The Art of Sacred Witness
The words “Sacred Witness” carry an ancient flavor as I speak them, rich with earthy mystery. Maybe the words “Sacred” and “Witness” invoke images of stone-wrought temples or incense-laden rituals: old ways of being human that clash with our contemporary world’s obsession with productivity, branding, and an unyielding pace of progress.
We’re used to being looked at, but are we accustomed to being seen?
More to the point: Do we know how to see ourselves? Imagine you can temporarily set aside the way you’ve been trained to judge your efforts or measure your success. Imagine you have moved beyond the tendency to compare yourself to others. I’m asking if you can see your own value and worth, beyond the shadow of doubt.
Sacred Witness is a dedicated practice rooted in a stance of compassion. Sacred Witness is a path to remembering and valuing who you are, and consciously choosing how you want to live according to what you hold in highest esteem.
The practice of Sacred Witness encourages you to pay attention to what words and ways feel natural for you to express your sense of spirituality. I say spirituality to name the part of ourselves where wisdom lives. Spirituality is the part of us that knows how to connect and create, how to tell stories, how to make meaning out of our raw life experiences. When you feel like you are genuinely being yourself, this is a spiritual moment.
Ultimately, it is from our spiritual center that we create the life we want to live. Sacred Witness speaks directly to this center, the pulsing and rhythmic heart of our being. Sacred Witness asks us to be exactly who we are in the world as it is. Simple, but easy? For most us, it’s not.
My life has taught me the Art of Sacred Witness. The lesson found me. Life’s tangled logic unfolds in ways that I cannot predict. I gained introduction to what I now call the Art of Sacred Witness through a series of unanticipated encounters with various spiritual and healing traditions. These encounters have come through formal study, and through the guides Life sends to us even when we don’t know how to ask for them. I’ve been schooled in the Art of Sacred Witness through my experiences on farms, in hospitals and addiction treatment centers, in temples and churches and yoga studios, by vast waters and towering cliff faces, among landscapes remembering what it was to be wild.
My path has unfolded in a manner particular to my way of being and perceiving, as will yours. The foundation for my own practice of Sacred Witness has entailed learning how to confront my fears and recognize my own worth. There are still days when I struggle to see myself clearly. Many years down my spiritual path, it’s still the case that old thought-habits and emotional ruts can impede my view of “who I really am.”
Do you ever ask yourself: “Who am I, really?”
Strange as the question can sound, I think it evinces a healthy curiosity about our “true selves.” The question “Who am I?” addresses our basic realness, the specific qualities and unique methods of self-expression that accompany each of us from birth to death.
The Art of Sacred Witness helps us come to feel at home in our own skin, by asking us to acknowledge the ways in which our genuine self-expression has gradually become obscured and disfigured by the expectations, assumptions, and prejudices we inherit from our families, communities, and societies.
The practice of Sacred Witness can help us overcome the unbearable sense of self-alienation that surfaces when we lose contact with “who we really are.” We may be surviving, but we somehow feel at odds with life. Symptoms of the disconnect between who we know we are and how we’re currently acting are feelings of despair, overwhelm, and isolation. Caught in the throes of these painful feelings, is when we are most likely to harm others. The Art of Sacred Witness honors the reality of our interconnection, as well as our power to heal and grow.
Our wholeness is not a myth. I’m comfortable conjecturing that most people who read these words have experienced a sense of losing ground, an antigravity moment in which your old world becomes an upheaval, giving you an opportunity to rebuild a world that better suits who you are now. Such moments bring sharp attention to the extent of our wounds and brokenness, and yet such moments also call us back into our wholeness.
How can this be? Like a rubber band stretched too far, we want to snap back into the shape that feels natural and right for us to inhabit. We want to return to ourselves, no matter how far we have strayed. Sometimes my own wholeness feels like a quilt: a patched-together continuity of texture and color that lends beauty to the truth that I’m a being who needs to be periodically reknitted, returned to true form.
Honest self-disclosure: Perceiving myself with compassion is a work in progress. To make these words available for you to see is another step toward my own healing. I am not alone in this work, and neither are you.
Hear this: You are not bad or weird if you have doubts about whether you’re worthy of love and belonging. In my experience, doubt is a form of fear. I encourage you to explore where your voices of doubt come from: What life experiences have taught you to second-guess yourself? What specific fears are preventing your full self-expression? Doubt is the easiest way to stay stuck in old patterns. You and I can hear the voice of doubt in our heads, but we don’t have to believe what it says. We can choose to cultivate and trust a different voice within us, the “true self” who actually does know what we need and what to do.
Try this on: The Art of Sacred Witness helps us tap into our ability to listen for our own wisdom and trust our own insight. The process can start with five minutes of seated or walking meditation each day, to name one approach. Your daily meditation can focus on the qualities and movement of your breath through your body. It can be this simple. You don’t have to do anything but breathe consciously and observe whatever is happening inside of you. Try not to automatically criticize what you feel or think. Stay a few moments longer than you feel comfortable sitting there with whatever seems messy or unpleasant, and over time you’ll likely come to enjoy more self-acceptance. Don’t get me wrong: some days your daily practice will feel like pointless crap. But the cumulative effort can help liberate you further into a stance of self-compassion that you can share with the people in your life.
In our social media era, we’re constantly faced with the task of constructing a public self who can stand out amidst a frothing sea of feeds and posts. Through this post, I want to offer you an opportunity for deconstruction. Take a moment to think about the situations in which you feel unbearably self-conscious, or like you don’t belong. Sometimes learning how to be ourselves is a process of unlearning. If you’re feeling at odds with yourself or your environment, perhaps ask: What beliefs do you hold about yourself that need to die a natural death? In what ways are you altering yourself in hopes of being accepted by others? What do you notice about how your values and actions line up together in daily life?
Through the process of compassionate self-perception, I am able to arrive at a clearer sense of who I am, what I need, and how I want to be in the world. Note the word “process”: nothing about “self” is static. We humans are dynamic creatures. Our needs and values are going to change over time, as we adapt to new circumstances. This is healthy and normal. Done consciously, it’s called growth.
We do know how to heal. Healing is not automatic. Healing is a process that flourishes when we treat ourselves with compassion, ask for help, and give our inner wisdom room to work.
As a spiritual caregiver serving in hospitals, hospices and treatment centers, I have witnessed the power of individuals to participate consciously in their own healing. People facing critical illness, addiction, and death have taught me the most about what I now call the Art of Sacred Witness. I offer these individuals my immense gratitude, because their wisdom has shed light on my own path through this life. The fact is that we take turns facing challenges and needing support. Sacred Witness is the art of encounter. Sacred Witness honors the truth that healing happens in community.
The Art of Sacred Witness reminds us to encounter ourselves and other beings with a sense of honor and awe. Sacred Witness asks us to open ourselves and receive the love that undergirds our shared reality. I may sound crazy, talking about unconditional love in a world that knows a lot of suffering. Sacred Witness precisely embraces what we have been taught to view as absurd: unbridled love, hope, and inspiration. May you find the courage to let these be the foundation of your own healing and growth.
I offer you the practice of Sacred Witness as an invitation to be seen, to be heard, and to be accompanied in your own process of becoming. Sacred Witness is an opportunity for you to liberate yourself from routine doubts and expectations, and to come to know your own flavor of divinity. It would be my joy to help you see and accept the divine expression that you are.
No matter how you decide to go about it: if you need help, please ask. You’re worth it.