Stay detached: just be a witness to your own Life

Don’t identify yourself with anyone or anything. Just be a witness.
When you witness Life, you remain detached. When you identify with it, you encounter pain, suffering, agony and depression. When you are detached, you can peel off from one Life situation and experience to another. Recently, in my workshop, with managers of a company, the CEO critiqued, fairly aggressively, a well-researched but poorly-delivered presentation by a senior manager. The presenter, a manager with over 20 years of experience, was shattered. He had worked hard on his presentation__which explains why it was so well researched. He had put his heart into it. But when he finally came up in front of his company’s leadership team, he faltered with his delivery. The CEO, a perfectionist, critiqued and transparently told off the manager that he should value the time of the audience and make his points crisply, briefly.  The manager in question took several weeks to come out of that moment. He asked me, why was it that he was unable to handle his CEO’s critique? The reason was simple: the manager imagined that he was the presentation style. He thought that the presentation was his identity from here on in his company.
This is not as abstract as it seems. We all have a bit of the manager in us. We identify ourselves with people, objects, situations and wallow in a cesspool of self-pity and bemoan our lack of self-worth! If someone dents your car, you grieve. Because you have come to identify yourself with the car. With an undented car you believe you are different than with a dented car! Someone calls you a jerk in a public place, and you react violently, because you have now identified with the title of a ‘jerk’. You lose someone you love. Indeed it is sad. But to imagine that you cannot live any longer and grieve, means you are identifying yourself with the physical embodiment of that someone. Life is like a movie. You go to watch a movie. You are just a witness. Someone loves, someone loses, someone dies, someone wins…three hours later (at least in Bollywood!)…you are back in your car. You probably hum a tune or recollect a dialogue from the movie. No attachment. You were just a witness.
Witness every moment of your Life as a witness. See pain, see love, see lust, see embarrassment, see shame, see jealously, see anger….see everything. See it very well. So that you can see through it. If the manager had seen through his CEO’s critique he would not have been attached to where the comments were made __ in front of everyone __ but would have allowed the message of improvement to reach him. If the lover, who loses her beloved, sees through the event of death, she would know that to be alive means to witness death from near or from far! When you see through the event of the title of ‘jerk’ being hurled at you__unmindful that it is a public place__you will notice that the person shouting at you is angry with something else and is just taking it out on you. Remember: you, me, we are not the car we drive, the job we keep, the position we hold, the spouse we have, the children we rear, the house we live in, the class we travel, the clothes we wear, the phones we use; we are not what we commonly identify with. We are transitory witnesses on a cosmic plane. We happen to be here on this planet currently. We know not where we will be next. But that’s not important. What’s important is that we are here and now __ a mere witness to our own Life and to Life around us!

True happiness is being in a perpetual “Is That So” frame of mind.

Just be a witness to your Life; be an observer. If you choose not to try to control your Life, you will always be happy and at peace with your Life and yourself!
Here’s a short Zen story that illustrates this point. It teaches us three new, magical, words that can bring us happiness now and always. All we need to do is to say them as nonchalantly, as effortlessly as we would have said “Hello”! Saying these three words in every situation, in each moment, can deliver peace, meaning and bliss to your Life instantaneously.
The three words are – ‘Is That So?’
The Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku (1686~1768), one of the most influential figures of Japanese Zen Buddhism was revered by his neighbors as one living a pure Life. A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. One fine day, the girl’s parents discovered that she was pregnant. This made her parents very angry. She initially would not confess who the man__who had got her pregnant__was. But after much forcing, she, at last, named Hakuin. Horrified, the shocked parents went to the Master, blamed him, berated and threatened him with dire consequences if he did not “own” their daughter’s child.
“Is that so?” was all that Hakuin said, smiling.
After the child was born, it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, as people shunned him for his “immoral” conduct. The barbs from, and being ostracized by, the people did not trouble him at all though. Instead, he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from some of his more forgiving and tolerant neighbors and provided for everything else the little one needed.
A year later, the young girl could stand her own lie no longer. She told her parents the truth – that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the local fish market. The mother and father of the girl were even more horrified this time. They at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get their grandchild back again.
Hakuin was both forgiving and willing. In yielding the child, all he said again, smiling, was: “Is that so?”

The moral for all us is to just be like Hakuin. Let us learn to be just witnesses of whatever happens to us in Life. In fact, that’s what we really are __ mere observers. In joy or in sorrow let us not get attached to the events, people and circumstances of our lives. This, and this approach alone, can guarantee us the happiness that we all crave for, work hard for, but never really manage to find. True happiness is being in a perpetual “Is That So” frame of mind. You too can switch to that thinking right now. It’s a personal choice!

100 % Observer State = 0 % Mind = Happiness + Inner Peace

If there’s one practice that you want to develop in Life – learn to be silent for at least an hour daily. This practice is called ‘mouna’.  
Most forms of meditation require that you silence the environment before you begin to still the mind. But ‘mouna’ does not require the environment to be silent, it requires you, your mind, to be silent. It instils in you the capability to be just an observer of your own Life. Being an observer means not to pass judgment, not to evaluate, not to condemn and not to appreciate. An observer just is.
The human mind is always trafficking thoughts. Of all kinds – relevant and irrelevant, both at all times. 24 x 7. Research reveals that the average mind thinks 60,000 thoughts a day – and all of them are soaked in worry, anxiety, fear, anger, grief, guilt and sometimes, some of them are happy and peaceful thoughts too. ‘mouna’helps in organizing this traffic and ensures that through your inner awareness, you detach yourself from your situation and simply be an observer.
Let me share a story that I have read in one of the books that Osho, the Master, wrote.
One morning Gautam Buddha was talking to his disciples. The king, Prasenjita, had also come to listen to him. He was sitting right in front of the Buddha. Prasenjita was not accustomed to sitting on the floor – he was a king, you see – so he was feeling uncomfortable, fidgety, changing sides, somehow trying not to disturb and not to be noticed by the Buddha because he was concerned that he was unable to sit silently, peacefully. He was continuously moving the big toe of his foot, for no reason, just to be busy without business. Some people are like that – they cannot be without business; they will still be busy!
Gautam Buddha stopped talking and asked Prasenjita, “Can you tell me, why are you moving your big toe?”
In fact, Prasenjita himself was not aware of it. Sometimes, you – and I – are doing a thousand and one things that we are not aware of. Unless somebody points at them, you may not take any note of it.
The moment Buddha asked him, the toe stopped moving. Buddha sought to know, “Why have you stopped moving the toe?”
Prasenjita said, “You are putting me in an embarrassing situation. I don’t know why that toe was moving. This much I know: that as you asked the question it stopped. I have not done anything – neither was I moving it, nor have I stopped it.”
Buddha said to his disciples, “Do you see the point? The toe belongs to the man. It moves, but he is not aware of its movement. And the moment he becomes aware – because I asked the question – the very awareness immediately stops the toe. He does not stop it. The very awareness, that ‘It is stupid, why are you moving it?’ – just the awareness is enough to stop it.”
This is really what ‘mouna’, and your being an observer, can help you with. It can help you realize that you too can be ‘aware’ – and so too can stop doing many things that you go on doing, just like that. Worrying incessantly is one of those things that we all do – many a time without knowing that we are worrying. When you learn to still the mind and organize your thoughts, you learn to weed out worry. When you step outside and assume the role of an observer, you will see the futility in investing your precious lifetime in debilitating thoughts. When the observer in you becomes active, the mind becomes slowly powerless. Through your continuous practice of ‘mouna’, you eventually learn to fully still your mind, making it totally inactive. It is in that 100 % observer state that you discover the secret to living happily and at peace with what is!

Don’t judge and don’t bother about being judged!

One of the first lessons we are taught in school is “Don’t judge a book by its cover”! But that’s precisely what we do.We do it all the time. We are always judging someone or something __ events, governments, government policies, sporting teams, movie stars, politicians, children, parents, siblings, companions and partners.

Why do we judge? Because judging is free. Nobody is stopping you. So you indulge in pronouncing judgments. It comes easy. It is exciting. It gives you an air of superiority. That superior feeling you may not be seeking consciously at all. But your subconscious loves it. You feel like an exalted member of the jury, looked up to by your own private circle of courtiers, while pronouncing someone guilty.

And why do we loathe being judged? Because you almost always are being judged for a single act and not for the real person that you are. Let’s say, in a country like India, in a city like Chennai, where autorickshaw drivers are known to fleece people, you are seen haggling with an autorickshaw driver for about Rs.20/- (less than 50 cents). You are attired in business formals, are carrying a laptop bag and looking every inch a well-heeled white collar manager. Two people passing by, who are new to Chennai, watch you haggling. One of them tells the other that he thinks you are a miser who is finding it difficult to part with Rs.20/-! You hear that comment and feel hurt. Why? Because your fight with the autorickshaw driver is on a matter of principle and not a function of affordability. That you are a man of principle is not being considered by the opinion-makers. That you are a miser, which you believe you are not, is what they perceive. So, you hate being judged because it is never based on the complete reality though it may well be based on some sound perception! When you are judged, you feel like a worm. You feel like a criminal, standing helplessly in the dock, who’s being judged and indicted without the full story being heard!

The simplest way to avoid judging is to put yourself in the shoes of the person being judged and ask if you would have liked to be talked about that way! This is not easy to do. But it is simple. Over time, employing empathy and compassion, you can kill your urge to judge __ yourself and other people!

No one is perfect. No one is complete. No one is a saint. And no one is a born villain. Left to themselves, even the people who commit heinous crimes, who are tried, judged and punished by law, may not have ever wanted to end up that way. Given a choice, they would not have wanted to commit those acts at all or they may well want to undo those acts. Take Oscar Pistorius for example. Who would have thought this global icon would have ended up facing charges of murdering his girlfriend? In his statement he has said, “I am absolutely mortified by the events and the devastating loss of my beloved Reeva…I cannot bear to think of the suffering I have caused her and her family, knowing how much she was loved….” Pistorius has his own reasons, his own defense for shooting at Reeva (as he says, accidentally) and the court trying his case will focus more on the act than the person he is. In fact, that is the way law is drawn up in all parts of the world. Where the criminal act, with the related evidence, coming into weigh more on the final judgment than sentiment. The judgment rarely indicts the person. It merely punishes the act, though the person who committed the act is pronounced guilty of it!

Perhaps there’s a lesson from the legal system here for all of us who indulge in recklessly and wholesomely judging people. Perhaps, it’s also a good idea to fundamentally evaluate whether judging people, including ourselves, is worth it at all? A lifetime is a much bigger, vaster, varied experience. A single act may well mar and scar a person’s reputation __ as we found in the case of Shiney Ahuja or Tiger Woods or Bill Clinton __ but cannot incinerate a lifetime of work. So much time and emotion is wasted in judging. So much so, that sometimes, we end up judging ourselves and plunge into either depression or float in a fake sense of exaggerated self-importance.

This does not mean that we should not step in when we see someone headed in a wrong direction. We sure must. A teacher must judge the performance __ both academically and morally __ of her ward and prevent and prohibit factors that inhibit good performance. Don’t judge does not mean don’t correct. It means don’t condemn. It means don’t dump. It means focus on the act and still respect, love and appreciate the person for who she is. Place the act not in the backdrop of your morality, your virtuousness or your principles alone, but in the context of that person’s well being and the well being of the people in his or her circle of influence. For all the same or similar reasons, should you agree with them, don’t bother about being judged. Because if you are being judged, there can be two reasons. One, your actions must have led to the judgment. Second, the people judging your actions may be less evolved and may have ended up condemning you wholesomely. Either way, it doesn’t change who you are. So, live with that truth and make peace with yourself that way!

To judge __ others or yourself __ is as heinous a crime as the act being judged itself. It is wasteful, regrettable and, therefore, imminently avoidable. Instead, a better position to take is to be a witness. A silent observer. No opinions. Just quiet learning. Take what you want to take from that person’s action or experience and discard the rest. Most important, when you are a mere observer, there is no anguish, no pain, no suffering, no victim, no villain…there’s just you, in total bliss.

Life may shake you often, but you can choose not to be stirred!

Choose to be a witness, especially when a ruinous emotion like anger rises in you, and you will attain bliss.

Watch your thoughts as you would watch traffic on the street. When riding to work, especially when you are not driving, aren’t you just a witness? You just see a million things happening in the hustle bustle of a daily Life in a metro. Ensconced in your car, in the comfort of your air-conditioning and listening to some music, you are just a witness. May be you are watching two irate drivers honking madly. Or you are observing a senior citizen crossing the road with extreme caution. Or you are seeing someone opportunistic brazenly edge past a more tentative driver. You are merely an observer__who sees everything but chooses not to participate in further confounding the chaos!  

Is that really possible__being a witness to your own thoughts?

In fact, the Buddha, prescribes this, only this, to attain a Life of peace and fulfillment. He says: “Just be awake. Be a witness to your thoughts.”

The essence of the Buddha’s message is that we must not suppress ourselves. Take anger for instance. When someone does something stupid or hurts you or betrays you, you will feel angry. It is natural. And it is logical. What is the point in suppressing it? Suppressing ANYTHING that you believe is negative__like anger, sex, greed__is detrimental to your well-being. All these emotions are basically energy being expressed in different ways. So, suppressing them, means wanting to get rid of them, to kill them. How can you kill energy? Isn’t it a futile exercise? You will only end up creating more stress for yourself and within you. This also does not mean that you must succumb to these emotions and let their fiery energy consume you. Be aware. Be awake. Be alert. If you are witnessing your thoughts, you will realize that anger is rising in you. Then you won’t explode mindlessly, destructively. You will, through your awareness, be able to channelize your anger into, of all things, believe me, compassion!

Osho, the Master, says that anger can turn into compassion, a sexual desire into deep love and mindless greed into complete sharing! He says that these emotions are but energies. And the way to deal with them is to allow them to be expressed in a different form rather suppressing them.

I know, from experience, that this possible through relentless practice.

Once upon a time, I used to be a very angry man. I remember, in my teens, I once flung my shaving razor on the TV screen in our living room, because I was furious with my mother for saying something she should not have (at least in my opinion!). Over the years, right up to my mid-30s, which means a good two decades of my Life, I would let my anger control me. I wouldn’t even think before I exploded. It had become a normal, instantaneous reflex action to any situation that did not meet my expectations. Once when I was buying a car I had to travel urgently on the day the car was due to be delivered. So I had asked my admin assistant on my team to take delivery of the car while ensuring that the color I wanted was the one we got. My assistant called me AFTER taking delivery of the car that the company regretted not getting my color and said that I had to ONLY accept the color they had if I wanted immediate delivery. I lambasted my assistant for an hour on the phone, standing on the kerbside at a busy intersection in Bangalore. I went on abusing my assistant, who was both speechless and shocked at my tirade, and I went on, endlessly, until an old lady passing by, tapped me on the shoulder and whispered in my ear: “Just be aware of where you are when you scream!”. I felt ashamed. I hung up. It was too late. My assistant texted me his resignation within the next 5 minutes. I lost a good resource. But that moment of personal shame and guilt did not transform me. I raged on. At work my colleagues had nicknamed me ‘chiefscreamer’. (My business title, also on my business card, is chiefdreamer!)

It wasn’t until Life landed me at the edge of a precipice, where I continue to hang from, and I realized that my kicking around is not going to help my situation in any manner, that I awoke to the futility, and vanity, of being mindlessly, violently angry. Anger by itself is not a bad thing. Without being angry, with any injustice or current reality, no change, transformation or revolution has ever been possible in the world! Yet mindless anger has to be channelized. And, in my experience, has to be converted into compassion.

Over the years of practicing mouna (daily silence periods) and growing awareness, I have come to realize that people that hurt you do so because they are suffering themselves. Their inner turmoil is reflected in their unreasonable and unfair behavior. So, when someone does something nasty to me, I try to understand them better. Anger is no longer a response. It has become an intelligent choice. When anger rises in me, and it well will, I watch it. Then I say to myself, why is this person doing what she or he is doing to me? And if it a foolish mistake the person has committed forgiveness is easy. But when there has been a willful assault on my privacy or dignity or sentiments, I simply feed someone on the street thanking the Universe and my detractor for the opportunity to serve. I don’t even tell my detractor I am doing this because I don’t need to. As I feed someone randomly, I concentrate all my energy on my detractor and wish deeply that she or he heals. And I dedicate the act of serving, and the meal, to my detractor. This practice gives me immense peace and joy. I find it meaningful that:

a. I have not lost my head and exploded.

b. I have been compassionate towards my detractor and another human being.

c. I feel grateful that I have been useful.

The bigger cause for celebration though is that when you are merely a witness, an observer, you don’t participate to perpetrate any mindless crisis that may emerge in the course of daily living. You don’t get distracted from your focus on being peaceful. You don’t feel disturbed. You feel love rather than raw desire for people around you. You choose saner responses and constructive energy options when you have to express yourself. You discover great joy in realizing that Life may often shake you but, by being a mere witness, you can ensure your inner core is not stirred!