Zen teacher Jules Shuzen Harris teaches us a three-step practice to connect with and serve those who are suffering. Illustrations by Carole Hénaff.
In times of doubt, disbelief, and insecurity, the practice of bearing witness can be an important aspect of our awareness and presence.
Bearing witness can be defined as acknowledging that something exists or is true. From a Buddhist perspective, and specifically the Zen Peacemakers Order, to bear witness is to embrace both the joy and the suffering we encounter. Rather than simply observing the situation, we become the situation. We become intimate with whatever it is—hunger, poverty, discrimination, disease, or death.
Bearing witness invokes a sense of interconnectedness, a direct realization of the wholeness of life.
When we analyze and judge a situation, we normally come to it with all of our ideas and habitual beliefs. We are only able to see it through the lens of our conditioned thinking. But when we shift to the practice of bearing witness, we suspend our analytical thinking and move to a place of open awareness. This allows the witnessing presence to become one with whatever situation we encounter.
To bear witness, we need to set aside the focus on our own reactions and enter a place of stillness and receptivity. Bearing witness in 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 bearing witness practice?”
Psychologically, it enables 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, bearing witness invokes a sense of interconnectedness, of oneness, a direct realization of the wholeness of life.
Politically and socially, it enables us to see clearly the entire web of causes and conditions that create suffering, and to take effective action to improve people’s lives.
Here is a three-step practice of bearing witness that you can do:
1. Identify Who Needs You
First, identify a person or a group who is disenfranchised or who is suffering. Their situation might be something familiar to us, connected to something we ourselves have experienced, or it could be something totally unfamiliar to us, bringing a new edge to our awareness and understanding.
2. Be There and Be Empty
Second, spend meaningful time with them. This is a time to let go of what we came with, and learn and listen. You might do a street retreat with the homeless. You might volunteer at a drug rehab clinic, participate in prison outreach work, or provide support to patients and/or families in a hospice center. You could take part in the voluntary services offered to veterans by the VA program.
Central to this step is coming from a place of emptiness, approaching it with willingness to become truly intimate with another’s experience. Bearing witness requires a kind of mental and physical surrender to the situation to allow it to fully enter into your consciousness.
3. Serve the Situation
After some time, ask yourself, “How can I most acknowledge people’s plight?” If they are hungry, do I serve them a meal or do I come up with a way of helping them to feed and shelter themselves? I would say yes, you should do both. To bear witness is to embrace and recognize the whole situation. On a personal level, you feed them. On a systemic level, you engage the system.
If there was ever a time when we needed to bear witness, it is now.
There are many ways that witnessing can become an active expression of our awareness and our empathy. Right where we live, the city council, the mayor’s office, governors, or legislative assembly can be brought into this recognition of what is calling out for attention. At the federal level, your congressional representative or federal agencies can be held accountable to their responsibilities. Our personal witness includes supporting organizations that are pushing for legislation and policies that address human suffering and that promote peace and justice.
In a cultural anthropology class I took years ago, I learned about the notion of cultural maintenance, which describes how a culture, as a system, defends itself even if it means disguising the truth or absorbing what that culture perceives as threats. Bearing witness is a radical act—it is a way of shining a light on the truth and standing steadfastly in that light.
The practice of bearing witness is not easy, but if there was ever a time when we needed to bear witness, it is now. Gone are the days when it was enough to march in the streets to bring about social change. Each of us is called upon to move beyond our own fixed views and open our eyes to penetrate to the true reality of the world as it is.