Lately, the act of bearing witness has occurred to me as sacred and momentous. In my work with coaches, bearing witness can be an important coaching practice.
Kristi Pikiewicz, in Psychology Today, shares that bearing witness can “obtain empathy and support, lighten our emotional load via sharing it with the witness, and obtain catharsis.”
Conventionally, bearing witness is the process of observing, establishing, and honoring the experiences, stories, and histories of memories or events.
The graph below reveals that usage of the term bearing witness has waned since the rise of mass media and multiple, fragmented media.
Dick Blackwell (1997), in his paper Holding, Containing and Bearing Witness, explores the therapist’s role in supporting their clients’ wants and needs during therapy.
Blackwell explains that “bearing witness is a personal and political activity. It is to constitute ourselves as some sort of testimony to the history with which we are engaged.”
His last point may reveal an impetus to bear witness to events such as the George Floyd murder and other police brutality incidents, as well as the continual flood of mass shootings we’ve endured in the U.S.
Observing, Establishing, and Honoring
Pikiewicz reminds us that “most people bear witness daily, and not only in reaction to traumatic events.” We also witness events that can shape our consciousness.
Experience of Bearing Witness
As a gay man, I witnessed the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Seared in my psyche, I recall our government’s denial, federal agencies slow-walking life-saving research and drugs, attending the funerals of young men my age, and the threat of quarantine spurring new forms of bigotry.
Over the last two years, we’ve all witnessed the cost and damage of the pandemic. Whether we’ve shared our own story or witnessed another’s, excavating the truth can be a painful yet necessary step toward healing.
Observing and Establishing Our Witnessing
Earlier this month, Americans were invited to witness the trial of Alex Jones. Jones has claimed that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax. Two parents, Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, who lost their children to this shooting, invited us to bear witness to their pain about their devastating loss.
This summer in the U.S., the Congressional January 6th Select Committee invited Americans to bear witness to the testimony of the historical events on January 6, 2021—the insurrection that occurred against our constitutional government. Bearing witness to these types of events impacts how the truth lives in the future.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
Honoring Our Witnessing
Kristi Pikiewicz suggests honoring this process as “we bear witness to one another through our writing, … art, and by verbally simply sharing with others.”
Examples of the art she mentions include:
- At 54 tons, the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt weaves more than 48,000 individual memorial panels into a large quilted tapestry. It demonstrates the lives ravaged by AIDS.
- The Witness Blanket, an art installation of reclaimed objects, commemorates the survivors of Indian residential schools. It includes braids from First Nations people, bearing witness to indignation. One of the first actions of school administrators was to cut the children’s long hair, symbolizing how they were cut from their cultures and families.
- The National Memorial for Peace and Justice commemorates the black victims of lynching in the U.S. It consists of 805 hanging steel rectangles representing each of the U.S. counties where a documented lynching occurred.
As a New Yorker, witnessing 9/11 overwhelmed my senses for months. I recall the leaflets plastered throughout the city displaying photos and stories of missing people. Much like the AIDS quilt, the city became a living memorial.
Upper- AIDS Quilt (right), Witness Blanket (left) Lower- Ray’s Pizza, AP Photo by Beth Keiser, Mailbox, and (R) NYU Medical Center Wall by B. Jones
Commitment and Process of Bearing Witness
The Buddha said, “[I]nner freedom is not guided by our efforts; it comes from seeing what is true.” Truth is an underappreciated part of the healing process. Avoiding, denying, or concealing the truth further oppresses us.
Spirit of Truth and Healing
I will examine a view of bearing witness that centers on a commitment to a “spirit of truth” as truth-seeing, truth-hearing, and truth-telling.
This is more akin to the biblical version of bearing witness as the “Spirit of Truth” (John 14:17) or as expressed in the Ten Commandments against bearing false witness.
This spirit of truth, as bearing witness, appears in several domains of life and creates an important condition for healing.
Psychologically, bearing witness allows us to connect with spaces willing to hold truths. Such spaces can support our release of emotional reactions, such as pity, shame, or fear.
Spiritually, bearing witness invokes a sense of interdependence, oneness, and a direct realization of the wholeness of life. Realizing the experience of interdependence dissolves disconnection, isolation, and the feeling of separateness.
Politically and socially, bearing witness enables us to see more clearly the web of causes and conditions that create suffering—to seek mutual understanding and/or take wise action.
Coach as Witness
Blackwell (1997) continues to expand on the therapist as being “a companion on the client’s journey of ‘truth.’”
Coaches are uniquely situated to offer space for witnessing. Free of normative ideals, rational-only methods, or medialized diagnoses, coaches can offer a space for clients to freely sort themselves out.
In this space, coaches cultivate a commitment to truth that invites clients to hear their truth with clear and empty listening. Anyone with training in hospice care or contemplative care will recognize a similar approach.
Contemporary spiritual teacher, author, and founder of the Academy of Inner Science Thomas Hübl speaks to bearing witness that supports collective trauma:
We can witness a wound in time from our national or racial memory, and we can tune the dial of our nervous system to that of friend, loved one, or client to connect with an early point of trauma within them, in order to hold it together with presence and witness and healing intention.
By cultivating deep and compassionate listening, a coach can bear witness.
In time, I’ve discovered this missing experience for many—a fundamental connection with a person to bear witness to their situation as they experienced it. Pity, sympathy or sentiment cannot replace a witness affirming the truth of one’s story, history, or memories.
The experience of being heard and received by another—seen as a whole being, not as pitied or flawed—can emancipate.
Practice of Witnessing
So, then, who are we, as coaches, in the matter of bearing witness? What are our responsibilities? This set of practices can ready us for this level of care and support.
1. Prepare yourself as an empty vessel. Develop a motivation of goodwill and care to cultivate genuine interest. Park any expectations, thoughts, goals, or agendas. Holding onto thoughts can shape the field of witnessing. Simply allow yourself to become an empty space where truth can be seen and spoken.
Zen teacher Jules Shuzen Harris suggests that “to bear witness, we need to set aside the focus on our own reactions and enter a place of stillness and receptivity. Bearing witness in the world, we are cultivating the same ground of open heart and mind that we practice in our meditation.”
2. Cultivate a commitment to “be with” others. Be fully available to another person or situation. Listen and observe without adding or subtracting anything from the experience. Let go of needing to be helpful or wanting to make something right, and be willing to respond to what emerges.
We need not agree with one’s views to receive or be with them. This can reveal challenges. We are available and empty to be with and witness. This kind of listening can draw forth the truth from another being.
Here, we expose ourselves to the experience of the world’s suffering in all its forms to motivate our natural compassion.
3. Honor their stories. Stories are the hallowed ground of our being. Tune into the sacredness of others’ stories and offer yourself as a vessel to record, contain, and give space to witnessing pain, suffering, or celebration.
Blackwell further suggests that such “containment takes place in a dialogue which seeks to find words for hitherto unspeakable feelings and experiences as they are projected into the sounds” (1997).
In sessions with our clients, we can collaborate with them to reintegrate the parts that were once difficult to recognize.
Journey of Truth
Bearing witness to an event or another’s story can be a valuable way to process experiences.
As coaches, we can access listening from a free inner space. Cultivating this listening as a space where people can sort themselves out invites clients on a journey of truth.
Bearing witness as truth-seeing, truth-hearing, and truth-telling can begin the wound-healing process—a process that, over time, can emancipate beings.
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RESOURCES AND RESEARCH:
- Blackwell, D. (1997). Holding, containing and bearing witness: The problem of helpfulness in encounters with torture survivors. Journal of Social Work Practice, 11(2),81-89.
- The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, founded by the Equal Justice Initiative, opened on April 26, 2018, in Montgomery, Alabama.
- Photos upper row: Names Project, AIDS Memorial Quilt, displayed in Washington D.C. The Witness Blanket is displayed in Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
- Photos lower row: Leaflets posted at NYU Medical Center wall by Bronston Jones, mailbox in New York City, and a photo by Beth Keiser (A/P) of Ray’s Pizza represented how many outlets appeared.
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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.
As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.