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Your Witness

William Cheselden’s Osteographia, 1733 and The Anatomy of the Human Body, 1740

Some believe that life is the result of a universal accident and the chemical flux in our bodies deludes us into thinking we’re more than just its hapless, unanchored subjects. It baffles me to hear such yielding certainty, especially when it is quite apparent that we have barely breached the most elementary knowledge of how our minds influence matter, and have just begun to wrap our minds around matter itself. Evolution of the body and intelligence as a means of survival isn’t in dispute as it’s a direct example of life reacting to its environment. However, evolution as a means of reaching a perfect finality, whether mental or preternatural, would seem to require some sort of blueprints of what that outcome would resemble, and this working plan would also need to be an inherent part of us via DNA encoding or another recondite system. For those who believe in an arbitrary existence, an orchestrated evolution is an impossible contradiction, and as science has yet to measure the spirit, they are content it doesn’t exist.

Pressed to explore why we contain and produce certain chemicals that allow us to feel grief and tenderness, turbulent despair, wonder and wanderlust, some people feign satisfaction with the scientific theories, which don’t provide a reason, just the method. Press them harder. First, pose the query that if they really believe in all of this happenstance, that we are never the cause, only the result, then what was the initial cause that led to us as a result. What elicited the first reaction?  Next, ask them why we have these bodies that produce chemicals that make us feel these emotions. Above all, what is that placid, offset place from where we observe ourselves, unswayed by the view as one watching a far off tempest from shore where its clouds and wind can’t reach. Science can demonstrate consciousness and subconsciousness easily enough, but it still fails to distinguish between the emotional reactor and this unmoved observer that seems so evident to those who can entertain the possibility that we are more than skin and synapses. 

When we see someone smile and we smile back to acknowledge their expression, this is a conscious response based on the desire to convey a mutual feeling. On returning to a childhood home that we haven’t visited since we were little, we are surprised to see how the house appears to have shrunk compared to our memory. We’ve carried that image in our minds without factoring in the change in our bodies, the physical growth that alters our perspective of the size of an object. Yet standing there before this memory in real life, we have to come to terms that the house didn’t shrink—we grew. This is an example of how the subconscious and conscious meet face to face.

Finally, we have this elusive bystander that has been called everything from the soul, spirit, anima, watcher, witness, self, atman, and hundreds other meek attempts to capture the concept in a single word. Just as varied are the interpretations of what this witness is exactly, and knowing we’re discussing the same concept is vital to making any progress on the topic. Some hold it’s an immaterial part of our mind or heart, others feel it resides in another dimension altogether. There are those who think its source is born with us, and others that think it’s preexisting, and the witness is an appendage of something much greater. Some even perceive it as an external guardian, or a divine exchange student using the body as a vehicle to take in the curriculum. In contrast, science hasn’t discovered how the variable of an immaterial force can integrate and interact with the current theories of matter without a total disintegration of our most prevalent and precious formulas, this sensation that we consist of something more complex than hair and atoms is technically explained as psychobiological illusion, a comforting product our minds create from consciousness and memory. Consequently, while we wait for a final convergence of physics with metaphysics, we’re left to define the witness ourselves.

Each birthday, my grandmother asked me if I felt any older. I would jump up on the counter to look into the mirror, into my own eyes, and feel unchanged. I’ve since continued to search my own reflection and still detect this controlled variable within: The same eyes have always looked back at me, along with the same thought, that I am a witness to the very life that I am living, that I have a place within where I can watch myself react without reaction. Sure, I’ve grown taller, gotten older, progressed in many ways, yet there remains a place inside that is incapable of these qualities, where there is no transformation over time, no evolution, no discerning of the past from the present, unmeasurable.

The witness within never bows to anything lower than itself. It can only be sensed when our thoughts turn to its presence, when we momentarily opt out of the temporal frame we need to plot our place in life. Then we can see that while it may appear that we’re only reactions, there is another factor to our experience that remains a constant no matter how much we react. Our experiences and vocabularies enable us to get a bit closer to tracing a faint outline of its shape. As a child, I didn’t know what it was but I knew it was real. I didn’t doubt or question that it was an integral part of me. No one ever defined it to young me, and though even now I can’t define it as anything more than something that, at times, makes me think in terms of ‘we’ instead of ‘me,’ I bow to it and sense its slightest nod before it becomes still once more.

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