Practices that are used to cultivate patience and willpower are not limited only to passive ones; in general, any practice can be helpful. The precise consistent effort to overcome one’s automatic reactions brings about the desired result. However, to proceed to the next level, i.e., to work on self-awareness directly, a solid experience with passive techniques is a prerequisite. The absence of this preliminary training puts a seeker at risk of walking straight into a trap.

There is a characteristic example of many followers of Osho Rajneesh—the mystic whose teaching is popular today—demonstrating a poor model for others. They read Osho’s books and perform various dynamic meditations and exercises that Osho developed in plenty for his disciples. In his books, Osho wrote a great deal about awareness and everything he stated is correct, but the form of the message conveyed leaves the reader under the impression that awareness is an effortless state to achieve—if only you attempt it. This is where the aforementioned trap lies. If the seeker has failed to develop the skill of self-observation, he will confuse witnessing with thinking. The follower believes instead that his proper knowledge of Osho’s discourse and regurgitation of his sayings attest to his high level of self-awareness. The truth is, he has no knowledge of himself—only of what Osho said about awareness.

Thinking about observation and practicing observation are such very different things that it is even difficult to explain it. Still, I will try.

Witnessing is a process that occurs in real-time, here and now, in contrast to thinking, which is always retrospective. The one who is witnessing is observing things happening at the moment impartially, while the mind reflects on events that have happened already to make sense of them. Let us say that a person found himself in a situation that he has been afraid to face his entire life, and thus, always anticipated that it would occur again one day. When this finally happened, it triggered a fear reaction. If in a state of awareness, the person will observe fear emerging, with associated thoughts and cold flashes flowing through the body. He is present in whatever is happening and acts according to the way he sees the situation. Even if the mechanical response prevails over awareness, he is the witness thereof.

If a person behaves unconsciously, the moment that fear manifests, he loses himself and reacts automatically. Further, from force of habit, he also represses fear. Later, when thinking back, he admits, “Yeah, I was scared; it’s all because of my childhood trauma which...” A person will think of himself as exceptionally self-aware and truly intelligent. The first is a false belief, while the second is true. Becoming aware of an emotion or desire brings one to the gradual transformation of one’s being, while thinking about emotions and desires creates an illusion of self-knowledge.

Comment. Further, retrospective pondering on a past event allows one to reassess and form an opinion about the issue, i.e., to craft an interpretation in favor of one’s conditioning and ignore or soften your reactions that don’t fit the picture. Rationalizing and compensation strategies nearly inevitably accompany the process of reasoning, which differs fundamentally from the process of witnessing, where the occurrences are observed in real time as the mind remains neutral and uninvolved.

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I have met individuals whose “awareness” never left their cognitive framework, but in contrast, whose unconsciousness was present at all levels of their being. That was the outcome of thinking about self-observation, as the mind can never understand itself, never anything superior to itself.

Thinking about awareness is so common that it may be the principal reason for the lack of progress made by seekers who have failed to grasp the difference between the mind at work versus the observation of the mind at work.

Comment. In cases where a seeker is afraid to lose self-control or is afraid of his own emotional reactions, it’s easier for him to substitute self-talk and memories for impartial observation. Such people infer that because they can recall the situation clearly, they were in effect present at that moment in the past. However, as the moment has passed, the mind has redacted the memories, and its evaluation of the situation is now lopsided. The mind supports the desire to think of oneself as self-aware, and then presents its behavior and autopilot reactions as full of awareness and rationalizes them by citing spiritual teachings. Self-deception is the main reason why individuals who believe they are highly self-aware, in actuality, are not. The habit of lying to oneself, which a seeker has trouble relinquishing in favor of candidness, as well as the desire to become a spiritual person, most often produce seekers of this kind.