Is a Permanent Witness State Possible?

Hello Ted,

I have read your articles on the Advaita Vision site as well as your own Never Not Present site. Thank you for your time and effort to guide others on this path.

I do have a question:

I think I have arrived at a point where I intellectually understand and am fully convinced of everything you and other Advaita teachers like yourself point to.

However, I wonder if it is even possible to “permanently” reside in this state of plain “awareness” separate from the mind-body (“apparent individual”).

For example, when we are in a cinema hall watching a movie, knowing fully well that nothing on the screen is “real” and that it is just a movie with actors – we still get lost in the story, root for the good guy, get upset during tragic scenes and yearn for a happy ending. When we cannot stop losing ourselves for two hours in the cinema hall (despite full conviction that we are watching a movie), what chances do we have against this movie of the world that plays before us for 24/7/365?

I guess what I want to know is, is it even practically possible for somebody to go beyond just intellectual understanding of Advaita? Related to this question, I am curious about your own state. Are you permanently in the “witness” state or does it come and go? Sorry, if this is a naive question to ask.

Thank You,




Hi, Orion.

This is not a naïve question at all. It is perfectly legitimate. The answer is couched in a rather subtle understanding that will take some time to unfold.

The first thing you need to understand is that awareness is not a state. States are physical-emotional-mental conditions that come and go. They are limited in terms of both time and character. That is, they last only a certain length of time and they are identifiable as specific states because of certain characteristics that distinguish them from other states. In short, states are objective phenomena that appear within the scope of awareness. No state, therefore, defines awareness, for limited object can comprehensively define or characterize that which is limitless.

Of course, from the absolute perspective all states are nothing other than awareness, for in non-dual reality there is no second entity or condition. Hence, awareness is both the upadana karana, the material cause of the manifestation, the “substanceless substance” out which it is made, as well as the nimitta karana, the intelligence that “shapes” that substance into the myriad forms that comprise the manifestation and the intelligence that informs both its physical structure and constitutes the dharma, the universal physical, psychological, and ethical laws that govern its functioning.

But awareness as such is ever free of the manifest universe (both its gross and subtle aspects) that maya projects like a hologram within the scope of its being. This inherent and eternal freedom is due to two fundamental factors. First, the manifestation is only apparent, so it cannot actually “touch” or affect the real. To say it can is, by analogy, like saying that a shadow can affect the person from whose form it is cast. Second, awareness doesn’t undergo any actual change in order to appear as the manifestation. Just as gold retains its essential nature despite the myriad ornaments into which it is shaped, so awareness retains its essential nature as pure awareness despite its appearance as the innumerable forms—both gross (i.e., tangible items) and subtle (i.e., sensations, emotions, and cognitions)—that comprise the manifest universe.

Awareness is simply the “light” by which all objects, including all states—which are objects in the sense that they are known phenomena, are illumined.

Illumining, however, is not a karma, an action, performed by awareness, but rather the svarupa, the essential nature, of awareness. The “knowing” we speak of with regard to pure awareness is not the act of knowing that we attribute to the relative knower (i.e., the apparent person comprised of the body-mind-sense complex). Though we refer to pure awareness as “witness consciousness” or “witnessing awareness,” this witnessing is neither a matter of observing objects nor accumulating knowledge of information. The “witnessing” or “knowing” we speak of with regard to awareness is simply the luminous presence of consciousness that lends sentiency to the subtle body or, more specifically, the antahkarana (i.e., the “inner instrument” or general mind) and enables it to perform the various functions associated with the manas (indiscriminate perceiving and emoting), buddhi (discriminative deliberating and deciding), chitta (remembering), and ahamkara (taking responsibility for doing and enjoying) that we call thinking and knowing and attribute to the relative knower or individual person.

The point to be taken from this explanation is that awareness is not a personal entity who experiences states. In the absence of awareness—that is, when the instrument of the mind is not serving as a reflective or manifesting medium for awareness, such as in the case of a dead person—no experience can be had by the mind, but awareness itself is not an experiencer.

Now brace yourself for this next bit because the ego hates this part…

The mind is actually nothing more than an inert mechanism composed of subtle matter. It does not think on its own. Though this can come as quite a shock, it is verifiable though a logical analysis of one’s own experience. It can be inferred by the observation of a dead person. Since the instrument of the mind is not serving as a manifesting medium for awareness, it does not produce thoughts. Direct experience also attests to the fact that awareness is invariably present with regard to anything and everything you know. In other words, you can’t say that you know anything unless it abides within the field of your awareness. Or, to put it conversely, nothing you know stands outside the scope of awareness.

Moreover, nothing known—that is, no known object—is the knower, for the knower cannot be that which is known to it. In practical terms, no object knows itself; no idea thinks up itself, no emotion feels itself, no sensation feels itself. All ideas, emotions, and sensations are known by the mind. But the mind itself is a known object—in fact, the mind is actually nothing other than the name we give to the modifications arising within the scope of awareness and the functions by which these modifications are processed and experienced, and these modifications as we have just said are known objects. Thus, the mind is entirely dependent on awareness for its capacity to know.

The grand irony of the whole set-up is that neither awareness nor the mind actually knows or experiences anything on its own. By analogy, the situation is like that of a computer plugged into a wall socket or connected to Wi-Fi. Neither the computer nor the power by means of which it operates can call up information or make calculations on its own, but when the two are combined, all the elaborately complex and seemingly magical things of which computers are capable can take place. The analogy falls short in that a computer needs a person to operate it, but I’m sure you get the point.

What’s more, awareness is entirely beyond the relative realm of the apparent reality. In terms of our analogy, computers—as well as all the information they “produce” and activities they “perform”—come and go, but the power remains untouched and eternally present. Similarly, awareness abides altogether “beyond,” “prior to,” “transcendent of,” and entirely unaffected, modified, or limited by any of the objects, events, or conditions that appear within it. And since even time and space are objects, awareness lies “outside” and is not subject to their limiting parameters. Thus, when we say awareness is “permanent” or “eternal,” we mean that awareness is altogether free or independent of time.

Having said all that, we can now more directly address your question concerning whether it is possible, as you put it, to “permanently” reside in the state of “awareness” separate from the mind-body (“apparent individual”).

The simple answer is “Yes.” As awareness, you are already “permanently” residing in your own being, which is “separate” form the mind-body in that your essential nature is entirely unaffected by the modifications, the objective phenomena, appearing within the scope of your being. To the degree that you have assimilated this understanding you will not get “lost in the story” of worldly life.

If what you are expecting is that self-knowledge will render you a numb zombie who feels no pain or pleasure or ever allows him or herself to “dig into life and get his or her hands dirty,” so to speak, then I’m sorry to inform you that such is not the case. For better or worse—you make the call—you still get to be a human being with a human experience that includes pleasure and pain until such time as your prarabdha karma plays out. The difference for the one with self-knowledge is that while pleasure and pain persist, suffering ceases because you know that nothing can enhance, diminish, or change in any way or to any degree your essential nature as limitless awareness. Imbued with this understanding, you can allow yourself—once the understanding is firm, that is—to wander as far as you like into the apparent reality because you know that you can simply “call yourself back home” at any point rather than getting “lost” in it. Thus, while self-knowledge will most likely have a positive effect on your general state of experience due to the fact that you will no longer depend on objects for happiness and, thus, won’t be stressed out about the results of your actions, you will still be privy to the experience of the person you appear to be.

In this regard, full self-knowledge includes the understanding of both the apparent reality and your true nature as pure awareness, and—once assimilated—enables you with the spontaneous capacity discriminate between these two ontological orders and “enjoy” them both, so to speak. You might say that we have two channels: The Apparent Broadcasting Network and the Real Broadcasting System. The Apparent Broadcasting Network offers us much programming pleasure in the way of entertainment, education, and opportunity for service. The Real Broadcasting System affords us the infallible sense of security that is our true nature. Thus, when we want to indulge our desires, broaden our horizons by learning about things we find interesting, or wish to make a contribution to the dharma-field, the manifest universe, by using the unique skill set with which the body-mind-sense complex that we are associated with has been endowed, then we tune into the Apparent Broadcasting Network. When we seek to abide in the peace and happiness that are our true nature, then we tune into the Real Broadcasting System. The ability to navigate between these two channels is what constitutes the actualization of self-knowledge.

The truth is that the Real Broadcasting System, or the self, pure limitless awareness, is always broadcasting and is the adhishthanam, the substratum, on which the Apparent Broadcasting Network, the manifest realm of relative experience, depends. No matter what we are experiencing, the self is always the “field” in which that experience occurs or the “light” by which the experience is illumined. We say, “The tree is,” “The dog is,” “The cricket match is,” “The car accident is,” “The cancer is,” etc. While the object changes, “isness” remains constant. If you begin to take notice of this fact and meditate upon it not only in regard to “external” objects, but also in terms of the body and mind of the apparent person you seem to be, your mind will grow increasingly subtle, and eventually you will understand that you are the “isness” rather than the relative knower whose mind observes the “isness” of the object. Then you will find yourself abiding in your true nature—the limitless awareness in which you have been abiding all along.

Rather than believing yourself to be—and identifying yourself as—the sensations, emotions, and cognitions that occur to you, you will recognize yourself as the “isness” you truly are.

And this recognition will not be simply intellectual.

Try it and “see” for yourself.

And should you have any further questions, please let me know.

All the best, Orion.