Zen teacher Jules Shuzen Harris teaches us a three-step practice for connecting and serving those who suffer. Illustrations by Carole Hénaff.
In times of doubt, disbelief, and insecurity, the practice of witnessing can be an important aspect of our conscience and presence.
Witnessing can be defined as acknowledging that something exists or is true. From a Buddhist perspective, and specifically from the Zen Pacific Order, to bear witness is to embrace both the joy and the suffering we encounter. Instead of looking at the situation, we become the situation. We become intimate with anything: hunger, poverty, discrimination, illness or death.
Witnessing invokes a sense of interconnection, a direct realization of the whole of life.
When we analyze and judge a situation, we usually arrive at it with all our usual ideas and beliefs. We are only able to see it through the lens of our conditioned thinking. But when we move on to the practice of witnessing, we will suspend our analytical thinking and move to a place of open consciousness. This allows the witness’s presence to become one with whatever situation we encounter.
To bear witness, we must set aside the focus on our own reactions and enter a place of stillness and receptivity. Witnessing to the world, we are cultivating the same ground of open heart and mind that we practice in our meditation.
This brings us to the question, “What is the benefit of witnessing?”
Psychologically, it allows us to connect with a place of real empathy. It also provides a kind of catharsis, a release from our emotional reactions of pity, shame, or fear.
Spiritually, witnessing invokes a sense of interconnectedness, of unity, a direct realization of the totality of life.
Politically and socially, it allows us to see clearly the whole web of causes and conditions that generate suffering, and to take effective measures to improve people’s lives.
Here’s a three-step practice you can give:
1. Identify who needs you
First, identify a person or group who is unauthorized or suffering. Their situation may be something familiar to us, connected to something we have experienced ourselves, or it may be something completely unknown to us, which brings a new advantage to our consciousness and understanding.
2. Be there and be empty
Second, spend significant time with them. This is a time to let go of what we came, learn and hear. You can take to the streets with the homeless. You could volunteer at a drug rehab clinic, participate in prison outreach work, or support patients and / or families in a hospice facility. You could participate in the volunteer services offered by the VA program to veterans.
The central part of this step is to come from a place of emptiness, to approach it with the desire to be truly intimidated by the experience of another. Witnessing requires a kind of mental and physical devotion to the situation to allow it to fully enter your consciousness.
3. Serve the situation
After a while, ask yourself, “How can I better recognize people’s plight?” If they are hungry, can I serve them a meal or find a way to help them feed themselves and take refuge? I would say yes, you should do both. Witnessing is embracing and acknowledging the whole situation. On a personal level, food. At the systemic level, get involved with the system.
If ever there was a time when we had to bear witness, it is now.
There are many ways in which witnessing can become an active expression of our conscience and empathy. Where we live, the city council, the mayor’s office, the governors or the legislature can be incorporated into this eye-catching recognition. At the federal level, your congressional representative or federal agencies may be responsible for your responsibilities. Our personal testimony includes support for organizations that promote legislation and policies that address human suffering and promote peace and justice.
In a cultural anthropology class I did years ago, I learned about the notion of cultural maintenance, which describes how a culture, as a system, defends itself even if it means hiding the truth or absorbing what that culture perceives as threats. Witnessing is a radical act, it is a way to enlighten the truth and stand firm in that light.
The practice of witnessing is not easy, but if there was ever a time when we had to witness, it is now. Gone are the days when it was enough to take to the streets to bring about social change. Each of us is called to go beyond our own fixed visions and open our eyes to penetrate the true reality of the world as it is.
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