What’s the Difference Between Focusing and Witnessing?

One of the most fulfilling things I get to do is interact with my clients and customers. And the other day I had a few questions from an “Accelerated Meditator” asking what he should “do” in meditation. He was experiencing some anxiety during his practice, and noticed it got worse as his last session went on.

I had initially told him to just become conscious of the feeling, and let it be. But it became clear to me that when his feeling became worse, I hadn’t been clear enough in my instructions. The reason is because there is a huge difference between what I call “focusing,” and what is known as “witnessing.” He was doing one, when he should have been doing the other. I had failed to teach him the difference between focusing and witnessing. Once you know the difference, and can experience both, I think you’ll be surprised just how profound the experience can be.

Let’s define some terms, so we’re all on the same page.

Focusing

We all have 5 basic senses, which we can represent to ourselves internally as thoughts. So, we can make a picture in our imagination, or a sound, feel textures, and even tastes and smells just by thinking about them. This is what I call focusing. When you focus your mind, you are making inner representations, or “thinking.”

There are two major categories of focusing. The first one is easy to demonstrate. Close your eyes right now, and imagine a hot cup of coffee in front of you. Mmm, you can see the brew, smell the aromas, feel the heat, and even taste it! You just used your conscious mind to focus. And it’s called, ‘conscious focusing.’

The second category is unconscious focusing. Here the thoughts (whatever they are: images, sounds, etc.) are out of your awareness, are unintentional, and happen automatically.

The unconscious focus is the main process that is responsible for how you create your life. You have some positive and resourceful unconscious focus, which helps you create and attract what you want. But mostly, the unconscious material is negative. 

Typically, we hide things away from our conscious awareness, usually caused by some traumatic event, to protect ourselves from a similar event happening again. Unfortunately, those decisions we made about ourselves involves inaccurate information, and false beliefs. What we intended to help us, creates and attracts the very things in life we wish to avoid.

For me, I always had relationship troubles. I had a deep unconscious belief that no woman could ever love me. So, what happened? Unconsciously and unintentionally, I attracted and became attracted to women who weren’t capable of love. And even those who were, I filtered out their love and became convinced they didn’t love me. Of course, each relationship failed, and my belief came true each time. I was unconsciously focusing on that negative belief, unintentionally creating the very thing I sought to avoid.

Anything we have repressed (and made unconscious) will seek expression in some form or another, but it’s always in some dysfunctional behavior. A cliched but useful example, is that of homophobic violence. In many cases the homophobe has repressed homosexual desires in the past, and that repression has found expression in violence against gay people. I’m not saying all homophobic people are gay, it’s just an example that illustrates the point really well. No matter what the repression, the person will be completely unaware of it.

When you focus on an unpleasant feeling in the body, be it during meditation or going about your day, the mind has a tendency to think more negative thoughts about it. That in turn, manifests as a stronger negative feeling in the body, fueling the fire for the mind to think more bad things about. We end up in a horrible negative spiral, where the feelings get worse and worse.

And you can imagine what happens when we catch ourselves doing this… “Damn, I’m having these bad thoughts and feelings! I shouldn’t do that! I’m such a loser!” More fuel goes on the fire with every judgement you make about your thoughts and feelings, and the spiral descends even more sharply.

This was what happened to my meditator. He got stuck in a negative spiral of anxiety, and made the feeling worse. Whatever we place our attention on, amplifies and grows.

Where did he go wrong?

Well, truth be told, he did nothing wrong! He simply had the exact experience that was right for him at that time. He learned a lot. But what is he doing now?

Witnessing

What is witnessing then? I can tell you that it’s not something that you can do. It’s who you are. The witness is the perspective of your true Self, the universe, god, all-that-is, pure consciousness.

We are going to have to conceptualize it here to talk about how we can adopt the posture of the witness. So, strictly speaking, it’s not something that can be described in any language, it is non-dual and infinite. Keep that in mind, as I give it my best shot.

Let’s imagine a person. And let’s imagine the conscious thoughts that person has, happen on an imaginary screen in front of his face. Now let’s imagine there’s a second screen of thoughts, this time behind his head, and no matter which way he turns he can never see the screen. That screen plays his unconscious thoughts.

Now imagine the sky above the person. The sky represents the witness. It looks down on him and witnesses everything the person focuses on, both consciously and unconsciously. But it does so without any judgement. It has no desire to change him. It simply observes the man, his thoughts and his actions with absolute acceptance. It resists nothing.

Don’t think of the witness as a person. It’s not. It is the entire universe. It is who you really are. It has no beginning or end, no up, no down, do dark or light – no opposites. There is no fear. And the experience of the witness is oneness. It is bliss, joy and love. These also have no opposites.

When you “witness” you become consciously aware of what you are doing in the eternal now moment. Meaning, if you are acting out a repressed unconscious behavior, you will become aware of that action and heal it right then and there. Never will it return because you’ve just shone the light of your consciousness onto it. So, your unconscious focus, that part of you that generates your life on auto-pilot, usually with negative results, starts to come out of the shadows. You begin to see what you are doing to create your results. You stop doing the things you don’t want, and begin to focus more and more on those things you do want. And traumas heal, and life gets a bit more of its juice back.

When you adopt the witness perspective, you will experience the joy of being. You can experience it in meditation, or while going about your business. Awakened people experience the world as the witness, and no matter what is going on around them, have the experience of bliss, and oneness, and are free of the bounds of negative unconscious patterns.

So, focusing is a mental activity. Witnessing is who we are, capital-S, Self. By simply being, without any judgement, we can experience the bliss of life, the reason we are here on this planet. To feel every emotion fully, both negative and positive, but without adding any suffering to them. To have full conscious awareness, and control over our thoughts and feelings. And to create our lives as we would prefer them to be, filled with those transcendent feelings of joy, bliss and love, having an enriching effect on everyone around us.

To witness, simply relax and surrender to what is. Acceptance is key. Let it be.

To prepare for witnessing, just meditate. Don’t judge yourself if you don’t have the experience on the first try. It’s important to mention that it took me many, many months of meditation before I was ready. Keep going.

And what of my meditator? He is going great in his meditation because he is curious of his practice, his mind, body, and emotions. He is actively opening his awareness. He takes advantage of the resources around him and asks questions. I’ve really enjoyed the interactions with him (and all my customers and clients) for many reasons, but one of them is that it makes me a better teacher. So hopefully you have learned something from this article. If you are an Accelerated Meditation participant, I suggest you take advantage too, and send me an email with your questions, discoveries and insights.

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Jim Hudson

Meditator and image-maker. Silencer of monkey-minds. From illness and depression, Jim has clambered his way through to health and fulfillment using diet & meditation. Read about his experiences, and watch his videos right here on the site.

Show 14 Comments
  • Soumik Basu July 6, 2012, 7:19 pm

    Dear Jim,
    Please tell me the very first step to meditation, only the very first step. I hope it’ll help me a lot to start meditation and follow the wisdom that you have shared with us.

    I also read the story told in Upanishad that you have shared. I’m grateful to you indeed.

    Thanks & Regards,
    Soumik.

    • Jim July 9, 2012, 2:43 pm

      Hi Soumik,

      You’re very welcome. This might help you get started meditating: How to meditate. But the essence is simple:

      • Breathe
      • Observe/listen/feel
      • Accept

      And of course if you want to make it extra simple, try the Accelerated Meditation.

      And remember, meditation is a destructive power, and will force you to confront your demons. Don’t let fear stop you from your greatest achievement. Mastering Self.

  • Natalia July 4, 2012, 12:17 am

    Thank you for the wonderful article!

    • Jim July 4, 2012, 1:26 pm

      You’re very welcome Natalia, I’m glad you got something from it 🙂

  • Jim July 2, 2012, 10:42 am

    Have you ever had an itch, but instead of scratching it right away, you left it and just noticed it? If you resist the sensation, it will get worse and worse and worse, until it will be unbearable and you’ll have to give in and scratch it. But if you just witness it, and be okay with it, the intensity of the sensation will lessen until it is not a problem.

    This is a practical thing you can try to get used to the difference between the two ideas.

  • Shilpan July 2, 2012, 9:45 am

    BTW, term ‘param-atma’ in Sanskrit means divine or godly. 🙂

  • Shilpan July 2, 2012, 9:44 am

    You are an amazing teacher, Jim. I agree with you about conscious thoughts and focus — each with negative aspect enlarges that very thought — like zooming on a negative feeling — to make you feel miserable.

    Witnessing is serene. It’s related to your ‘atma’, which in turn is connected to ‘param-atma’. I am learning so much from your my friend.

    • Jim July 2, 2012, 10:53 am

      Thank you very much Shilpan, your words mean a lot to me.

      Look how beautifully this story of Paramatma teaches the same lesson:

      The Upanishads compare Atman and Paramatman to two birds sitting like friends on the branch of a tree (the body). The Atman eats its fruits (karma), and the Paramatman only observes the Atman as a witness of His friend’s actions.

      Very elegant description 🙂

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