The Importance of Bearing Witness

Kindness and generosity of others that need the help The thanks of the people that were helped. Henrietta, TOPS School, age 8, Seattle, University of Washington

Often, I mention the importance of bearing witness. When we bear witness, we allow ourselves to observe and be present with what is taking place at that moment. Agendas, judgments, and preconceived notions are set aside. Defense mechanisms give way to mindfulness as we simply allow feelings to unfold and be heard. We give voice to our own human frailties and in turn create the space for another to voice his or her inner world in our presence. We open to shared experience and the community of humanity.

In my opinion, the upcoming decades present a great opportunity for humanity to evolve beyond simply surviving. I believe we are being called to birth a global community. As we solidify into a technologically driven society, it is clear that priorities of self preservation built on short sighted consequences and ignoring global impact simply are not working. The ability to put on blinders and pretend that our impact on planet earth is life promoting is becoming increasingly difficult. Genuine drives to protect and prosper can easily shift into denials of core pain and suffering. We create illusions of safety and having what we “need” as necessary to our survival. Desires to thrive become twisted into promoting disengagement instead of authentic sharing.

Technology has created wonderful opportunities that enable us to move towards a global community. Social networking enables people to stay in contact and connect that wouldn’t have otherwise. Yet, I think it’s important to ask: Is all the techno driven contact promoting genuine exchange? Are we supporting humanity? What is the cost of too much interaction that is not centered in genuine sharing? Certainly, there are many relationships that bring healing opportunities and authentic relationships that wouldn’t have occurred without social networking, cell phones, email, and the internet. But, I also think that the ability to communicate without being physically present with one another can foster a detachment from our humanity. Instead of bearing witness, we hide behind our devices. We communicate without really connecting or being present; we maintain the illusion of relationships without authentically sharing who we are.

We don’t just use devices to avoid opening ourselves to one another. Our ego selves can continually send a message that exposing our vulnerabilities and pain is too risky. We tell ourselves that it’s not safe, or simply deny that the pain even exists. When we support a belief that we are weak or less if we show our pain, we are denying our humanity. Suffering ensues, and a boundary becomes a wall. The gift of shared experience and opportunity to know and reflect loving kindness is diminished.

I understand how threatening and scary allowing another to bear witness to our pain can be. I have been in the presence of people who have expressed vulnerability only to see them react with shame and embarrassment. Too often, society sends us the message that we are less when we show our pain. I’m not referring to instances when people are projecting suffering onto others which results in toxic energy or abuse for those in their path. Bearing witness is a genuine exchange within one’s self and in turn with another. When someone is willing to authentically open by allowing me to bear witness, I consider it a gift and an honor. When I allow myself to bear witness to my own pain, I heal.

There’s a difference between boundaries and hiding. Healthy boundaries empower us to make appropriate choices regarding our health and well-being. Hiding supports stuffing and denial. Boundaries enable us to choose who, when, and where we invite another to bear witness. Or, we may be called upon to evaluate whether it serves our well-being to bear witness to another. I’m not suggesting we share with everyone. Boundaries can guide us towards healthy sharing so we do not have to stuff, deny, or avoid our human vulnerabilities. I am suggesting that we remember that bearing witness is a gift that is central to supporting humanity.

When we bear witness to another, we create sacred space. We open to shared humanity. We invite ourselves to the dance of life. The human experience is one that is built on sharing life. Whether with one another, other life forms, or the earth herself, we are called upon to realize that we are not living in a bubble that excludes other life. We are connected to one another. Genuine, open, and honest sharing is the building block of humanity. When we hide behind defense mechanisms and foster not wanting anyone to see who we are, we foster the illusion that our pain is uniquely our own. We create suffering instead of healing.

May you find the loving kindness that resides in the presence of bearing witness. May we foster a global community built with peace and compassion.

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