Witnessing With Joan Suval

An Intense Yet Contemporary Meditation

Sometimes you just need to get out of the city, even if you don’t have a car. Lugging a pack almost as big as myself, I wound my way through the crowded Port Authority Bus Terminal en route to a meditation retreat at Ananda Ashram in upstate NY. As the mountains began to rise in the distance, I felt myself start to calm as I eagerly anticipated my retreat with Joan Suvalwho is known for making the profound wisdom of the masters accessible to the rest of us. She was a disciple of Guru Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati who founded Ananda Ashram in 1964 and is referred to as the ‘Mother of the Ashram.’

I’d heard about Joan’s signature meditation, called ‘witnessing,’ which is simply becoming consciously aware of our body, our thoughts, and our surroundings without judgment and was excited to experience it.

Arriving, I set up my tent in the woods and gathered with a group of twenty or so spiritual seekers in the Ashram’s temple for a 30-minute guided meditation with Joan where she spoke about moving into a state of witnessing by allowing ourselves to relax, let go, and notice the sounds and light around us and inside of us.

After the practice, Joan sat in a big armchair in the living room of Ananda’s Main House like a mother hen, gracefully fielding our questions with ease and humor as we sprawled around her on the floor. Hands shot up at every opportunity.

Seeker: “You said in the meditation to enjoy the peace of witnessing. But often when I meditate, I am in physical pain and I don’t feel peaceful. What can I do to make meditation more of a peaceful experience?”

Joan: Not all parts of a guided meditation apply to everybody. When you hear me saying to ‘enjoy the peace,’ you can silently say ‘Yeah, right?!’ and continue witnessing what you are experiencing.

Pain can help you in a way, because one of the outcomes of a continued meditation practice is realizing that we are not our physical bodies. When you feel blissful you tend to get attached to that. When you feel pain it is easier to separate from the body which actually brings you closer to the truth than when you are fully identified with the body. When you practice this regularly you’ll be in marvelous condition for the later years of your life because it’s inevitable that the body will be in pain at some point.

Seeker: “What should I do when I am trying to meditate and my body feels weak?”

Joan: If you feel weak, just witness that. Notice the tendency to judge the state you’re experiencing and try to shift to simply observing. It’s like with jurors: if they have pre-conceived notions or biases, it wouldn’t be a fair trial. You learn to see yourself clearly by becoming an impartial observer of your condition.

You don’t have to stay in a seated position. When you are practicing with people you don’t know you need to be more formal, because they may require that – but here you can lie down in the back. You’re still meditating.

Seeker: “When things don’t go according to my plans I feel panicky