contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Karin Visser

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/

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