Bearing Witness: The Gift of Self

This holiday season, many of us will “gather, celebrate and gift” with an extra heaping of joy. Travelling maskless to grandmother’s house and beyond, we’re feeling generous toward one another. Perhaps the gatherings will be larger, the presents more abundant. Or maybe instead, our experience of the pandemic has reinforced that time together is the greatest gift of all, and we’re committed to making it meaningful, more intimate.

I have a bold suggestion: Make bearing witness your most precious gift.

In psychological terms, bearing witness refers to sharing our experiences with others, often in the communication of traumatic experiences. On the receiving end of a person bearing witness, a person feels empathy, support, and often a sense of catharsis. That’s because their experience is acknowledged as existing, as true. Zen teacher Jules Shuzen Harris explains that in bearing witness, you “become intimate with whatever is.”

Because the willingness to “become intimate with whatever is” is a gift of self, why reserve it for extreme or traumatic experiences? We can bear witness at any time and with anyone. If you’ve had a ‘tween or teen in the passenger seat while you’re driving, you may have noticed that they start talking. And the longer you steered that vehicle and kept your lips zipped, the longer they talked. Most likely, you were bearing witness. Or maybe, out of nowhere, a friend speaks from that deep place and you sense that she needs to be heard. So, you put a lid on your ideas and reactions, resist the urge to jump in with a parallel story, and simply listen from a place of deep receptivity.

Dr. Rose Kumar, founder of the Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine explains that, “Bearing witness is a gift we can offer each other at any time. In a world that is moving at warp speed, it is easy to forget that we matter…bearing witness is a sacred act. It even changes the one who bears witness. It deepens and fortifies one’s soul. It makes one trustworthy.”  That’s it, isn’t it? We trust those who witness us by making themselves wholly-present to us.

Maybe the pandemic taught us a little more about how priceless our connection to others truly is. Maybe it opened up a bigger, more receptive heart space within.

Maybe it made us a little more ready and willing to bear witness to each other’s experience.

Bearing Witness: A Three Step Process

  1. Identify who needs you. If you are reconnecting with loved ones in person this season, you may have a sense of who may need you right now. You might reach out to this person with a simple “I just wanted to let you know that I am here for you if you want to talk.” Or, you may find yourself in conversation with someone and sense that your purpose in that moment is to bear witness to them.
  2. Be there and be empty. Focus on letting go of your reactions, opinions, and “stuff.” Bearing witness is not about you, period. Focus on listening and learning about the other person’s truth instead of judging or “fixing.” As Shuzen Harris reminds us, “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 taking them and “it” in for a time, ask yourself this question: “How can I most acknowledge this person and their truth?”

Give a priceless gift this season and every season: bear witness to someone in your life.


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