Compassionate Witnessing

by Sara Eden Moss • February 28, 2018

We are changed by what we observe. What we take into our psyches through our senses (images, sensations, experiences, words, and sounds), shapes how we understand the world we move through. We experience this transformation when we witness others, or ourselves.

Being witnessed is a way that we are able to see ourselves, either through our own eyes or the eyes of another. When we are held with compassionate attention by a witness and are able to express ourselves authentically, no matter what that might look like, and still we are offered this caring and present attention, we learn that we are welcome, just as we are. We learn that our entire self is basically good, and our human experience is not anything we need to be ashamed of, or to hide from.

I experience myself as having certain traits that I find to be favorable: courage, vulnerability, and honesty. I am aware of these traits because I first witnessed them in others. I learned them through observing people who carried them in ways that I was drawn to.

It works like this: I meet a new person, and I like them! There is just something about them that draws me towards them. If someone asked me what I found magnetic about this new person right after I met them, I wouldn’t have words for it. I recognize now that I am witnessing a new quality of human expression, or a familiar quality—expressed in a new way.

Through witnessing this new person with this luminous quality that catches my attention, I learn about that quality. Through observation and mimicking I begin to understand this quality within myself. It begins to take shape and find expression through my unique lens.

I also learn and develop a habit of compassion through witnessing others. When I am invited to see someone authentically express how they experience their internal struggle, whether it be with fear, shame, anger, sorrow, or another form of suffering, I find that my heart has no choice but to open to this basic human experience.

I, too, know fear, shame, anger, and sorrow. In this place I can connect to anyone through the shared experience of life, through the human condition that we all experience.

This opening of my heart towards others becomes habitual when I invite myself to participate in the kind of connection that allows me to see another person’s authentic experience. I continue to seek out and create spaces, formal and casual, that make room for this authentic expression of the human experience because of the way it builds the habit of compassion. I enjoy living my life and watching, or witnessing, my own heart turn towards compassion more and more as I allow my eyes to see the shared suffering underneath any expression from others.

In this way, I am also developing compassion for myself. I witness others and I am transformed through seeing them. I witness myself, and I notice myself change through my own awareness of my present moment experience.

I may feel anger rise within me, and as I turn my attention towards it, as I witness that anger, I feel in my body how it melts into fear.

I notice that fear in my body, and as I witness it, the fear might well up into grief.

I witness my grief, and often, it turns into joy.

Having built the muscle memory of compassion with others, I am able to be with my anger when it rises. I witness it, and I feel the resonance of “I, too, know anger.”

In Brené  Brown’s new book, Braving the Wilderness, she astutely states: “…people are hard to hate close-up.” This is the experience of witnessing.

Come closer, practice seeing our shared humanity, and allow your heart to build the habit of compassion.