“The whole truth about you is three-fold. Instead of being the mere thing they told you you were, you turn out to be (i) No-thing at all, and (ii) the Totality of things (and, as these, altogether safe) and (iii) every particular thing that lies between (and, as such, altogether unsafe and at risk). Yes, you are wholly free from harm by your very nature as (i) and (ii), and wholly free from the stresses and strains of the world of things: and, by your very nature as (iii) wholly caught up in them. The difference between you as Container (i & ii) and as Contents (iii) is infinite, the separation is nil. On the one hand, each of those things counts as just itself, just one thing. You, on the other hand count as zero and an infinity of things, and each of them in particular, as well. As 0 and ∞ you are stress-free. As what lies between them you are stress-bound.” (1)
Harding goes on to describe how “the contents that fill your ever-peaceful Container build a Universe out of their clashing”, as a horseshoe takes shape from the downward blows of the hammer and the upthrust of the anvil. But does that mean that we have to take on all the world’s stress, “all its catastrophes and pain and alienation – even finding room for its terrible weight of greed and hate and fear? … How can you be the stress-free All without embracing every stressful part?”
Harding addresses these questions by looking at four people and their responses to personal and collective suffering.
The first is a Red Cross worker who showed an agony of stress in her voice and on her face. “She could not have cared more. Her involvement was complete, her detachment non-existent”. For Harding, it seemed that her wellbeing and effectiveness were compromised by a lack of access to that “interior Rest … which can not only receive without harm, but also transmute, all the world’s unrest”.
The second is Douglas Harding himself, on first becoming a Seer and discovering that Emptiness which gave “peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden”. He had learned the lesson of absolute detachment, but not yet the lesson of absolute involvement. He writes that his support of famine relief efforts in Bengal, where he was serving at the time (it was 1943), were real, but “uninvolved, detached, cool”.
The third is the Bengali saint and seer Anandamayi Ra, who Harding met at her ashram twenty years later. He remembers her ability to weep alongside a bereaved mother, fully sharing her grief, without losing her own serenity. “She took on the other’s grief by being herself free of grief, just as she took on the other’s face by being herself faceless. Fully to appreciate what this means in practice you have, like Ma, to see steadily Who you are. To get the point you have only to see, right now, how your own Emptiness is empty for these comments on her”. Harding concludes “Anandamayi Ra was neither attached to nor detached from the mother and her grief. She was both. Her message for her devotee, as for me then and ever since that memorable occasion was, I AM YOU”.
The fourth is Mother Teresa who, according to Harding, had “in her own fashion … broken through to confidence in place of fear, love in place of hate, abandon and detachment and surrender in place of craving.” She too had solved the problem of stress by immersion in it, “by being it absolutely and not being it absolutely”.
Harding concludes with three recommendations for day-to-day practice. The first is to “stop playing ostrich” about our own mortality and our collective human vulnerability to catastrophe, including catastrophes we create for ourselves. We have no reason to expect that “our troubles will somehow blow over. They won’t”. The second is to check in regularly with our place of safety – Who we really are, through Harding’s own exercises or some other means. The third, however, is not to get stuck in the Container at the expense of its contents, the world. Harding says that this isn’t a recommendation for moderation, but for extremism, and finding the unique role that best expresses “this truly amazing union of perfect freedom with total involvement … let us remember that living thus, consciously, is the very best thing we can do for our disaster-prone world”.
(1) Douglas Harding Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom-Line London: The Shollond Trust, 2009 (First published by Arkana in 1990)
See also: http://www.headless.org/