Take some time to settle into a quiet mind, using your chosen spiritual practice. Once you feel yourself centered and quiet, consider for yourself the question:
What does it mean to “bear witness” as part of our spiritual practice?
In the face of injustice, our immediate and most powerful impulse is to do something. We want to find a way to be of use, to alleviate the suffering we see, to throw our own small weight onto the scales of justice. It can seem indulgent at best, irresponsible or complicit at worst, to hold ourselves back from such action.
In his poem earlier in this unit, John Daniel writes:
“May we see with clarity,
may we seek a vision
that serves all beings…”
To bear witness to the large injustices of our world means allowing ourselves the time to see with clarity, to seek a larger vision. We take to heart the paradoxical Buddhist instruction: “Don’t just do something, sit there!”
This reversal of our normal urge to leap into action reminds us that sometimes the leap is one of avoidance. To leap into “fix-it” mode is often a way to deny the intense discomfort of being face to face with the pain of injustice, caused by systems and institutions that are vast and complex.
The first step in seeing with clarity is to allow ourselves to feel the whole range of emotion we encounter: sadness, regret, guilt, confusion, compassion, and grief. The willingness to stay present to the pain and to resist the fix-it mode allows us then to bear witness in another way. It lets us listen, with deep care, to the experiences told to us by those fighting for their rights, to hear their reality told through their own stories and in their own voices.
Bearing witness is part of the spiritual journey of justice-making. It gives us a spaciousness in which we learn to hold the full complexity of the problems that confront us. It lets us hold ourselves in attentive waiting when the path to action is not yet clear. It reminds us to listen with acute respect to those whose stories are very different from ours, and to seek ways to walk with them as allies.
Bearing witness to today’s reality — including, often, our own hidden complicity, and our need to change ourselves as well as the world — opens us more completely to a new vision of what could be. This is how we begin to build the world we dream about.