A few weeks ago I read a blog post by Director Anne Bogart. In this writing she suggested that one of the powerful effects of theater was in its ability to provide the audience with the opportunity to serve as an active, non-doing witness. By this she mean, that each person present at live theater is indirectly asked to open his or her heart and connect with the individuals on stage.
The spectator cultivates a special relationship to the event by being willing to be with the suffering of someone but at the same to time let it be, not try to fix, change, or make things different despite the emotions generated by watching. In the theater, the audience sees in order to experience, interpret and understand.
According to Bogart, this implicit understanding creates a type of empathy between the viewer and the actor, which binds people in a manner that can be mutually “cathartic.”
As one who loves most things Bogart produces, I have found myself wondering if this same idea of “non-doing witness” could be applied outside the theater. And if so, what would happen if we each attempted to live as a non-doing, empathetic witness to the experiences of others?
There are practices like NVC (Non-Violent Communication) that emphasize an empathetic connection. However, we can also use our time on the mat to begin cultivate this non-doing witness within our own asana practice.
By first tuning into our breathe from one pose to the next and noticing our thoughts as we encounter something physically challenging, we can start to notice when we feel inclined to “do” instead of “be” within the present moment and see if we can allow that tendency to act to subside for the present moment. For as Bogart writes,
Our presence and attention allows the perceived to feel the kind of empathy and support that can alleviate their emotional load by simply sharing it with us. There is no substitute for full, real presence. Other forms of staying connected are only approximations. Bearing witness is a powerful tool and an action in the world that has consequence. Sharing ourselves with others opens up a space where once there was none.
Thus, by creating space to witness own experiences, we can begin to create the space and opportunity to learn how to do the same for another.
The only thing such an undertaking requires, as Bogart Reminds us, is “the courage to show up fully and take responsibility for one’s own anxiety and to be with fully and compassionately” that which is. And we can do this! One breath at a time; one thought at a time. We simply need to remind ourselves that we have the strength and courage to simply be a non-doing witness.