In his ‘Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion’, Sam Harris talks about the experience of ‘selflessness’ as “right on the surface” of consciousness rather than a ‘deep’ feature of it. Yet “people can meditate for years without recognizing it”. Harris focuses his discussion on the work of Douglas Harding (www.headless.org), its dismissal by other cognitive scientists, and his own take on what is happening. The piece includes an exercise, so that readers can explore for themselves.
“It is both amusing and instructive to note that [Harding’s] teachings were singled out for derision by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter (in collaboration with my friend Daniel Dennett), a man of wide learning and great intelligence who, it would appear, did not understand what Harding was talking about. Here is a portion of text that Hofstadter criticized:
“What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animal-hood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, the present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki legs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in an absolutely nothing whatsoever! Certainly not in a head.
“It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been, was no ordinary vacancy, no more nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness, vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything: room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world … Here it was, this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void (and this was the real miracle, the wonder and delight) utterly free of ‘me’, unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence, body and soul. Lighter than air, clearer than glass, altogether released from myself. I was nowhere around … There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden … I had been blind to the one thing that is always present, and without which I am blind indeed to this substitute-for-a-head, this unbounded clarity, this luminous and absolutely pure void, which nevertheless is – rather than contains – all things. For, however carefully I attend, I fail to find here even so much as a blank screen on which these mountains and sun and sky are projected, or a clear mirror in which they are reflected, or a transparent lens or aperture through which they are viewed, still less a soul or mind to which they are presented, or viewer (however shadowy) who is distinguishable from the view. Nothing whatever intervenes, not even that baffling and elusive obstacle called ‘distance’.: the blue sky, the pink-edged whiteness of the snows, the sparkling green of the grass – how can these be remote, when there’s nothing to be remote from? The headless void refuses all definition and location: it is not round or small, or big, or even here as distinct from there.”
“Harding’s assertion that he had no head must be read in the first-person sense; the man was not claiming to have been literally decapitated. From a first-person point of view, his emphasis on headlessness is a stroke of genius that offers an unusually clear description of what it’s like to glimpse the nonduality of consciousness.
“Here a Hofstadter’s ‘reflections’ on Harding’s account: ‘we have here been presented with a charmingly childish and solipsistic view of the human condition. It is something that, at an intellectual level, offends and appalls us: can anyone seriously entertain such notions without embarrassment? Yet to some primitive level in us it speaks clearly. That is the level at which we cannot accept the notion of our own death”. Having expressed his pity for batty old Harding, Hofstadter proceeds to explain away his insights as a solipsistic denial of immortality – a perpetuation of the childish illusion that ‘I am necessary ingredient of the universe’. However, Harding’s point was that ‘I’ is not even an ingredient, necessary or otherwise, of his own mind. What Hofstadter fails to realize is that Harding’s account contains a precise, empirical instruction: Look for whatever it is you are calling ‘I’ without being distracted by even the subtlest undercurrent of thought – and notice what happens when you turn consciousness upon itself.
“This illustrates a very common phenomenon is scientific and secular circles: We have a contemplative like Harding, who, to the eye of anyone familiar with the experience of self-transcendence, has described it in a manner approaching perfect clarity; we also have a scholar like Hofstadter, a celebrated contributor to our modern understanding of the mind, who dismisses him as a child.
“Before rejecting Harding’s account as merely silly, you should investigate this experience for yourself:
“Look for Your Head
“As you gaze at the world around you, take a moment to look for your head.
“This may seem like a bizarre instruction. You might think, ‘Of course, I can’t see my head. What’s so interesting about that?’
“Not so fast. Simply look at the world, or at other people, and attempt to turn your head in the direction you know your head to be. For instance, if you are having a conversation with another person, see if you can let your attention travel in the direction of the other person’s gaze. He is looking at your face – and you cannot see your face. The only face present, from your point of view, belongs to the other person. But looking for yourself in this way can precipitate a sudden change of perspective, of the sort Harding describes.
“Some people find it easier to trigger this shift in a slightly different way: As you are looking out at the world, simply imagine that you have no head.
“Whichever method you choose, don’t struggle with this exercise. It is not a matter of going deep within or producing some extraordinary experience. The view of headlessness is right on the surface of consciousness and can be glimpsed the moment you attempt to turn about. Pay attention to how the world appears in the first instant, not after a protracted effort. Either you will see it immediately or you won’t see it at all. And the resulting glimpse of open awareness will last only a moment or two before thoughts intervene. Simply repeat this glimpse, again and again, in as relaxed a way as possible, as you go about your day.
“Once again, selflessness is not a ‘deep’ feature of consciousness. It is right on the surface. And yet people can meditate for years without recognizing it. After I was introduced to the practice of Dzogchen, I realized that much of my time spent meditating had been a way of actively overlooking the very insight I had been seeking”.
Sam Harris Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion London: Bantam Press, 2014