourself that is beyond your thoughts. You can do a little experiment right now. Try watching your thoughts. Who is the one monitoring them, the one that sees them as being distinct from itself? You got it; you have touched your own witness state.

The next time you have a thought that is harmful, or you are about to do something to your body that you know is not healthy, or you are about to say something damaging, take a moment to step back and observe. Give yourself the freedom to choose with the part of you connected to a wider perspective. You might be surprised by the power you have to navigate your life, and the friend you have on a soul level to help you live with more joy, discipline and life-affirming energy.