The Power of Witnessing: How Would a Fish Know It is in Water?

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Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D. is a seasoned clinician with experience working with adults, couples, families, adolescents and older children since 1976. His aim ...Read More

We don’t know who discovered water,
but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.
—Aphorism, Author Unknown

Adapting the above quote: we don’t know who discovered one’s perceptual lenses and ego, but we’re pretty sure the last to find out would be 99.99% of human beings! How would a fish know it is in water? This is the keystone question of this blog. The late brilliant essayist-novelist David Foster Wallace tells a story of two young fish swimming and going by an older fish headed the other way. The older fish nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on awhile, and after a time one fish looks over at the other and asks, “What the hell is water?”1


What is taken for granted is not easy to see! Water is to fish as mind is to humans. Have you ever considered that a fish can no more see the water it is in than a human being can see its own mind? Since our entire perception and experience of living is filtered through the mind, how could anyone ever see things as they truly are without being present and witnessing their own mind?

Several cartoons point to the same understanding. In one cartoon a fish half out of the water is splashing water at another nearby fish half out of the water and says, “That stuff!” In another, two fish in separate fishbowls are jumping out of each fishbowl into the other one. While in mid-air one points its fin down in the direction of the water and says to the other flying fish, “It’s that stuff!” A third has no caption, only a smiling fish resting in a rowboat watching an oblivious fish blowing bubbles in the water. This may be the most profound and eloquent example of a shift into what could be called witnessing: the happy fish out of the water in the boat is witnessing itself as the same clueless fish in water. Self-consciousness or self-reflection, healthy or not, only comes “on-line” developmentally during the early teen years. Even then, how often do we see our minds?

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Again, how would a fish know it is in water? Upon reflection, wouldn’t it have to get out of the water to see the water it is swimming in? Can the rational mind or ego see itself? Can the ego step outside itself to see the perceptual lenses through which it seems to exist? Or does it take stepping outside of the mind to see the mind, and reality, as it is?

Is the mind able to see itself, and grasp or make any sense of Original Nature? Mind cannot go beyond mind; thinking cannot go beyond thinking. Once the act of thinking is observed by witnessing the mind from outside the mind, the charge behind thought dissolve as thoughts are seen for what they are. Witnessed thoughts usually fade. A possibility exists of a shift from being unaware of being unconscious to being aware of being unconscious, a crucial step to awakening, or being aware of being conscious without thinking and identifying oneself as the false self or its false identities/delusions.


1. “David Foster Wallace on Life and Work”, [Adapted from a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College], The Wall Street Journal, Friday, September 19, 2008, page W14, reference: first paragraph.

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