The best day of my life – my rebirthday, so to speak – was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head.
It was eighteen years ago, when I was thirty-three, that I made the discovery. Though it certainly came out of the blue, it did so in response to an urgent enquiry; I had for several months been absorbed in the question: what am I? The fact that I happened to be walking in the Himalayas at the time probably had little to do with it; though in that country unusual states of mind are said to come more easily. However that may be, a very still clear day, and a view from the ridge where I stood, over misty blue valleys to the highest mountain range in the world, with Kangchenjunga and Everest unprominent among its snow-peaks, made a setting worthy of the grandest vision.
What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animalhood, 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, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouserlegs 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 – absolutely nothing whatever! 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 mere 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 snowpeaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.
It was all, quite literally, breathtaking. I seemed to stop breathing altogether, absorbed in the Given. Here it was, this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void, and (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.
Yet in spite of the magical and uncanny quality of this vision, it was no dream, no esoteric revelation. Quite the reverse: it felt like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, an end to dreaming. It was self-luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind. It was the revelation, at long last, of the perfectly obvious. It was a lucid moment in a confused life-history. It was a ceasing to ignore something which (since early childhood at any rate) I had always been too busy or too clever to see. It was naked, uncritical attention to what had all along been staring me in the face – my utter facelessness. In short, it was all perfectly simple and plain and straightforward, beyond argument, thought, and words. 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.
– Douglas Harding
This is an extract fromOn Having No Headby Douglas Harding, first published in 1961, available now through the Sholland Trust.
Bart Marshall describes his spiritual path as “self-guided eclectic.” It began with a death experience in Vietnam in 1968 and ended in 2004 on an airplane at 30,000 feet over the Atlantic as he returned from a workshop with Douglas Harding. In those intervening years he “turned over every rock” in his quest for a final answer, but counts three teachers as the most influential: Richard Rose, Nisargadatta Maharaj, and Douglas Harding.
He founded Self Inquiry Group (SIG) in Raleigh, North Carolina (www.selfinquiry.org), and for many years held weekly meetings before stepping back in 2013. Sometimes called “the reluctant guru” by those who know him, Bart nevertheless travels widely to speak when asked, and teaches retreats and intensives with Deborah Westmoreland (Conscious TV interview) events that have proven to be highly transformative for participants.
Bart is the author of The Perennial Way: New English Versions of Yoga Sutras, Dhammapada, Heart Sutra, Ashtavakra Gita, Faith Mind Sutra, and Tao Te Ching, and an upcoming book, Christ Sutras (Fall 2014), which contains the complete sayings of Jesus from all sources arranged as topical sermons. He is currently completing a book of essays on spiritual matters, Becoming Vulnerable to Grace.
The great difficulty in spiritual work is the ego. Whatever efforts or plans we devise to get beyond ourselves are started and carried out by that which we wish to transcend, and have the undesired effect of strengthening the very obstacle we seek to overcome. This is made even more insidious by the ego’s natural ability to split itself in two, and thus ceaselessly chase its own tail while proclaiming its progress. Ego(ego1) as problem solver berates itself(ego2) as problem creator, and around and around we go. Any system or discipline is subject to the ego’s trickery, but struggle we must. The very tension we produce from the conflict, if stored and transmuted, may provide the catalyst for an unexpected change.
Noticing two distinct camps in the field of spiritual endeavor over the years, I’ve come to see that a two pronged approach yields the quickest and best results. Let’s take a look at these two methods, their strengths and weaknesses, and why both are necessary.
The first could be described as a passive listening, exemplified by systems such as Subud. When Bennett says,” There is one Source of Help that stands beside and abides within us. All that we have to do is to learn how to ask and to receive the help that is offered.“, this is what he refers to. Many teachers have expounded the merits of what might be called ‘direct looking at the Source’. Douglas Harding’s system of looking at the looker, of seeing what you are looking out of, is another example. It has been said that realization dawns in a quiescent mind, one that is not filled with ‘knowing’, but is empty and sees its own nothingness. Gurdjieff said that we must start from passive Do(first note of the scale), meaning we cannot begin by projecting our destination and then going about making that desire-concept manifest. We must look for what IS, not for what we think we want or desire. This works on the ego’s insistence that it ‘knows’ and is in charge as the doer, and undermines its authority.
While the above illustrates the good side of direct seeing, it also shows the inevitable downside. Many use this passive looking as an excuse to keep spiritual work only in the head, and therefore not allow any real change. They can become addicted to such platitudes as ‘there is nothing to be done, for there is no doer, so just relax’ and thus take themselves out of the search too early. The ego will grab hold of such sayings and use them to keep its power, and the game is soon over. We must hold tension if we wish to transcend our present state, not give in to laziness or fear. If our ‘looking’ is only in the thoughts and memory, no change occurs. If what we see is not admitted, our seeing stays in the head, and ignores the heart.
The second prong is the opposite of the above, being a psychological analysis of the mind. One begins to observe oneself, one’s actions, thoughts, and motivations. Slowly, a picture of how one’s head is put together comes into focus. We begin to see we are not what we thought we were, but are mechanical, a machine, governed by unconscious factors that don’t always have our best interest at heart. We also see how our fellows are built the same, and see their flounderings as mirrors of our own. This also plays against our belief that we are an individual in charge of our actions, and distinct from all others. We see instead that we are just a bundle of reactions built up by life, and have no real being in a true sense. This too goes against the ego’s insistence on being the real “I”, capable and always right.
Here again, the danger lies in two facets. First, we may not take the above personally, but keep it safely tucked away in the intellect. We may see how the personality in others is flawed, and talk about our own, but somehow always manage to rationalize it away as regards ourselves. The ego will not let it go too deep, but keep it in the realm of theory and the ‘other guy’. The saying ‘the truth shall set you free, but first will make you miserable’ applies here too, as well as to the path of direct looking. If we do not take what we see about ourselves to heart, if we cannot be self-honest, the ego will remain untouched. No pain, no gain.
The other trouble is that if we do not bring honesty and direct looking into play with our observations of self, we may come to like the game, and thus engage in a different form of tail-chasing: that of endlessly analyzing ourselves. We can also fall into the trap of becoming negative and judgmental, thinking that the search is about labeling and building hierarchies, in which we are always above and beyond. This is ego at its best, is tiring, and without good end.
The marriage of reason and intuition brings forth fruit. Any path that promises realization without loss of self, meaning difficulty and suffering, should be considered circumspect. And any system which promises to find Truth through the thinking mind only should dealt with just as warily. While some have made the trip using only one of these paths, most of us do not have the time and endless energy this may require. The ego’s traps of desire and fear, pride and self-pity, can take any method and use it to take us farther afield. We need all the help we can get, use what you have.
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