Psychology

Evolution of Consciousness: Witness Self

The stage after Ego is a radical shift in the evolution of consciousness. From this moment on, you’ll never be the same again. Once you’ve tasted the open space and peace of the Witness, the ego feels even more claustrophobic.

The ego is a set of ideas and concepts: the idea that you are who you think you are, that you’re in control of your life, that you’re the same person today as you were yesterday, and will be tomorrow. When we transcend the ego we’re letting go of these ideas. We discover we’re not who we think we are, we’re not in control of our lives, and we’re not the same person from one minute to the next. Our consciousness no longer magnetises itself around the ego, but is drawn towards a new archetype of unity, the Self.

This doesn’t happen overnight. The process of shifting from one to the other can be precarious and protracted, and can take years. The ego’s way of making sense of reality starts to break down. You realise you never knew who you were and were never in control, you just thought you were. What you need is a new way of making sense of reality, but if you replace the old ego concepts with shiny new concepts (like “I am one with All” – yes, that’s a concept too) you haven’t changed anything. You’re still conceptualising reality and still functioning through the ego, the thinking mind.

Someone To Watch Over Me

You need a whole new way of being, beyond thought. The Self represents this new way of being and acts as a bridge, or transitional identity, for the developing individual. It’s an archetype, a symbol that represents the idea of unity or wholeness. If you feel yourself to be fragmented and incomplete then what you need is unity or wholeness, so the Self works as a magnet in the psyche to pull you towards integration and wholeness. It’s often called the Observer or Witness Self, or the Transpersonal or Higher Self, and sits at the centre of the psyche and witnesses all that takes place.

You can’t be what you observe. If you can observe your body, feelings, thoughts, actions, the roles you play, and so on, then you’re not those things. You are what is doing the observing. This is the Self, but you can never know the Self as an object in consciousness because the Self is the subject.

You can’t observe the observer or experience the experiencer.

When you shift to the Witness Self, you can watch the flow of life, the changing feelings and thoughts that weave their merry way through you. This is a process of increasing detachment and dis-identification from all the things you used to identify with.

At this stage you might start to notice how your feeling states and attitudes influence the circumstances of your life. In basic terms, if you approach a situation or person in a positive frame of mind you tend to get a more positive response, things unfold smoothly and work out for the best. But if you approach a situation or person thinking the worst, you get exactly that, and it doesn’t go so well. This is over-simplified, but broadly true.

You get what you ask for, but remember, this also includes your unconscious assumptions and expectations. If you consciously think things will work out fine, but unconsciously believe you’re doomed, then – well, you’re doomed.

The unconscious is more powerful than the conscious mind so it always holds the trump card. This is why it’s so important to become as self-aware as you can stand. The more of the unconscious that you can make conscious, the less likely you’ll be to sabotage yourself with hidden doubts and negativity.

By identifying with the Self you can learn how you create your own reality through your thought processes and feelings, both conscious and unconscious. But you also start to realise that if you can observe this process taking place, then you are not that process. Therefore you can change it.

You can begin to choose new ways of interpreting reality, new creative responses to life. You begin to consciously co-create yourself and your life. This is a powerful position to be in and can be a relief after all the shenanigans of the ego.

“It’s almost like talking to someone, only you can’t quite hear them, and you feel kind of stupid because they’re cleverer than you, only they don’t get cross or anything… And they know such a lot…. As if they knew everything, almost!” – Lyra talking to Farder Coram in Northern Lights by Philip Pullman

Holes in the wall
Beware the infinite regress…

Always Present

But we’re not there yet. Before we get too excited and think we’ve found the answer to all our problems, there’s one more hurdle to jump.

If we enquire into the nature of this Witness or Observer Self, what do we discover?

We know we’re not our bodies, feelings, or thoughts, because we can observe them, but we can’t observe ourselves observing.

Does the observer exist?

If there is an observer observing your actions, how would it know it was the observer? You would need another observer observing the observer, and so on ad infinitum.

“There was a young man who said though
It seems that I know that I know,
What I would like to see
Is the I that sees me
When I know that I know that I know.”Alan Watts

There’s still a split here, a schism in the mind. The Observer Self is still conceived as being separate from that which it observes – me in here versus the world out there. But if you try to grasp the Observer it slips through your fingers and away from your mind, all you are left with is the observed.

What is this so-called Self?

It is Awareness itself, like the screen onto which images are projected in a film theatre. It has no characteristics of its own. As with all archetypes, it’s empty of content until it becomes conscious.

Everything that you can observe changes and you know you’re not those things. The only thing that doesn’t change is Awareness. Sensations, feelings and thoughts come and go, but the awareness of these things is always present. The circumstances of your life change, people come and go, you find a job, lose a job, get fat, lose weight, feel happy, feel angry, and so on, but the awareness of those changes is always constant.

Without something to be aware of, awareness is nothing, it’s empty. Awareness is the mystery of Life.

And we’ll have a closer look at what that means next in: True Nature

Read the whole series here: Evolution of Consciousness

Image: Holes in the Wall

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4 thoughts on “Evolution of Consciousness: Witness Self

  1. Wonderful column – I would just take care in borrowing Wilber’s error of thinking of this as a “stage”. It’s “now” (at least, sometimes:>)) in fact, almost his entire notion of “stages” has been shown to be a misreading of developmental psychology (as is the case with most of spiral dynamics, as well).

    But of course, one doesn’t need a mental theory to wake up. Though it can be an impediment if one wants to use one that’s not too well put together.

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    1. Yes, thanks for clarifying that, Don. I didn’t make it clear enough that the Witness Self isn’t a stage of consciousness – it’s always there (or here?!) and ‘now’, as you say.

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