Most people I know are overwhelmed. Every day. What does that look like?
They constantly rush. And sigh. And say they’re tired. They stress over their kids, their financial security, their relationships and their work situations, to name a few of the big ones.
Of their life in general, I often hear people say, “It’s just so much.”
The disease of unease
This manifests in a near-constant feeling of unease. Most of the time it’s not of the awful, depressive or super-anxious variety. It’s just a ping-ponging from one stressful situation to the next over the course of the day and night. Day after day, week after week, month after month…
The approach to dealing with these uneasy feelings is to conduct near-perpetual dialogues, mostly inside our heads, but also with our friends and family. One category of these dialogues is the “fix it” strategy.
-You’re pumping gas into your car and, “Holy shit! $110 to fill up my car? I may have to up my hourly rate. Or even get a second job.”
-“Little Johnny has been in his room for four hours straight playing video games. He’ll never be able to make a life for himself. I need to sit with my husband and come up with a schedule limiting his screen time.”
-“My boss is working me to the bone. How in the hell am I going to keep up this pace? I need to figure out a new eating and sleeping strategy that gives me more energy…”
More commonly, people just stress out when these things happen, skip the “fix it” talk and go straight to, “My life is out of control! The sky is falling! AGGHHH! It’s too much!”
Becoming your problems
In other words, people engage with all of their stressors and the feelings they produce. They engage so deeply that they become these feelings and problems. Their entire identity becomes, “I’m a financially insecure single parent who will never go on a date again, whose job could go away any day, who’s got a son whose life is going down the tubes because all he does is play video games. That is who I am…”
Many reading this might be thinking, “Yeah, that’s me. And that’s life. What other way is there other than trying to solve your problems so that this feeling of overwhelm goes away?”
This is the other way:
Don’t engage with all of those thoughts and feelings. Separate from them and observe them.
Why? Because those thoughts and feelings aren’t you. The entity that leans away and observes those thoughts and feelings is you. It’s your consciousness.
The great masters and witness consciousness
Leaning away and observing, rather than diving in and engaging, is called witness consciousness. You’ve heard of the great yogis like Yogananda, Ramana Maharshi, Neem Karoli Baba and Meher Baba? All they really did was master witness consciousness. Through countless years of practice, they developed the ability to experience life in the present moment rather than allow their consciousness to be swept up by their minds.
In all my years of studying and practicing this spiritual stuff, it is this concept that I’d put at the top of the heap in terms of importance. Specifically: It’s about separating the conscious self from the egoic quagmire of the mind.
Why we’re not even aware of our conscious selves
Most people on planet Earth have very little concept of their conscious self because it is so drowned out and enveloped by their loud, powerful egoic minds. As such, they have no ability to realize that they aren’t those thoughts and feelings because those thoughts and feelings are the only things they experience.
Fine. So we’re not our thoughts and feelings. What happens when we do this whole witness consciousness thing?
Answer: When we watch instead of engage, those troubling thoughts and feelings are freed up to pass along, like clouds in the sky.
Eckhart Tolle expressed this metaphor beautifully in a quote I love so much I wrote an article about it (here). Here’s the quote:
“You are the sky. The clouds are what happens, what comes and goes.”
Some reading this may say, “This separate and observe thing sounds like a strategy for avoiding our feelings. Well, I like to feel my emotions. I don’t want to turn into an unfeeling zombie.” I’ve received comments from some readers to this effect in previous articles that touched on witness consciousness.
My response is that witness consciousness is precisely the opposite of avoiding feelings. In fact, what we’re doing is purposely placing our attention on our feelings.
Witness consciousness: subject and object
The wrinkle is that witness consciousness involves two entities: the subject, our consciousness, and the object, whatever’s in our field of awareness. Sometimes a chirping bird comes into that field of awareness. Sometimes it’s the smell of popcorn. And sometimes what comes into our field of awareness is the upset feeling when we see that it cost $110 to fill our car with gas.
So what do we do with that gas price-induced upset feeling? We let it come in and relax behind it. Then we observe it, just as we do the bird song and the popcorn smell. We experience the feeling, from a place of non-judgmental observation. Then we let it go.
What we don’t do is what most people do: Allow our consciousness to be sucked into the mind where it gets swallowed up by anxious thoughts. When we do this, we lose the subject, us. And all that’s left is the object, a bunch of wacky thoughts and feelings coursing through the mind and body, a dynamic that is the root cause of most suffering.
Experience life and let it pass through
Look at it this way. We experience all kinds of things in life. Bird sounds, popcorn smells, driving past white lines on the highway…We don’t hold onto these experiences, do we? No. We experience them and then let them pass through us.
Witness consciousness is about experiencing everything — good sounds, bad sounds, good feelings, bad feelings — and then letting them go. The Buddhists call this ‘Don’t resist. Don’t cling.’ Just experience and let go.
The paradigm shift — from mind to witness
That’s the paradigm shift I’m suggesting. It’s going from living a life being overwhelmed by our busy minds to a life of witness consciousness.
Many of you are now asking the next logical question:
“Great. But how do I solve the gas price dilemma, my kid playing too many video games and my boss breathing down my neck? Does witness consciousness make all these problems magically disappear?”
No, it doesn’t. It gets you to look at your problems/challenges through a new lens: present moment awareness. Instead of tackling problems through the lens of egoic freak out, we deal with life from the vastly more intelligent place of presence.
Eckhart and the power of consciousness
Eckhart Tolle even named his greatest book after this — The Power of Now. He’s right. The power behind the universe comes through us when we act from a place of present moment awareness, not when we let our noisy, critical minds captain the ship.
Your next logical question/concern might be:
“This witness consciousness thing sounds like a great way to live. But dang, when stuff happens to me my mind sucks me right in. Leaning away and observing, rather than getting sucked in, sounds like it would be incredibly hard for me. What do I do?”
It ain’t easy
Of course it’s hard. It took sages like Yogananda and Ramana Maharshi many decades to master witness consciousness.
And just to be honest and realistic, the chances of you mastering this state of being are slim. Me too.
But that’s okay. Because there is such a thing as incremental improvement. Most of us may not master witness consciousness, but just working at it and getting better will be absolutely life-transforming for most people.
It’s transformed my life and I’m definitely no master. Far from it. Just ask my wife and kids, who still set me off like Mt. Vesuvius (my son used to call me Vesuvius!) not so infrequently.
How do we “work at it”? It’s broken record time for you regular readers of mine. There’s no magical, special sauce involved.
It’s all about quieting the mind
The work is about quieting our minds to the point that our conscious selves can be extricated from the talons of the egoic insane asylum of our minds. Once freed, we assume our rightful place in the seat of self and observe the asylum from a place of witness consciousness.
How do we quiet our minds? Wait for it………We develop a regular meditation practice and work to incorporate mindfulness in our lives.
There are others, like yoga, mantra, chanting and qigong, to name a few. And they’re all fantastic. I do find, however, that meditation and mindfulness offer the most direct path to quieting our minds.
So get started on these practices. I can almost guarantee that if you do, that feeling of life overwhelm will diminish. Maybe a lot. Maybe a little. It depends on your commitment level, your particular life situation and your personal makeup. But there will at least be a modicum of alleviation in that feeling of overwhelm.
If you’re looking for a place to start, go to davidgerken.net for a free meditation program that’s designed to be as easy as possible.
You and everyone around you — your kids, spouse, family, friends, coworkers — will be better off if you get moving on these practices. I hope you’ll go for it.