Ram Dass, one of the most prominent spiritual figures of our time, talks about developing the witness with regards to freeing yourself from detachment. This is a Hindu idea stemming largely from the Baghavad Gita (its central text), which I understand to be the mind clinging to the world, essentially in a bid for permanence. The game in Hinduism is to disentangle oneself from all of this detachment by identifying with the divine and infinite self, instead of with the finite mind-body complex. The witness is useful in this process, because it sets up a point from which you can see what you are doing, almost from a distance. Instead of being totally immersed in your thoughts and actions (or in other words blind), the witness allows some spaciousness of mind where you can merely observe, non-judgmentally, all your comings and goings.
When this happens, at first your behaviour doesn’t change at all, you are merely more aware of it. But soon, as you begin to abstract your patterns of thought and behaviour, the destructive, unhealthy or pointless sequences of these patterns will just start to drop off. The amazing thing about this is that you won’t need to make any effort, just watching them will make them dissipate, like a fog evaporating under the heat of the Sun that has recently emerged behind dark clouds.
How do you go about developing the witness? Well, it’s already there. For example, right now I can just say to myself ‘this is me typing in bed. It’s warm, I have a slight itch on my left leg and I’m worried about the future,’ and in that moment I have manifested the witness. It might seem that we don’t have this built-in capacity to observe from a neutral place what we are doing, but in my experience (such that it is), that is because I become submerged in my thoughts, feelings and actions. It is very easy to locate yourself there, and as a result you forget to locate yourself in that other part of you that is the witness. So whenever I inadvertently pop back into that latter space it’s always quite amusing, because I realise I never even noticed leaving it.