Putting choiceless awareness into practice requires that we not tune out our experience of attraction and aversion but tune them in even more deeply. Yogis discovered that if we can learn to train our awareness enough to acknowledge sensations as they arise, to experience them fully, and to bear them, then we can no longer be bound to the wheel of opposites. We are no longer whipped around by our conditioned responses to pleasure and pain. We can no longer be compelled to act unconsciously on the sensations.
Desire is not the problem. Attraction is not the problem. Aversion is not the problem. The problem is learning to live with the bare reality of the phenomenal world. The skillful means used in the yogic practice to explore this bare reality is called afflictions in the yogic view, witness consciousness is the primary skillful means for freeing us from our bondage to them. These are the six primary characteristics of the witness.
- The witness does not choose for or against any aspect of reality. The witness does not split life into good or bad, right or wrong, high and low, or spiritual and not spiritual. The witness does not take the sides but experiences a kind of choiceless awareness.
- The witness does not censor life. The witness allows all thoughts, feelings, and sensations to receive the light of awareness, without discriminating. There is absolutely nothing that the witness cannot see, feel, and experience. There is no shadow, no shame, no repression that is not capable of being penetrated by witnessing. The witness is not judgemental in any way, but practical self-observation without judgment.
- Witnessing is a whole-body experience. Witnessing is not an intellectual exercise. Quite to the contrary. We actually witness our experience with the whole body, allowing ourselves to feel the reverberations of the sensations throughout the whole physical emotional organism. Indeed, when the witness is finely honed, we can sometimes feel the reverberation of experience throughout all of the five sheaths.
- Witness consciousness is always present at least in its potential form in every human being at every moment. The witness is the essence of the divine, awake, already enlightened nature. We don’t have to create the witness. This quality of consciousness needs only to be recognized, evoked, claimes, and cultivated.
- The witness is the part of the already awake mind that is capable of standing completely still, even in the center of the whirlwind of sensations, thoughts, feelings, fantasies- even in serious mental and physical illness. From the witness, we can stand back and objectively observe our experience even as we’re having that experience. Even as the witness stands as the still point at the center of the storm, though, this part of our consciousness can fully dance with life, directly experiencing all sensation, even as it remains completely still, anchored and grounded.
- The witness goes everywhere. The witness is connected to the whole quantum field of mind and matter. Witness consciousness stands outside time and space, living in the eternal now of the unmanifest realms, while also penetrating time and space. Witness consciousness is the quality of the self-aware universe. It is the intelligence, the “sight without a seer”, that saturates the whole quantum field of mind and matter.
The Five Koshas
As we begin to explore the koshas below, you’ll notice that they map out an inward journey, from the periphery of the body and arriving at the very essence of who you are.
1. Physical Body
We begin at the outermost layer, the physical body (organs, bones, muscle tissue, and skin), known as the annamaya kosha in yoga. Anna means “food” or “physical matter” and maya means “made of.” We are the most familiar with our annamaya kosha—the experience of our physical body in yoga.
2. Energy Body
Sheathed by the physical layer, the energetic body is called the pranamaya kosha and is composed of the body’s subtle life-force energy prana, also known as chi in Traditional Chinese Medicine.
The animating force behind every atom, cell, organ, and body system, prana coordinates every physiological activity, from the pumping of the heart to the elimination of waste.
Imbalances or blocks within this energetic body greatly affect the overall function of the physical body. What’s more, the body’s subtle energy greatly influences the state of the mind, which is the next layer of self. Prana is closely related to the breath—you receive prana upon the air you breathe.
When the breath is shallow and sporadic, your prana is also erratic. Unstable pranic energy causes the mind to become agitated and the body’s various systems irregular. Smooth out the breath, and prana becomes more stable, the mind gets calmer, and all the body’s living systems function more optimally.
If you’re interested in working with your vital energy, yogic breathing practices known as pranayama exercises, increase and regulate prana in the body.
3. Mental Body
The third layer corresponds to your mind, emotions, and nervous system—expressed as streams of thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and is known as the manomaya kosha, from manas, which means “mind” or “thought processes.”
Many of us have an overactive manomaya kosha that wears on our nervous system and plays out through our emotions. Yoga helps calm our minds and soothe our nervous systems, allowing you to recover from the effects of stress and fatigue on your third body.
Your mental body is also where we experience the five senses. It’s the sheath that allows us to receive, absorb, and process input from the world around us, governing our automatic responses and reflexes. When you go on autopilot and zone out, you’re operating from your manomaya kosha.
4. Wisdom Body
You begin working with the first three bodies as soon as you start practicing yoga.
Coordinating your breath with your movement brings you present on your mat—synchronizing your physical, energetic, and mental bodies. However, the next layer, your wisdom body, takes a little more internal awareness that is cultivated over time.
Beneath the constant stream of thoughts, feelings, and sensations (the processing, thinking, and reactive mind), lies an inner knowing and higher intelligence in your wisdom body, which is called the vijnanamaya kosha, from vijnana, or “intellect.”
Your intuition, conscience, and the reflective aspects of your consciousness are all part of your wisdom body. Here, we develop our awareness and deeper insight into the nature of who we are and how we relate to the world around us.
The practice of yoga helps quiet the mental body so that our wisdom body can be heard and begin to guide us. One simple way to start working with your vijnanamaya kosha is to simply pay attention to any sensations or pulsations taking place internally throughout your practice.
For example, after a Bridge Pose or backbend, once you’re back down on your mat, close your eyes, feel the sensations taking place on the inside, and become aware of your heartbeat.
5. Bliss Body
The deepest layer of our being is the core of our existence, known as the anandamaya kosha, from ananda, which means “bliss.” Often referred to as your highest self or spirit, your bliss body is where you experience the unbounded freedom, expanse, and joyousness of your true nature.
Connection with this kosha is like coming home. There’s a sense of peace and connectedness during which time ceases to exist and your consciousness expands beyond the limits of your body.
While most people aren’t even aware of this aspect of their being, chances are you’ve experienced glimpses of your anandamaya kosha throughout your life.
Holding your newborn child or looking into your lover’s eyes, you may have dropped from conscious awareness and into your radiant bliss body. You might have also touched upon it while losing yourself in a painting, poem, film, story, or song, or perhaps while giving a speech or performance.
I dip in and out of my bliss body when I’m teaching yoga. Without having to involve my thinking mind, wisdom, directions, and insights pour out of me and fifteen minutes can go by in the blink of an eye.