Roshi Bernie Glassman, founder of the Zen Peacemakers; a Zen Buddhist Group whose primary mission is the alleviation of human suffering through socially engaged Zen practice, defines bearing witness as being present with our moment-to-moment experience just as it is without needing to avoid it, amplify it, attach to it, or judge it. It is the practice of simple awareness of whatever is arising in each moment. The practice of bearing witness was first defined by the Sixth Zen Patriarch, Daikan Eno, who spoke of it as the state of mind where there is no separation between subject and object, no space between I and thou, you and me, up and down, right or wrong. Roshi Glassman further defines bearing witness as, “anything we do without separation or denial, – driving a car, cooking breakfast, taking out the garbage – is practice, or bearing witness.” It turns out that new research in the field of neuroscience regarding brain function may have uncovered a biological basis for the practice of bearing witness.
In his recent book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, author Daniel Goleman (he is the guy who put the term “emotional intelligence” on the map) presents evidence that our brain is wired for intimate brain-to-brain link-ups that are the basis of empathy and compassion. It turns out that the brain is chock full of “mirror neurons” which provide us with the ability to intuitively feel what others are feeling. A kind of “neural WiFi” of the brain. It appears from this research that when we are closely attending to another person, listening closely to what they are saying, watching their facial expressions carefully without judgment, etc., we actually feel what they feel. And here is the kicker, when we are closely attuned to another person in this way, we intuitively take action regarding those feelings. But here is the trick … this innate ability for empathy and compassion, that we all possess, is not activated unless we are closely attending to the other person in an open way. In other words, unless we are bearing witness to them with a mind uncluttered with our own ideas, feelings, worries, images, etc., we will not “see” them.
Author Goleman describes an experiment in his book that demonstrates how our lack of awareness of someone else inhibits our natural ability to be empathic and compassionate. In this experiment, a number of seminary students were told to read the biblical passage regarding the Good Samaritan and informed that at some point they would be asked to walk to another building and give a sermon on this passage. The experimenters had a confederate lay down on the ground between the two buildings where the seminary students would have to pass on their way to giving their sermon on the Good Samaritan. The confederate’s role in the experiment was to act like a homeless person who was injured and to call out to the seminary students for help as they passed him buy on their way to giving the sermon. The researchers wanted to see whether or not the seminary students would stop and offer the “homeless” man assistance.
Guess what? Only one in six of the seminary students stopped to help the “homeless” man. Why? It turns out that when we are caught up in our thinking about something, what psychologist Steve Hayes calls “cognitive fusion,” the brain’s ability to bear witness is bypassed. It’s as if your thoughts create a barrier to the brain’s natural ability to be present for and help others. It turns out that the seminary students were so caught up in their thinking about the sermon they were about to give that they didn’t even notice the “homeless” man: a sermon on being a Good Samaritan!!
Another way of saying this is to acknowledge that to the extent that we are self absorbed, we are not likely to engage our “neural WiFi” and be of assistance to our fellow beings on the planet.
It s no accident, that Zen practice will in-time enhance our natural ability to empathize with others and be of service to them. Zazen (Zen meditation), the core practice of Zen, enhances our ability to be present in each moment with awareness and defuses the power of words, images, concepts, etc., to keep our minds locked-up in thoughts while distracting us from the life that is unfolding right in front us.
Daniel Goleman shares an anecdote regarding an experience he had while studying homelessness in New York City. He was walking through a subway station in New York and noticed a homeless person crying out for help. Literally thousands of people simply walked by this man without stopping to ask him what was wrong. Not being lost in the usual mind dream of self absorption, Goleman stopped to ask what the man needed. As he did this, others suddenly joined in with him. It turned out the man could only speak Spanish and simply needed assistance to help him find his way to his family. Within a few minutes, the man was able to get the assistance he needed.
What is the lesson here? In a world of iPhones, iPods, texting, pagers, etc., etc., we seem to be moving more and more away from our basic connection with the world as it is in favor of an insular cocoon of self absorption where we don’t have to be present for the pain of others. In our attempts to “improve the moment” by listening to music through our earphones or constantly chatting/texting with whomever, we are actually contributing to the construction of a world where we don’t have to feel for others. A world where we don’t have to be present for the suffering that is all around us.
Bearing witness practice can bring us back to this moment. Bring us back to our natural condition of engaged awareness. You may find that by bearing witness, you may end up actually saving someones life someday. And that someone may be none other than yourself.
So let’s not just walk on by anymore. Let’s look, feel, and act.