The Tao of Witnessing

I meet with a group of fellow explorers on every second and fourth Tuesdays of each month. We have grown close over the past several years and have expanded our concepts of wisdom and what is truthful for each of us.

Last night was different. A very beloved friend discussed the nightmare of having someone close hospitalized and then becoming a caretaker. She and I have had similar experiences and while she spoke, I realized that I identified with and felt so close to her emotionally. Later on the way home, I could see that the bond was much like that of all humans who have shared a trauma. Sharing intense situations that are alike produces a communication that has automatically provided a shared meaning. No need to explain the circumstances or feelings.

To be a caretaker means I am intensely concerned with two people, when we are the person being cared for our primary focus and concern is usually on the self (unless you’re an empath,) but caretakers live with two lives or more, sometimes 24/7, and sometimes for a work period when done professionally. It can lead to burnout and distancing. The same thing happens with empaths as a more general state of caring. But there is a way to protect oneself.

In Tao and Zen there is a principle called “Witnessing.” We are in the experience but stay focused on the fact that whatever trauma is taking place is not ours. We don’t “own” the experience. This doesn’t mean to avoid emotions or caring, it means to be in the experience but remember we are not the experience itself, nor do we have to own it emotionally. For years this was the best modality I could use and offer others as a substance abuse therapist and those who worked in hospice. (And of course, empaths!)

If you are a caretaker or empath (usually one is the other) stay focused on the fact that if you’re not taking care of yourself, you will be unable to take care of others, may cause unintentional harm to those you’re helping, and may risk that dangerous state of burnout. We can witness some intensely horrible events, offer what we can, and yet stay functional and emotionally safe.

Take care of you first so you can take care of others,

Bryan Wagner

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