Sometimes what is needed more than words or actions is simply to be seen. When asked what we did on Beyond Boundaries pilgrimages, we often spoke to the simple yet profound act of bearing witness; truly being with all of the joy, suffering, work and stories that we encountered.

Revered elder of the environmental movement, Joanna Macy, tells us that truly looking at what is happening on the planet at this time is itself a revolutionary act. Thic Nhat Han taught many of us the same when he first came to this country. So often we numb ourselves to the pain of tragedy and difficult truth, or distract ourselves away from it. At Tamera, Sabine Lichtenfels told a packed room that if we could actually take in the devastation and suffering that is occurring on this planet for even one moment, we would fall to the floor in anguish and tears.

Peace workers, environmentalists, journalists, and truth-seekers of all kinds travel far and wide to bear witness in places of tragedy and injustice the world over. Many have thanked us — a group of United States citizens willing to come and offer themselves in this way.

But being willing to take in and digest the suffering is not the only calling. We witnessed difficult things while participating in our pilgrimage, but we also made it a practice to witness the good. We did not arrive in these communities — these “centers of light” or “watering holes”—to help them, though we may have been of help, or to fix them, though we may have offered service, or to teach them, though a learning exchange often occurred. We went to listen to them. To see them. To witness them, as we witnessed ourselves, in their triumphs and struggles towards creating a better world.

To bear witness we go quietly. A witness is not a passive observer, but rather an active participant, listening and asking questions and responding to what is asked of us. We go with no agenda other than to learn and engage in the best way we felt we could. On pilgrimage – we said yes to what was offered to us and integrated ourselves in each place we entered. Focusing neither on the light nor the shadow but looking instead for the wholeness of each place and offering back willingly, doing our best to offer without judgment or prescription what we saw. We witnessed the land. We witnessed the projects, the community practices and teachings, we witnessed each other. We witnessed ourselves; we witnessed the cultures we moved in and out of; we continue today to witness the youth embarking on and returning from their rites of passage initiations; we witness life, tragedy, challenge, celebration, song and the richness of the tapestry in each place we visit.

Like many practices we have carried with us, bearing witness has become a way of life; a way to move through the world — a way to arrive in each situation offering what we feel may serve the greater good, more as a mirror than a judge. With so much emphasis on violence and suffering in today’s media, it is especially important to offer our attention to places cultivating hope. We stand beside people with creative, inspiring imaginations and visions; people manifesting powerful beautiful dreams… people saying “Yes.” And “we thank you.” That offering, in many ways, is perhaps the greatest gift our collective is able to make.

To ‘bear witness’ today has become an approach to social action in which one seeks to be present to a situation with a compassionate heart and without preconceived ideas or solutions. One is open to truth as it reveals itself in the moment and trusts that from this openness and the encounter that flows from it, healing will naturally arise… It is based on the premise that we serve best that which we are connected with. Being listened to feels very different from being ‘helped’ or ‘fixed,’ and it evokes a different response. To choose to be present in this way creates the context for bridges to be built and change to occur.

Elias Amidon & Elizabeth Roberts