The witness is a concept I first came across reading Ken Wilber. Of course, it’s a concept that predates Ken by eons. I won’t try to fully articulate it, because I’ll mess it up. I believe the witness, in Hinduism, is related to a divine, eternal soul. The belief in a soul is supposedly one of the differences between Hinduism and Buddhism, where strictly the latter has no comment on the existence of soul or reincarnation. (In practice, there are a very wide range of beliefs and attitudes toward reincarnation, many of which would startle Westerners, and do not fit with the secular conception of Buddhism.)
In Buddhism we are asked, during meditation to observe (witness) or thoughts, emotions, sensations dispassionately, without attachment. (NOT detachment.) But wow did I digress. Here’s an excerpt about Wings of Desire and the witness, from Meditation Los Angeles:
I think that’s part of what makes Wings of Desire such a delightful film. The angels are witnesses. Deprived of actually living, they observe and marvel at many of the every day experiences the characters are having, without being swept up in the thoughts and emotions (which, I suppose, they are not having) of the moment. You might say their experience is dispassionate, but it is not without sympathy. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film, but it was my impression that the angels are not distant, cerebral. Au contraire. My impression is that they were moved by the many of the experiences they observed.
This, I think, is a kind of ideal equanimity. (It makes me wonder if the film maker, Wim Wenders, is a Buddhist.) An equanimity that is not swept up by the emotions, sensations of everyday life, but nevertheless is deeply sympathetic to the experience. It is not empty or barren. There is kindness. And when we are feeling unkind toward the blah blah blah thoughts, kindness becomes invaluable.