From the point of view of the (Buddhist) tradition, the meaning here is associated with the tendency that the mind has to compare itself to others. That is, the “secondary” witness, so to speak, is involved in idealized interactions. It is more curious, more involved with what others think of us, rather than genuine self-expression. “Genuine” here means the opposite of a lack of apprehension, acknowledgement of our inner state in the situation - particularly towards our emotional state.
Who is doing the watching?
Let’s say, for whatever reason, we feel that a certain emotion is not appropriate in a given moment and therefore we stifle it, dismiss it. This would be called not being genuine to ourselves. Stifling requires a certain separation from our internal state, a mild form of psychological dissociation, which can be quite painful. The same is true for intuitions or impressions we may have of situations to which we deny ourselves access
The Buddhist Dharma and western psychology agree that there is no surprise that we are engaged in this “secondary witness” mode of being per se. Our conditioning besets us with a constant involvement with idealized versions of ourselves. In psychological terms, we develop our sense of self in relation to the world most immediate to us and to our intimate relationships. These are the nature-and-nurture aspects of human development. Ergo, it makes sense that these become our internalized images of self. Just consider how common it is to ask someone you just met where they are from and how they grew up.
Buddhist psychology, however, offers the conclusion that this is problematic. In fact, it’s the root of our problems. At the risk of oversimplification, the point is that we suffer from over-identifying with this nature-nurture situation. We fall into a cycle of blindly or unconsciously repeating patterns again and again. We can go through our entire life in this way. The famed Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa qualified this mode of being in the world as living inside of the “cocoon”. The insight here is that our unexamined conditioning easily reproduces a bubble we live in and identify with. The more solid the bubble feels, the more solid our sense of self within it. One doesn’t need a degree in psychology to see that a solid and intractable sense of self, i.e., excessive hard headedness and stubbornness, is a painful mode of being.
Habit coupled with evolutionary adaptation means this situation can become quite comfortable. Our own evolutionary intelligence can be co-opted in this way. In other words, it can become so cozy inside of this cocoon that we forget it’s a bubble to begin with. We start to participate in all sorts of interior decoration of this environment and become quite involved in its project. But the truth of impermanence doesn’t allow for the consistency of the bubble to stay the same, so it needs constant maintenance. The Buddha concluded that this an utterly futile endeavor at the end of the day, and it’s bound to fail in producing any meaningful satisfaction.
Psychologically speaking, approaching the world and our relationships without the willingness to experience some degree of anxiety is a dubious undertaking. Reaching out is risky – we don’t know how others will respond to us. Never. Furthermore, attempting to control or suppress this anxiety causes distortion in the capacity to appropriately read the circumstance accurately, since we’re more worried about our (re) presentation than we are about generating meaningful connection.
The invitation to “choose the primary witness” is about being deeply honest with ourselves. We are our own best friend. We know better than anyone else when we are cutting corners, avoiding, or giving ourselves wholeheartedly to a situation. Choosing the primary witness is about developing and, indeed, learning to cherish a deep connection with ourselves. Without this, there is no possibility to develop insight, or to move away from chronic anxiousness.
Trusting the primary witness also allows us to see the gaps in what otherwise appears to be a solid web of phenomena. In truth, there is infinite open space happening in our experience all the time. It is this trust that enables us to make intuitive and creative leaps in our lives. It allows us to integrate insights and move away from unskillful habits and ultimately provides us with direct re-assurance of a meaningful connection with the world. Never has “less is more” rung so true.