A Way to Be: Bearing Witness

March 11, 2022

The Table

You know these voices,
if you have ears to hear.
They are legion, whispering
(or shouting) within you
desperate to be noticed,
coming from all corners
of your life, east and west,
north and south, from infancy,
to old age, and all the seasons
in between,
soloists tugging at
your sleeve for attention.
You wonder why they bother
you and what they want
while you try to swat at them
like so many buzzing gnats
and go your unlived way.
It is, after all, so much easier
pretending to be deaf, instead
of inviting them in for tea,
laying your table
with a freshly pressed cloth,
fetching the fine china cups,
the ones you keep in the glass-
fronted cabinet,
or even the chipped mug,
brewing the tea and baking
the cookies. But if you did
greet them as guests,
what would you say to each
voice, each self, that approaches
your table with caution
and desire? Maybe your only
role as host is to be silent,
do nothing but pour the tea,
pass the cookies, listen
to their stories unfolding
like morning glories,
exchanging compassion
for the gift they bring,
the wisdom of your own
unique life.

© Rosemary McMahan

You may be familiar with this story:  An old Cherokee Indian chief was teaching his grandson about life.  “A fight is going on inside me,” he told the young boy, “a fight between two wolves.  The Dark one is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The Light Wolf is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you and inside of every other person on the face of this earth.”  The grandson pondered this for a moment and then asked, “Grandfather, which wolf will win?”  The old man simply said, “The one you feed.”

During this season of Lent, as I consider my own choices, my own life, I am looking beyond my spiritual traditions and exploring the three tenets of Zen Peacemaking as a way of being in this often turbulent and always changing world.  The poem and this story are both examples of the power of the second Zen tenet:  bearing witness.  (See the previous blog for the first tenet, “Not Knowing”  https://spirit-reflections.org/2022/03/07/a-way-to-be-not-knowing/). When we bear witness, we acknowledge all the different feelings, or parts of ourselves, that arise at any given moment, whether it be full of joy or suffering, or somewhere in between.  We wake up to the current situation and give attention to whatever feelings, thoughts, or judgments arise, without condemning or stuffing any of them, but instead deciding which one we will attend to, or, as the Cherokee grandfather says, “feed.”  What comes out of our mouths, as Christ said, reveals what is truly in our hearts (Matthew 15:18).

“When you bear witness you open to the uniqueness of whatever is arising and meet it just as it is. When combined with not-knowing, bearing witness can strengthen your capacity for spaciousness, thus enabling you to be present to the very things that make you feel as if you have lost your center.”

As the first tenet confirms, we cannot know for certain what will happen next, not even in the next minute of our lives.  (The trout lily, pictured above, did not know yesterday that today it would be covered in a late snow.) But we do know that something will happen and whatever that something is, it may open a wide range of feelings, attitudes, opinions, and biases.  Bearing witness asks that we hear all those voices and respect them for whatever wisdom or lessons they may bring, and then we decide which one we will feed.

“Bearing witness can allow you to eventually come to terms with the most difficult life circumstances. The practice is always available to you regardless of the time, place, situation, or people involved. There is nothing that you cannot bear witness to, from dusting the lint off your sweater to living in a pit for two years.” 

With the possibility of a growing war, and in the midst of so much division, to live from the center of our lives, to live in balance, to be able to respond to these present times instead of react, to choose what brings Light instead of Darkness, may be the single most important gift we can give to our world. 

Walking with you ~ Rosemary

Quoted material from Zen Peacemakers:  https://zenpeacemakers.org/the-three-tenets/.