contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Douglas Harding

SPECIAL BOOKS

I’m thinking about special books. Many spiritual traditions have special books and they are given tremendous authority. For the committed practitioner, the prescribed way of working with them is some version of Lectio Divina. This goes beyond knowing what the book says and giving our assent. We need to bring the words alive through a contemplative immersion. As deep and devoted readers, we learn to identify layers of meaning and apply them in our lives. Checking out our experience in the light of what is written, we learn to mould our experience in accordance with the writing. There is no room for a mixed or negative assessment of the text itself or wish to depart from it. The furthest we can go in this direction is through a device like Hebrew midrash. This a form of commentary, sometimes taking the form of stories, that can stretch an original meaning or introduce a new perspective on it.

But for me, the direct value of texts lies in the extent to which they support my practice and experience. The practice and experience themselves are my authority. My original education was literary, reflecting the creative and critical values of the humanities. I am educated in what Samuel Johnson called ‘the art of true judgement’, and also understand that older texts need to be understood in relation to the cultures of their day. I don’t come to this work with a Lectio Divina mindset. But I still like the idea of having special books, of focusing in closely on a few texts of special value to me.

This is partly to counterbalance my natural tendency to be restless and mercurial in my reading. I move rapidly not just between books and ideas but kinds of books and ideas, with quite different understandings of life and the universe. I get multiple overviews at the risk of losing my own thread. I’m also like a magpie in identifying pieces of text that shine, which is great, but supports an attachment to shininess, aka psychoactive writing.

Hence, I now find myself wanting to slow down and consolidate, identifying a small number of special books, selected as Wisdom literature for this stage of my journey, and keeping company with them. I have chosen six. Three are from the ancient world and have been my friends for many years. Three are modern and discuss the Harding method of ‘Seeing’ ( www.headless.org/) , in which I am increasingly experiencing as a support for my Sophian Way. I’m not going to say more about them in this post, but I will feature them in future ones. Here is the list:

Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about The Way and the Power of The Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998. (New English version by Ursula K. Le Guin with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton)

Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017 (A new translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries)

Alan Jacobs The Gnostic Gospels London: Watkins Publishing, 2005 ( My focus is on four texts: The Gospel of Thomas, The Fable of the Pearl, The Gospel of Philip and Thunder)

Douglas Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom-Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (First published by Arkana in 1990)

Douglas Harding Look for Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust, 2015 (First published by The Head Exchange Press in 1996)

Karin Visser The Freedom to Love: The Life and Vision of Catherine Harding Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019 (First edition 2016

SEEING: CATHERINE HARDING

“There are so-called spiritual people who say that the world in an illusion, and I just don’t understand this. I don’t agree. One can’t say that everything is an illusion. I think it’s an insult to people who are really suffering, who are repressed and put in jail and tortured. To say that it’s an illusion shows total insensitivity. I feel for al the people in the world who are suffering: they are me and I am them.

“I think there are two realities: one is the earthly reality for the incarnated little ones; the other is the big One, the absolute reality. And the reality of the little ones is contained within the absolute reality. When you reach your Centre, when you reach the Clear Light, the two realities become one. The Clear Light is within everything and within everyone of us. Here the two meet.

“The stories of the little ones are real but they pass, of course, that is why people say it’s an illusion. But although something passes, it’s still real, it’s still something people have to endure.

“Form is void and void is form. The void is full with form. Obviously there are two realities: the reality of the void and the reality of the forms. But they are one. Two within One. They are not separated: the reality of human stories is contained within the absolute reality.

“I know there are people like the extraordinary Dutch woman who wrote letters from a concentration camp. I have the book here: Letters from Westerbork by Etty Hillesum. Light even in the midst of the horrors she was going through. But these kinds of people are really, really rare. I don’t know if I would have been able to be like her in that situation. And Ety Hillesum didn’t say that suffering is an illusion.

“I am living both realities at the same time – aren’t you? I am living the joy of being here with these beautiful flowers and with you next to me in this lovely apartment. At the same time I know it is a very limited reality, and I’m looking at it from the Clear Light, which is happening now within everything.

“Seeing gives us the great privilege of being able to be in the big One, to use Douglas’ terminology. Or if I can put in into other words: in the Clear Light, in the absolute reality. And at the same time we are aware of what is going on and are enjoying or suffering it.

“I can also put it the other way round: living in the present moment and enjoying it, and at the same time Seeing that this is all happening within my real nature, within who I really am.

“These flowers are not an illusion. I like them so much and I can see how they flourish, that they are beautiful and respond to my love. However, all this will pass, whereas who I am won’t: that’s the difference.” (1)

Catherine Harding companioned her husband Douglas in and teaching the Headless Way (2) and developing its community from the time they met in 1984 until Douglas’ death in 2007. Karin Visser met Catherine at a Headless Way gathering in Salisbury and they became close friends and  ‘sisters in Seeing’. The book is based on a series of visits and conversations, for which Karin flew from the Netherlands to Montpellier in the south of France where Catherine now lives. Catherine was born in Strasbourg in 1932 and learned to deal with grief and loss at an early age. The family was forced to leave Alsace and became refugees in Vichy France in 1940. Her father disappeared in 1942, probably killed for helping people who were fleeing the occupation authorities. Later she was distressed by vengeance taken against actual and suspected collaborators at the end of the war, precisely because ‘we’ were the perpetrators. From her teenage years, Catherine had experiences of what she calls the Clear Light, giving the sense of another, larger dimension. Seeing, when she discovered it, provided a simple means of accessing this dimension at will. What I like about her approach is its elegant combination of simplicity, profundity and compassion.

(1) Karin Visser The Freedom to Love: The Life and Vision of Catherine Harding Salisbury, UK: New Sarum Press, 2019 (First edition 2016

(2) www.headless.org/

WISDOM’S FAITH

I’m asking myself whether ‘faith’ has any role in my spirituality. I think it may.

At the cognitive level I’m the kind of sceptic who holds questions open and tolerates ambiguity. I admire the Greek Pagan philosopher Pyrrho and his school (1). Like the early Buddhists who Pyrrho met in India, Pyrrhonists steered away from metaphysical propositions. They did not seek ease through right answers, but in a space of contemplative equanimity where uncertainty can be embraced. It gave them a lightness of being. I find this good for my mental life, which is potentially freed from an attachment to views and ideologies that turns them into things – property to be safeguarded or weapons to be deployed. I am also empowered to keep asking questions and to see the value in contrary points of view.

But the cognitive level isn’t everything. At the heart level, I lean into an intuited understanding uncompromisingly spelled out by Douglas Harding : ‘God is indivisible. This is so marvellous because it means the whole of God is where you are – not your little bit of God, but the whole of God. If we resist this, it’s because we are resisting our splendour, our greatness. The wonderful proposition of all the mystics that I know and would care to call real mystics is that the heart of you, the reality of your life, the reality of your being, your real self is the whole of God – not a little bit of that fire but the whole fire”.(2)

That intuition, sometimes concerned to avoid the ‘G’ word and sometimes not, has been with me for much of my life in some form. One of the stronger prompts, almost thirty years ago, was a careful reading of The Mustard Seed (3). Here, the Tantric teacher Osho works through the Gospel of Thomas. I have loved this text ever since to the point of accumulating a number of editions and commentaries. Douglas Harding has a chapter on it in one of his books (4). But the Gospel and its commentators did not persuade me to take this non-dual Gnostic view, and nor have kundalini yoga, sitting meditation, or the Headless Way exercises*. What they have done is given my intuitive sense of knowing room to show itself. That sense of knowing has grown stronger and is now anchored in. Practice is an affirmation and celebration rather than inquiry. It’s not something I want to argue about, and I wouldn’t much mind if I was proved to be metaphysically misguided. It’s just where I’m taking my stand.

The old Gnostics had the phrase Pístis Sophia, retrospectively used to name one of their texts, (5). English translations have varied: ‘Wisdom in Faith’, or ‘Faith in Wisdom’. To many Gnostics, Sophia was a celestial being, so another option is ‘The Faith of Sophia’ (and by extension, presumably) the faith of a devotee. Wisdom says that knowledge doesn’t get us everywhere. An element of faith, which I experience as a kind of permission-giving, or surrender, is needed for this commitment.

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry/2019/04/27/pyrho-scepticism-arne-naess/

(2) Douglas Harding Face to No-Face: Rediscovering Our Original Nature David Lang, 2015 (edited by David Lang)

(3) Osho The Mustard Seed: Commentaries of the Fifth Gospel of Saint Thomas Shaftesbury, UK: Element, 1975

(4) Douglas Harding A Jesus for Our Time Chapter 14 in Look for Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realisation

(5) Pistis Sophia: A Gnostic Gospel translated and edited by G.R.S Mead Blauvelt, NY: Spiritual Science Library, 1984 (first American edition)

www.headless.org/

DOUGLAS HARDING: SOPHIA’S SUITORS

“There once lived a princess called Sophia who was not only charming and incomparably beautiful, but also (true to her name) the very perfection of wisdom. One day, three suitors arrived at her palace – a brave knight, a love-struck poet and a rude swineherd.” (1)

First, Sophia receives the knight and inquires how many dragons he has slain. The answer is “practically none”, but the knight asserts that his sword is of “finest steel” and he vows to undertake the “immense task” of slaying every dragon in the land – all for the love of Sophia. In so doing, he hopes for her favour and blessing as he sets out on this quest to become worthy of her. Sophia gives him her favour and blessing, and off he goes on his strenuous, challenging and time-consuming adventure.

Second, Sophia receives the poet, who offers his “adoration and the poor songs it inspires”. He hopes that this devotion will win his heart. He asks to remain in the palace, so as not to be too far from the princess, whilst also assuring her that he will not “take advantage of this boon and come too near you”. Sophia tells him how much she values his devotion and offers a pleasant room “from whose windows you will sometimes be able to see me walking in the rose-garden”.

Finally, the swineherd bursts in, “admitted by extremely reluctant officials”. He simply blurts out “I want you and nothing else, and I want you now”. Sophia is outraged, comparing him unfavourably with his rivals. She is on the point of throwing him out, when he says: “before you do that, let me tell you something: “your knight is in love with chivalry and dragon hunting, and that’s why he’s happy to wait for you indefinitely. As for your poet, he’s in love with love and his own love-poems, and that’s why he promises to keep a respectful distance. The truth is that both are frightened of you. But true love casts out fear, and I’m not frightened of you, and I claim you right away.”

There is further discussion. Harding’s bold talkative swineherd questions the harmfulness of dragons in and as themselves, as opposed to the way the knight likes to see them. He also says that his devotion surpasses that of the poet, because it is “inseparable from union”. Eventually Sophia agrees to the match, saying: “Marry me now, rude swineherd, and deserve me later”.

This parable favourably contrasts direct path spiritualities with the gradual paths offered by most traditions. It is an affirmation of his own Headless Way (2).

(1) Douglas Harding Sophia’s Three Suitors, Chapter 25 in Look For Yourself: The Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust, 2015 (First published by The Head Exchange in 1996)

(2)  www.headless.org/

 

 

SEEING: DOUGLAS HARDING AND ST. THOMAS

I’ve been working with The Gospel of Thomas (1), for two reasons. First, it is a non-dual text. Second, it comes from my native tradition, by which I here mean the one I was personally born into. The Gospel is a collection of stories and aphorisms attributed to the teacher Yeshua (Jesus), without any accompanying life-story.

Some of these are very unlike the stories and aphorisms we find in the canonical gospels, unlike enough to get the text banned in the later fourth century C.E., a time of hardening Christian Orthodoxy. But others appear within them. I remember hearing these as a small child who knew himself to have been baptised and given a Christian name. They captured my imagination, and I remember liking and indeed loving them.

Thanks to this background, Christianity – even in the form of an early ‘heresy’ – affects me differently from other paths. I need to be on guard against emotionally driven reverence and dismissal alike. Fortunately this is not too difficult with St. Thomas. There’s a way in which this text heals my relationship with the tradition of my birth, though without any call to renew my allegiance to it.

Douglas Harding was a non-dualist teacher who faced the same issue, only more so, having been brought up in the Plymouth Brethren and subsequently become estranged from his family through religious differences. He wrote an essay about the Gospel of Thomas, giving it a warm welcome (2):

“In this early apocryphal Christian text, the living voice of Jesus comes down to us directly, bypassing all that men have been saying about him and doing in his name. It comes across distinctly, high above the confused roar of two millennia of Christianity, so-called. It’s as if he himself had planted this beneficent time-bomb in the cave at Nag Hammadi, carefully setting the fuse to delay its explosion till the world would be ready for the impact. It’s as if, so tragically far ahead of his own time, he knew when significant numbers of quite ordinary men and women (as distinct from highly specialised and disciplined saints and sages and seers) would at last be capable of catching up with his vision of the Light, his experience of what he calls the Kingdom.”

Harding also says that we owe it to such a teacher “not to believe in this teaching of his in Thomas, but to test it, sincerely verifying (and falsifying) the scriptures by our experience instead of our experience by the scriptures”. In the essay, he goes on to accomplish this by identifying parallels between the Gospel of Thomas and his own Headless Way (3).

I will deepen my work with the Gospel of Thomas. I already know the text quite well, but I think that my understanding of it has changed since my last close reading of it several years ago. I hope also to clear up any residual unfinished business with my Christian roots, and allow the text itself a stronger role in my ongoing life and practice.

(1) Jean-Yves Leloup The Gospel of Thomas: The Gnostic Wisdom of Jesus Rochester, VA: Inner Traditions, 2005 (English translation and notes by Joseph Rowe. Foreword by Jacob Needleman)

(2) Douglas Harding A Jesus for Our Time. Chapter 14 in Look for Yourself: the Science and Art of Self-Realisation London: The Shollond Trust 2015 (first published the The Head Exchange in 1996)

(3) http://www.headless.org/

INTENSIVE INQUIRY

Over the past two years, I have worked with three traditions apart from Druidry. These are Sophian Gnosticism, The Headless Way, and the Vietnamese Zen of Thich Nhat Hanh. Diverse as they are, they have all valuably nudged me in my current direction, which is one of intensive inquiry.

Through this inquiry, I am finding that what I call the Direct Path* is uniting the concerns of these three traditions, in a way that resolves the difficulties they raise for me, described below:

WAY OF SOPHIA To the extent that it is connected to a method, the Sophian (or Magdalenian) journey is a Christian Kabbalist one, a Jacob’s ladder from the apparent world to a Void beyond describable divinity and back again to a new experience of the world as kingdom, transfigured by a super-celestial vision. To the extent that I find a problem with this method, it is a tendency for the reality of my true nature to seem remote and hidden, obscured by a too-vivid myth making. The spirit gets drowned in the cocktail. When working with the image of Sophia, I found a more playful and free-spirited energy, not fitting easily in formal Gnostic Christian tradition. So, the system, as a system, doesn’t quite work for me.

HEADLESS WAY Richard Harding’s Headless Way – http://www.headless.org/ – is apparently non-mythic, and a variant, home-grown form of the Direct Path, or at least its first half. It is based on a set of experiments, which kick-start a non-dual recognition from the visual perception/brief shock of ‘not having a head’, and go on to further to develop the implications of this perspectival shift. The exercises worked brilliantly for me when I first did them. I experienced a powerful figure/ground shift, with the cultural common sense of subject-verb-object language very briefly driven out of me as the world sat on my shoulders. This then became narratized as the opening into an I AM, an ultimate identity of ‘clear awake space, and capacity for the world’.

Precisely this narrative brought about my fall. I could feel the counter coup of my demoted ‘third person’ as it happened. The Monkey King learned to become the Monkey Emptiness and take up a geographically familiar position in the vacant space above my neck. I ended with a sense of ‘fool’s gold’, though in retrospect this seems unfair. I had an important shaking up because of not having a head. Returning to the same territory through different means, I now resonate with Rupert Spira’s understanding that Consciousness cannot know itself as an object. I had tried to become, as a sentient being in the apparent world, absolutely the eye of spirit and although I AM the eye of spirit, I could not become it in that way, because becoming it makes it a conceivable object in the finite mind. I can only enact it through what I call the sacrament of the present moment. It is more as if the finite mind – not separate, yet also not identical – offers itself as a vehicle.

MAHAYANA BUDDHISM: After an interval, I turned to Buddhism, in the form of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Community of Interbeing, – https://coiuk.org/ – which renewed an occasional relationship with one or another Buddhist sangha going back for over twenty years. This time round the wheel I made sure that I studied the Emptiness teachings directly and wasn’t satisfied with meditation manuals and the modern version of Buddhist psychology. My study included Thich Nhat Hanh’s 2014 commentary on the Heart Sutra, (1) Jay Garfield’s translation of and commentaries on Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (2) and Vasubandhu’s Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only, (3) a Yogacara practitioner text presented by Ben Connelly with a new translation by Weijen Teng. I didn’t, this time, work with the Zen literatures of China and Japan.

The result of my study was that in meditation I got a much fuller sense of consciousness being the underlying reality, which thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations passed through. This pointed beyond ‘no separate self-nature’ in the sense of Thich Nhat Hanh’s psycho-social-ecological view of ‘Interbeing’, to a fuller sense of Consciousness Only. This experience, a fruit both of study and of practice, helped warm me up to my present encounter with the Direct Path.

I consulted the Science And Non-Duality (SAND) website – https://www.scienceanndnonduality.com/ – since I knew that many Direct Path teachers are linked to that network. First, I took a brief online meditation course with Peter Russell – www.peterrussell.com/ – to find out what basic breath meditation would feel like in an Advaita context rather than a Buddhist one. It felt soft and spacious. But my main concern was with the kinds of inquiry into core identity associated with the Advaita approach, having run into problems with the Headless Way experiments and traditional self-inquiry (‘Who am I?), since I could quickly come up with a rhetorically ‘right answer’ without it meaning very much experientially. I soon came across a new work by Stephan Bodian – https://www.stephanbodian.org/ (4), a former Zen monk, who went on to train in Western psychotherapy and became a student of Direct Path teacher Jean Klein*. He provides a bridge from Zen to the Direct Path and his book is rich in carefully crafted practice suggestions. I also worked with the inquiry suggestions in Greg Goode’s Direct Path (5). Greg Goode – https://greg-goode.com/  is a student of Francis Lucille, himself a student of Jean Klein.

Now I am working with Rupert Spira’s – https://non-duality.rupertspira.com/ Transparent Body, Luminous World (6) contemplations, clear that the Direct Path is the centre of my inquiry. Rupert Spira is another pupil of Francis Lucille, and for me does most to bring out the Tantric as well as Advaita aspects of Klein’s teaching. For him, Direct Path realization is just as much about finding love in sensation and feelings, or beauty in perception, as it is about finding truth in inquiry. All is held in Consciousness. Once we know this, really feeling and tasting the understanding, the question becomes: how do we celebrate and live from this reality? This is the point at which the sense of an embodied spirituality, animist, Earth honouring, with a view of deep ecology, indeed Druidry, come back into their own, held within a Tantric understanding.

I’m moving towards a decision about whether to anchor myself in this world view. Once that decision is made (if it is made), my primary attention will move to the outward arc – here called the Tantric one. This will likely change my practice. The intensive contemplative inquiry will burn itself out, leading to a new spiritual centre of gravity that includes contemplation and inquiry but is no longer defined by them.

*DIRECT PATH: I am specifically referring to the lineage begun by Jean Klein, combining Advaita Vedanta, India’s classical renunciate spirituality, with Kashmir Shaivism, a form of Tantra. The Direct Path is an exploration of objective experience in the light of our enlightened understanding, rather than a turning away from our experience in favour of its background of pure Awareness, as is the case of the Vedantic approach. If the Vedantic path is the path from ‘I am something’ – a body and a mind – to ‘I am nothing’, the Tantric path could be said to be the path from ‘I am nothing’ to ‘I am everything’. If the Vedantic path is one of exclusion and discrimination, the Tantric path is one of inclusion or love. The Direct Path brings them together.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017

(2) Nagarjuna The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995

(3) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

(4) Stephan Bodian Beyond Mindfulness: The Direct Approach to Lasting Peace, Happiness and Love Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2017

(5) Greg Goode The Direct Path Salisbury: Non-Duality Press, 2012

(6) Rupert Spira Transparent Body, Luminous World – The Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016

 

 

BEYOND MINDFULNESS?

“Mindfulness alone” (1) can’t offer “stable, enduring peace and well-being because it’s a state of mind you believe you have to cultivate, sustain and protect. … Like every other mind-state, mindfulness is impermanent and arises and passes away depending on the strength and consistency of your practice. … In fact, the very notion that your mind needs to be settled and calmed or that negative emotions need to be eliminated, based on some predetermined standard of how your mind should look, marks a major distinction between the path of mindfulness and the direct approach of awakened awareness.

“From the perspective of unconditional openness, every thought that arises, no matter how seemingly negative or discordant, is welcomed just as it is, and this very welcoming reveals an equanimity that can’t be disturbed even by the most negative experiences. By not preferencing one mind-state over another, so-called positive over so-called negative, awakened awareness moves beyond dualistic thinking to encompass life fully, in all its richness and complexity. Yet awakened awareness is not a state you can cultivate, but your natural state that’s always already available and just needs to be acknowledged and accessed.

“For all its wonderful benefits, the practice of mindfulness … tends to maintain a subject-object split, the gap between the one who’s being mindful, the act of being mindful, and the object of mindful attention. In other words, no matter how mindful you become, there’s always a you that has to practice being mindful of an object separate from you. As a result, mindfulness perpetuates the very sense of separateness it’s designed to overcome. … you may eventually discover that you are trapped in the detached witnessing position … Witnessing has become another identity or point of view that you ultimately have to relinquish.”

For many years Stephan Bodian practised mindfulness meditation as a Buddhist monk. He found it very beneficial. He became calmer and “more disengaged from the drama that had seemed to be my life”. Customary anxiety was replaced by ease and contentment. Stephen found that his concentration deepened, he live more in the moment, and his relationships improved. “From a nervous intellectual, I was transformed into a paragon of patience, groundedness and equanimity. I was a completely different person.”

What’s not to like? After long years immersed in a culture of mindfulness – including a teaching role – Stephen discovered a sense of feeling disengaged from life, as if experiencing it at a distance, his meditations themselves seeming somehow dry and lacking in energy. His teacher told him to meditate more. After “considerable soul searching” Stephan left the monastic life to study Western psychology. “I knew there were other ways of working with the mind and heart, and I wanted to learn what they had to offer”.

Looking back, Stephan still finds mindfulness valuable – but not enough. Some of the problems are cultural rather than intrinsic. A goal oriented culture turns the practice into a method for achieving goals and part of a self-development project. Yet it can also be a bridge. It can “take you beyond mindfulness to your natural state of awakened awareness”.

The term ‘awakened awareness’ is not used to describe another mental state. It is an attempt, using the compromised medium of language, to point to “the deepest level of reality” which is “the ground of openness in which everything arises. Whether or not you recognize it, it is always already the case. At the experiential level, however, awakened awareness does not dawn in your life until you realize that this ground of awareness is your natural state, in fact, is who you really are. This shift from recognizing awareness as a function, to recognizing awareness as the ground, to realizing it to be your fundamental nature and identity, is the awakening that the great spiritual masters describe.”

I’ve been moved by Stephan Bodian’s account. It reminds me of the time I spent working with Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (2), which I have pulled back from over the last year. I’m very clear, now, that there’s something limiting for me about conventional mindfulness meditation. I have decided to work experientially in this area as the major focus of my personal contemplative inquiry. Fortunately, there are now many ‘Direct Path’ teachers to turn to – Stephan Bodian being one of them. One advantage of the digital age is that gathering resources and contacts in the field of spiritual teaching has been made so easy.

(1) Stephan Bodian Beyond Mindfulness: the Direct Approach to Lasting Peace, Happiness and Love Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2017

(2) http://www.headless.org/

A PERSPECTIVE ON ‘SELFLESSNESS’

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

HEADLESS ZEN?

“Let go of emptiness and come back to the brambly forest. Riding backwards on the ox, drunken and singing, who could dislike the misty rain pattering on your bamboo raincoat and hat.” Chan Master Hongzhi.

Recently I came across Susan Blackmore’s Zen and the Art of Consciousness (1). Blackmore, though not a Buddhist, works experientially within the Chan tradition (Chan being a Taoist influenced form of Chinese Buddhism, and the precursor of Japanese Zen). It’s how she does her first-person, subjective lifeworld inquiry into consciousness, which she also studies as a cognitive scientist. The book shows her working through ten questions, starting with: ‘Am I conscious now’?

Question 3 is ‘Who is asking the question? Here she brings in Douglas Harding of the Headless Way* and uses some of his experiments. I worked with these last year. I didn’t maintain an ongoing connection with the Headless family for long, mostly because of Harding’s tilt towards self-identification with/as the One cosmic consciousness, as the means dis-identification from ‘self’ at the human level. I’ve discovered that I can’t align myself with it. I don’t want to be God. Yet the ‘headless’ experience and its value have stayed with me. After completing my first Headless Way* pointing experiment, I reported: “pointing out – ‘curtains, folds, blueness, a crack showing light. Right arm. Flesh, tattoos, patterning. Pointing in: nothing: a relief, really, and a joy.” As that work continued, the joy only grew when the exterior view rushed in to fill the space. I say ‘view’ rather than ‘world’ because the world I perceive is a co-creation of the (presumed) outside world and my own (presumed) senses. A bat would have a completely different experience. Still, there was a sense of ‘everything’ filling my nothing at the centre.

Blackmore’s version is this. She describes meditating and looking towards a flower bed. “I paid open attention to everything I could see and hear, and in the space at the top of my shoulders I found no head, only forget-me-nots. I looked for the self who was looking at the forget-me-nots, and simply became them. It was very simple; very obvious”. Blackmore’s subsequent understanding – “what I see is what I am’ – does not as I read it make ‘I am God’ cosmic consciousness claims. Indeed, she is influenced by the philosopher Dan Dennett, who thinks of ‘consciousness’ itself as not just a reification (turning a process into a substance) but an altogether redundant idea. He’s the opposite kind of monist to Douglas Harding.

Some people like to have a line to follow. I like openness, and the possibility of multiple perspectives. I like the gleeful return to the commonsense world indicated by the 12th century Master Hongzhi above. It’s in Blackmore’s book, as part of feedback from her own Chan teacher at a time when she was in relentless pursuit of the problem of consciousness, and may have needed some rebalancing and lightening up in her role as sentient being. I also like the Interbeing approach mapped out in Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary on the Heart Sutra (2) and more recent works such as his Love Letter to the Earth (3), with ‘We are the Earth’ as its first section and ‘Healing Steps’ as the second.

I will give the last word to a member of the Headless Way community. This is in the form of a poem by Colin Oliver called the Oneness of Things (4), which for me captures the ‘headless’ experience seamlessly, and – as only poets can – finds room for all of the above:

The sun low over the beach:

shining wires of dune grass,

stones and the shadows of stones.

On the shoreline, the rush of foam

mirrored in the wet sand.

In the oneness of things

I am nowhere in sight.

 

* www.headless.org/

(1) Susan Blackmore Zen and the Art of Consciousness, Oneworld Publications, 2014 (ebook edition)

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1988

(3) Thich Nhat Hanh Love Letter to the Earth, Berkeley, CA: Parallex Press, 2013

(4) Colin Oliver Nothing but this Moment: selected poems London: Shollond Trust, 2013

FULLNESS

Yesterday I spent 90 minutes watching trees, their branches now bare, against a steadily darkening sky. I forgot myself in the scene, feeling filled with it. The core experience was fullness.

I suppose that this is what I mean by the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ – though this experience was of the flowing present, extended over time, noticing and enjoying change in nature. On later reflection, I was less reminded of mystics and meditators than of poets, particularly John Keats and his ‘negative capability’. He contrasted this with another type of response, which he called “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime”. Negative capability is “everything and nothing – it has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the chameleon poet”. (1)

‘Everything and nothing’ can be experienced as empty or full. I’m increasingly finding fullness. This has the effect of holding me in nature and time, in my unique human life soon enough to be over. This is where I want to be, with the important qualification that ‘fullness’ gives me a additional sense of being resourced by a larger well-spring of life than I might otherwise recognise. Experienced fullness doesn’t come simply from trees and sky. It comes also from the receptive openness I access when my senses are attuned. I find myself feeling a stillness underneath and within all movement; hearing a silence underneath and within all sound; seeing a soft luminescence underneath and within all colour and form, and in darkness too. These are the keys to fullness – a fullness where everything stills and slows down yet doesn’t stop.

Largely this is what I now mean (for myself) by a ‘contemplative’ state. Its development reflects a magpie approach to learning and my felt sense of what is right for me. I discovered the stillness through Buddhist breath meditation (movement of the breath as the belly rises and falls; yet stillness within). But I am not a Buddhist. I learned the silence through listening to the Oran Mor (Song of the World), though I don’t currently work within Gaelic traditions. I discovered (what should I call it?) primordial luminescence within the Headless Way (2). But I’m not continuing with the Headless path, because the headless trope itself now feels tedious and I don’t entirely share the Harding world view. Fullness has a link to Sophian Gnosticism, of all these traditions the closest to my heart, under the Greek name Pleroma. But my ‘fullness’ has come out of direct experience and I’m being careful to keep it that way. I like the resonance of the English word fullness, and it helps to maintain a degree of separation from the ancient view. Yet even whilst maintaining my inner authority, I am grateful for these inputs from the world’s spiritual heritage. I remain indebted whilst crafting my own path.

I’m not Keats and, for me, negative capacity for fullness tends to come as an alloy. It is generally interspersed with a certain amount of egotistical sublime, in my case as an upgraded stream of consciousness or monkey mind narrative. In my universe, that’s fine too, and all part of the fullness. I would like more skill in switching between the two modes at will, and I believe this to be achievable. At another level, it doesn’t really matter.

(1) Keats selected poems and letters Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 1995 (Selected by Robert Gittings; edited by Sandra Anstey)

(2) http://www.headless.org

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