159 – Active Receptivity in Zazen: Surrounded by a Symphony
161 - The Parinirvana Ceremony and the Teaching of the Buddha's Dying and Death

For the sake of ourselves and others, we need to learn to Bear Witness without burning out. Bearing Witness means exposing ourselves to the suffering in the world in all its forms out of compassion. At the root of all suffering are the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion, so Bearing Witness also means being aware of those forces in the world and the effects they have. This practice can be agitating and emotionally exhausting, so we need to learn how to do it without burning out.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Revisited: Three Ingredients for a Noble Life
The Phenomenon of Burning Out when Bearing Witness
When It’s Time to Take Care or Take Action
Skillfulness When Bearing Witness
Things to Consider When Bearing Witness
Why We Bear Witness
What About Our Hopes and Desires for Ourselves and All Beings?


Revisited: Three Ingredients for a Noble Life

Sometimes I hear from people, “I don’t read/watch the news anymore because it makes me so upset/anxious/depressed/overwhelmed/etc.” For the sake of ourselves and others, we need to learn to Bear Witness without burning out.

Bearing Witness means exposing ourselves to the suffering in the world in all its forms, out of compassion. At the root of all suffering are the three poisons of greed, hate and delusion, so Bearing Witness basically means being aware of those forces in the world and the effects they have. This practice can be agitating and emotionally exhausting, so we need to learn how to do it without burning out.

To revisit, I suggest that there are three ingredients for a sustainable life of generosity, a noble life lived in accord with our own ideals, a bodhisattva life: Bearing Witness, Taking Care, Taking Action (See Episode 126-128 – Crisis Buddhism: Sustainable Bodhisattva Practice in a World on Fire – Part 1 (Introduction), Part 2 (Bearing Witness), and Part 3 (Taking Action).

Bearing Witness: Exposing ourselves to the suffering in the world in all its forms out of compassion, momentarily setting aside the question of whether we can do anything to stop the suffering or not.

Taking Care: Engaging in activities, relationships, and practices that nourish and sustain us. This includes our spiritual practice, our exercise, our eating well, our sleep, our relationships. Much of our lives is Taking Care of ourselves and our responsibilities.

Taking Action: Participating in a tangible way to help alleviate or prevent the suffering we witness, working for positive change in the world.

Creating a sustainable, vital, generous bodhisattva practice means including all three of these ingredients. And it’s a dynamic process, that’s why I called it ingredients where we keep cooking, adjusting ingredients based on circumstances, on the kinds of ingredients we have, what we have available. 

Most of us understand Taking Care. Maybe sometimes we’re not that good at it or we don’t emphasize what we should, but we understand Taking Care of ourselves and our responsibilities. Many of us don’t do as much Bearing Witness or Taking Action as we need to in order to be free from cognitive dissonance. I’m not suggesting some kind of pure standard that you’re supposed to be measuring yourself against, about whether you’ve been doing enough Bearing Witness or Taking Action, but more based on our own sense of what we believe to be good or true. Cognitive dissonance is what happens when we act out of accord with our own beliefs, our own beliefs about what is true or good, and if we act in a different way then we experience this kind of stress and discomfort.

This may be provocative, but I think all practicing Zen Buddhists, unless they are absolutely overwhelmed at the moment with responsibilities in the Taking Care realm – like health issues, or responsibilities for taking care of other people – should spend at least 2 hours a week Taking Action.

If we don’t do as much Bearing Witness or Taking Action as we need to in order to be free from cognitive dissonance, it’s often because we don’t know how to go about – how to find time, or find ways to add these ingredients to our lives in a meaningful and sustainable way. If you feel like you can’t find any meaningful way to Take Action? I’m happy to talk to you about that, and I intend to address that in future episodes.


The Phenomenon of Burning Out when Bearing Witness

Today, though, I’m talking specifically about Bearing Witness and how to do this without burning out. How is it that we burn out while witnessing exposing ourselves to paying attention to the greed, hate and delusion in the world and the suffering that they cause? I’ve heard the rather new term ‘doom surfing’ to describe when you’re online and you’re consuming more and more and more and more news, and much of it is terrible. For some strange reason we find grisly and awful news compelling, sometimes even to the point of addiction. Once upon a time you got a paper once a day; you read through the paper and then you’d be done with it. There was a beginning and an end, but now there’s no end. The news is being refreshed constantly, there’s an immense amount of material out there, so you can keep on consuming news all day. 

News is also created, in most cases, for the purposes of making money. It’s sensational and often negative, and click-baity and short term and often tends to feed our anxiety or anger or fear. It’s very difficult to find news sources that are balanced. It’s emotionally exhausting to open up empathetically to what’s happening when the news is like that. This is when we burn out, we end up feeling it’s too much. It ends up feeling overwhelming and negative to expose ourselves to the news. 

Fortunately, there are other forms of Bearing Witness, including through other forms of media, books, etc.- maybe movies or TV shows, educational TV shows or something. Still, we might read and read and watch and watch and never actually take any action and perhaps begin to feel like no real change is possible or likely, at least not within any realm you participate in. We can end up feeling like, “Oh, I can’t stand to watch or read any more of this depressing stuff and discouraging stuff.”

Or we might burn out when we are witnessing the suffering of family and friends in real life. A lot of times there’s no option and even if we do feel burned out we can’t get away from it. We start to resist Bearing Witness to the pain and suffering of our loved ones because we’re unable to do anything about it, it becomes very uncomfortable and stressful. Witnessing the lives of people who are suffering, in our personal lives and in our communities, can be discouraging. We may feel like issues are insurmountable. Our actions, our options seem so small and inconsequential – like if we try to do anything, we’re trying to hold back a flood with our hands. Then, of course, facing our own suffering we can have similar responses, including depression, anxiety and overwhelm just facing the difficulties in our own lives. 

The negative responses when we feel burned out might be cocooning, intoxication, pursuing distractions, numbing out, denial, sometimes attachment to opinions and or black and white thinking. We figure, “I know who’s to blame for that, I don’t need to pay attention to that problem anymore because I know who’s to blame and it’s not me.” We may succumb to overall negativity and pessimism.  

What if we look underneath some of these, what are the underlying reasons for our burnout? What desires or aversions are behind each of these burnout reactions? What hopes and fears are challenged or aroused as we Bear Witness? I would suggest many of our negative responses are actually, if you look beneath them, hopes and desires that are actually positive.

Naturally, we have an aversion to pain. We desire for those we care about to be happy. We want to believe the world is a just and compassionate place. We want to believe human beings are good at their core. We want to see good triumph over evil. We want to feel like we have the power to make a positive difference in the world. We want to believe the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. These are all pretty fundamental human desires, and it’s troubling to have those desires challenged as we Bear Witness, as we look around us and we see things that are definitely not in accord with what we hope.


When It’s Time to Take Care or Take Action

When we’re exhausted and upset or not thinking clearly, indulging in doom surfing, what do we do? Of course, we can take some time to involve those other ingredients in our lives, Taking Care and Taking Action. Maybe we take care, we take a break, we rest, we sit zazen, we do something else, we exercise, we take joy in simple things, maybe you garden or you read a mystery.

As part of bodhisattva practice, Taking Care is something we do for a while and then we Bear Witness or Take Action again. It’s not enough to conclude Bearing Witness is upsetting or depressing, so you should just Take Care instead. At least from the bodhisattva point of view, this is hiding out in a heaven realm or focusing on you and yours and ignoring your bodhisattva vows or hiding your head in the sand. 

Taking Care is something that we can do in service. We can do it so we can spend more time and energy Bearing Witness and Taking Action. It’s not meant to be a permanent refuge from the suffering of the world. Of course, we’re also included in the equation: We’re one of those beings who we are trying to make happy and relieve from suffering. We’re always seeking to benefit self and other at the same time. At other times, when Bearing Witness feels overwhelming or is burning us out, maybe time to Take Action? Yes, the ills of the world are infinite, and I could spend my whole day reading news and studying history and reading books and exploring all the different manifestations of greed, hate and delusion in the world, but I’m going to roll up my sleeves and do this particular task. Taking Action can be grounding and empowering and can help us focus on active hope, which means we’re being active for what we hope for in the world instead of focusing on what outcome we think is likely. 

The ideal when crafting a noble life out of the three ingredients is when you know for yourself that you’re doing everything you can. None of us has infinite energy, time, resources, and abilities, so technically there’s always something more we can do. Frankly, this stresses some of us out quite a bit, but with mindfulness, experience and self honesty, we reach, at least at times, a rewarding balance of ingredients where we know we’re including as much Bearing Witness and Taking Action in our practice as we can sustainably manage. We’re doing our part. 

My example of this is being very, very distressed, as many of you know, by the climate emergency, and feeling a huge amount of cognitive dissonance as I went about my business-as-usual life. I didn’t know how to process every terrible report about how things are getting worse. I didn’t know how to keep on looking, keep on Bearing Witness. 

What I find now is that it’s a little bit easier to Bear Witness now that I have chosen something to do about the climate emergency. I may end up doing something different at some point but for the time being, I have found something to devote myself to in terms of Taking Action, and I’m doing everything that I can. There’s less of the stress and vague, pervasive guilt or whatever it was that there was before. We can’t do everything but we have to do something, so I am doing a little something and I feel good about that. It helps free up my heart a little bit for Bearing Witness, because I know that my life is balanced. As Greta Thunberg said, “Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.”


Skillfulness When Bearing Witness

Aside from balancing our life by Taking Care or Taking Action, we can practice skilfulness when Bearing Witness so we can pay more attention to the very practice of Bearing Witness in and of itself. 

What can we do when Bearing Witness – when we’re right in the middle of exposing ourselves to the suffering of the world in all its forms out of compassion? What can we do to make the process more… well, what is it that we want? What would good Bearing Witness practice be like? It’s probably going to be painful and troubling at times. That’s the nature of it. 

If we’re blessed with a sense of empathy, Bearing Witness can hurt. It can even be overwhelming. I’ve told a story of Avalokiteshvara a number of times on the podcast, where the bodhisattva of compassion swears to save all sentient beings, and makes a sincere vow, ‘If I ever falter in my intention, if ever I have doubts and decide not to do it, made my head break into one hundred pieces.’ At some point he’s been saving countless sentient beings for ages and he looks over the world with his supernatural powers and sees that the number of sentient beings suffering has not decreased one bit despite all of his efforts. He gets so discouraged he concludes he should give up, and then his head breaks into a hundred pieces. The gods put him back together again and give him multiple heads and arms and eyes in order to cope with this overwhelming process of Bearing Witness. 

Good Bearing Witness practice is rarely going to be pleasurable or fun, although it might be interesting or rewarding in a certain sense. I’m guessing that what we’re looking for is for Bearing Witness to be sustainable and constructive, so it informs us and awakens our compassion and our sense of urgency, but doesn’t overwhelm us and send us into despair. It is the right level of disturbing.


Things to Consider When Bearing Witness

There are things that we can consider when Bearing Witness which can improve our practice, allowing us to open up to the process and minimizing the stress and trauma we experience. This is really about practicing mindfulness. What is going on as we Bear Witness? How are we feeling? How does this particular action, this particular choice, affect things? We pay close attention to cause and effect: “When I do this, this happens, when I do that, that happens.”

First, what is the state of our body, heart and mind as we do our Bearing Witness practice? Is it something we’re doing on autopilot? Are we bored or tired, procrastinating, trying to distract ourselves perhaps from personal issues? Are we obsessed or strangely drawn to watching or hearing about scenes of destruction or violence or mayhem? What kind of attitude are we taking to this process? Are we taking a subtle, deliberate, mindful attitude or are we actually doing this compulsively? The answers to these questions will explain to a great extent the experience we have as we Bear Witness. If we’re doing it on autopilot instead of with mindfulness, we might not notice when it would be good to change activities, or go about things in a different way. 

There’s also the question of what we are Bearing Witness to. Is this real life, or is the source of images or information from the internet, a book, or a movie? Does the source involve true and balanced sources of information? Is it sensationalizing or demonizing? What is the agenda of the people behind the source? Does it offer perspective or nuance? If we’re observing something in real life, are we witnessing just one side of the story? Is somebody just having a bad day? Are we getting a particular version of a story that doesn’t reflect everything? What might be helpful is trying to take a larger perspective. Maybe there are other viewpoints here. Maybe there are other possibilities, other interpretations. 

As we Bear Witness, are we setting aside the compulsion to fix things for the moment? This is a big one. We have this natural desire to respond, if not in a concrete way, then at least to try to make sense in our minds what is going on, who is to blame, and what should be done about it. That’s why we want to leap right into problem solving and to some extent that’s good, right? It’s a natural drive that can result in Taking Action, but  honestly, if we don’t take the time to Bear Witness, our actions might be inappropriate, just fulfilling our own karma, or more about preventing our own discomfort with witnessing suffering than about helping in a meaningful way. Setting aside the need to fix things and absorbing what is going on is difficult, but it’s also very valuable. Setting aside that compulsion to fix things, that sense of responsibility, can help us settle into Bearing Witness with less stress and pressure.

Can we notice, as we’re Bearing Witness, the positive emotional and relational effects of the practice? This can be the expansion of empathy, compassion, centredness, even empowerment, that comes from facing the truth. How do we feel when we’re aware of suffering at some level, but we’re trying to deny or avoid it? This doesn’t usually improve our relationships with others, whether those are intimate relationships or relationships in the wider world. It doesn’t make our relationships stronger or more intimate when we’re trying to deny suffering. Can we notice the positive spiritual effects of Bearing Witness as we’re doing it? Even though it’s uncomfortable, even though it might be distressing or troubling to open up to this sense of interdependence, we can recognize we would not feel this empathy, care, and compassion if we didn’t have deep connections to others.

The call to Bear Witness, and the pain that we experience while doing it, honors our interdependence. There’s a sweetness about the experience that breaks down the sense of separation between self and other. At the same time we cultivate the awareness of impermanence and perhaps even gratitude for our good fortune.

Bearing Witness also challenges us to cultivate “don’t know mind,” which is related to setting aside the compulsion to fix the things we’re observing, the reality we’re absorbing. A lot of times the effort to come up with a set opinion and answer who is to blame or what should be done is really discomfort with suffering, a discomfort with not being able to control things. Therefore, our opinion might not be worth that much. It might be something that we are clinging to in order to give ourselves some sense of solidity. It’s a good spiritual practice to Bear Witness and allow ourselves not to have the answers. At some point you might be called upon to vote or make decisions or take action or something, and then you have to come up with at least some provisional answers, but as we Bear Witness, we don’t necessarily have to leap to those things.


Why We Bear Witness

When we Bear Witness, we’re staying informed so we can be responsible citizens. You might learn about how you’re culpable for some of the suffering you see, or discover ways you might be able to respond. The less obvious benefit to others is they are not alone in their suffering. This is an act of generosity, however small, which acknowledges interdependence. Anybody who knows about your act of witnessing perceives the world as a more caring place. 

Then, of course, there are benefits to self. My favorite line from Dogen’s Bodaisatta Shishobo is, “Foolish people think that if they help others first their own benefit will be lost, but this is not so. Beneficial action is an act of oneness benefiting self and others together.”  [1]

In contrast, how do you feel when you avoid Bearing Witness, because doing so feels overwhelming, depressing, or upsetting? Part of you is cutting off your relationship to other beings, cutting off part of reality. This takes effort and compromises our intimacy with all of life. 

The opposite of this avoidance, an antidote to it, is the Tibetan Vajrayana practice of Tonglen. This is a practice where you visualize the suffering in the world as black smoke. You breathe it in and transform it, purify it, and breathe out clean air. You don’t take the darkness in and keep it, exchanging suffering for ease. You imagine the suffering, the smoke, being cleaned through a spiritual process. You might imagine throwing the black smoke into emptiness, where it disappears in the vastness. Tonglen is based in our great capacity to alleviate suffering through our natural spiritual strength.

We want to keep our hearts open. We want to experience greater intimacy. Sometimes, ironically, we gain a sense of peace from Bearing Witness because we’re not running from the truth. We may feel grief and distress, but we’re at least relieved of the agitation and stress that comes from avoidance and denial.


What About Our Hopes and Desires for Ourselves and All Beings?

What about those fundamental human desires we discussed earlier, which get challenged or aroused as we Bear Witness?

  • Aversion to pain
  • Desire for those we care about to be happy
  • Wanting to believe the world is just and compassionate place
  • Wanting to believe human beings are good at their core
  • Wanting to see good triumph over evil
  • Wanting to feel like we have the power to make a positive difference in the world

When we Bear Witness, we see so many examples where things are not as we would like them to be.

This is where Taking Care in the form of our spiritual practice comes in. This Taking Care supports our ability to Bear Witness. We aim to become familiar with a non-dualistic way of operating. Of course, dualism and discrimination are useful in our everyday lives. We don’t ever want to abandon the ability to discriminate pain from pleasure and helpful from harmful, etc. But there is a non-dualistic way to relate to the world, to our lives, as well. We can experience the world more directly and intimately, when we see what Suzuki Roshi called “things-as-it-is.” The only reason we feel tormented when we experience pain, see our loved ones suffer, perceive the world as a cold and unjust place, or see evil triumph over good, is because of our expectations that things should have turned out otherwise.

Of course we can and should hope for the best. The bodhisattva works and hopes for happiness and justice and the triumph of good over evil. Such intentions and activities are about the future. They’re about our best bodhisattva response to the situation. But the torment, based on expectations about how things should have turned out, is entirely unnecessary and destructive. 

Do you understand what I’m saying here? This is very tricky. People always want to cling to one side of a duality or another. We conclude one of two things. One, we should dwell in anger and anguish when we witness the suffering and injustice caused by greed, hate and delusion, because that anger and anguish is what will compel us to respond or act ethically. Two, we should give up our expectations and be untroubled by the world and therefore not bother to take action to help alleviate suffering for self and others. 

The bodhisattva way is a dynamic path that refuses to get caught in either of those extremes, and this is essential to keep in mind while Bearing Witness. The myriad causes and conditions of the past have resulted in the current situation. It is a complete waste of time and energy to wring our hands about how we shouldn’t have found ourselves in a world full of things like racial oppression, gender violence, and ecological destruction. Our hearts may break as we Bear Witness and righteous anger may spur us into Taking Action, but this is very different than being paralysed, depressed, anxious or overwhelmed because of our expectations that things should have turned out otherwise, that the world should not be like this

It’s subtle, but acceptance is completely compatible with compassionate response as long as you think of it as acceptance of the past – of everything that has led up to this moment. Okay, here we are, like it or not. As Pema Chodron says, “Start where you are.” Bodhisattva acceptance has nothing to do with what comes next. We can say, “I don’t want things to stay like this if there’s any way for them to change.” We should, we can have a full intention to do everything we can to improve things from here on out, but there’s no use wringing our hands over what has already come to pass. 

I was taught that a bodhisattva is able to function energetically and skilfully, to be fully present in Bearing Witness, because she “puts aside grief for the world.” (I can’t remember the reference but will keep my eye open for it!) This isn’t to say grief doesn’t have its place. It can and will figure quite centrally at times in our Bearing Witness practice, but ultimately we don’t want to be too saddened and shocked by the state of a suffering being to help them. That would be like if you went into the emergency room with a terrible wound but the nurse was too shocked, saddened, sympathetic and upset to do anything to help you. The bodhisattva is grounded in something deeper, more stable and formless than a view of how good must always triumph over evil. I’ve also heard it said that the world is the bodhisattva’s playground, suggesting a light-heartedness in the midst of this incredibly serious work of saving all sentient beings. 

How might we Bear Witness to the world of suffering but still maintain the joyful effort, or virya, of a bodhisattva? This is a koan and our spiritual practice doesn’t give us a pat answer or an easy solution to this, but it may help encourage us to know that this is the ideal when we’re Bearing Witness, so we can aspire to keep our hearts open without burning out.



[1] Tanahashi, Kazuaki, trans., ed. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 2010. For an online translation see https://terebess.hu/zen/dogen/KS-Bodaisatta.html


Picture Credit

href=”https://pixabay.com/users/balouriarajesh-6205857/?utm_source=link-attribution&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=image&utm_content=5051770″>Rajesh Balouria from Pixabay


159 – Active Receptivity in Zazen: Surrounded by a Symphony
161 - The Parinirvana Ceremony and the Teaching of the Buddha's Dying and Death