The focus of this month's Missal is Douglas Harding (1909-2007), a modern day practical philosopher and mystic from England. Harding was born in 1909 in Suffolk, England, and grew up in a strict fundamentalist Christian sect, the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren. The ‘Brethren’ believed they were the ‘saved’ ones, that they had the one true path to God. Harding could not buy this attitude of unquestioned belief, and when he was 21 he left, much against his father's wishes, and finished his studies to be an architect.
In the mid-1930s Harding moved to India with his family to work. When the Second World War broke out, Harding’s quest to discover his true nature became urgent. He was aware he might die soon, being at that time in the British Army and facing an invasion by the Japanese through Burma.
The "penny dropped" for him at around age 33 and is variously described in two episodes. One day he stumbled upon a drawing
by the philosopher and physicist Ernst Mach. For Harding this was the key that opened the door to his innermost identity. For he noticed he was in a similar condition – his own head was missing. At the center of his world was not an appearance but nothing at all. His experience in India in the Himalayas is described in his Rebirthday
, brought on by the pressure of impending war and death.
Harding developed what he called the experiments
in the late 1960's and 1970's. These are exercises in awareness designed to make it easy to see one’s headlessness and to explore its meaning and implications in everyday life. He devoted his life to teaching these exercises, travelling around the globe leading workshops until just before his death in 2007.
"One of the first things I should say is that I find it a most extraordinary thing to exist, to have happened. I don't mean just to be Douglas Harding, but to be at all, to be aware, to be an awareness, or even Awareness itself. What an extraordinary thing and what a pity to come by this awareness, to be aware, and then not to get the taste of it! It seems an awful thing, sad and chicken-hearted and miserable, not to be interested in these matters. So, what I'm up to, at its briefest, is to wake up to the mystery of myself."
- Douglas Harding
His approach to answering the question "Who Am I ?" is not to use the verbal-based intellect or astute reasoning, but to simply look, and see for yourself. He taught this by having his students practice experiments
designed to show them what they are, in real time, by their own direct perception. Finding out who we really are is a simple thing, Harding noticed, and that we tend to make it too complex. He cut through this complexity and verbal jungle, taking us straight to seeing what we really are, rather than thinking about it. Conceptual thought is left behind, and direct perception found instead.
These experiments are quite effective, provided the student has worked long enough to rid himself of two common obstacles. The first is the belief that someone else, whether society, parents or authority, know better than him. He must come to trust his own seeing. The second is whether he has lost the need to assert himself as knowing everything already. Knowing how to listen, rather than argue, is essential. Our own direct perception is easily attacked by the over-active ego, and soon lost. Hardings experiments are effective only if practiced, not read. The most common mistake of friends and myself was to read them only, and thus miss the point. Also, if we have not done the psychological ground work necessary to become conscious of and separate from our personality and the affects of our past on our present, the experiments can be less effective and even become traps .
Hardings work, enthusiasm, and dedication over the years never waned. His experiments, ideas and philosophy are practical, concise, and fun. You get the feeling that this guy enjoyed himself immensely and longed to bring this joy of knowing who you really, really are to the rest of us.
"So if we want to be efficient, and live from the way we are instead of the way we are told we are—and the way we are I say is inconceivably blessed, inconceivably happy. I mean, the world is a pretty miserable place in so many ways. I say, there are two worlds and they are vastly different.
There is a world which is seen from a position of deep illusion, and delusion, as if from a lump here, as if from a sticky wet dark eight inch box, with two peep holes in it. It's crazy. But a world seen from that position is a horrible place. It's hell. It really is hell.
Now a world seen from the only place it only can be seen from, namely from this Clarity here, is a loved-world. It is a world I am—I'm taking it in. It's a loved world." - Douglas Harding
- Related Sites -
The Headless Way: The Work of D.E. Harding. This method of self-enquiry, sometimes called 'headlessness' or 'seeing who you really are' ('seeing' for short), is a contemporary approach which investigates the question Who am I? and suggests that you can see Who you really are here and now. It provides simple but deep awareness exercises that direct you to this Seeing within yourself. The Headless Way offers you a practical, user-friendly way to see Who you really are. At the heart of this approach are the Experiments – awareness exercises that guide your attention directly to your deepest identity.
Mind Breakers: Experiments in the Listening Attention by Bob Fergeson.
: from the Guide to Spiritual Teachers site: "An often heard theme in the spiritual search is that our true nature is the simplest thing to discover, it is always present, is right under our noses, and we simply need to see. Douglas Harding brings this ancient admonition to life through a simple, practical set of experiments that anyone can do at any time."
Spiritual Books Worth Reading: "Harding's is a way of looking at the spiritual search from a scientific viewpoint. Instead of asking his readers to meditate on I am, or realize that they already have the answer, he shows you what to do."
Tricks and Traps
Trap: Compartmentalizing our spiritual life. It's a mistake to separate our day-to-day life from our spiritual one. We tend to put our spiritual goals and aspirations into unrealistic fantasies, separate and apart from the facts of our actual life. Thus, the ego is protected from any real threat of self-observation, and can maintain the status-quo.
Trick: Self honesty and facing the facts. If we observe the pattern of our life, we might see that our spiritual dreams are just that, they don't hold water. We may need to begin by looking at the lives of others who have gone beyond themselves and what they went through, as well as take an honest look at the emotional motivations we have for the spiritual search. Then, self-observation of our patterns becomes possible.
The ego is much like an addiction. It will defend itself and refuse to face facts, staying in denial about the gap between what it says and what it does, or can do. Use your friends and your own honesty as a constant intervention, cold water on the ego's feverish dreams of escape and grandiosity.
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.
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.
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.
- Douglas Harding
A Formula for Self-Discovery
I'm often asked how a seeker can increase their progress along the path. Sometimes the person may feel stuck, or simply wants to know the most expedient way to increase their vector. Looking back over my own life, I've found that one factor stands out. When I became a conduit for realization, passing it along to others, things took off. It's as if we agree to become a link in a chain, and pass on down the line that which was handed to us from above. This is not only a theory, but something we can, and must, actively do in our day-to-day lives. One may argue that if all is one, then this is just another illusion, but the rationalizations of the ego come easy and keep us stuck in our own mud, while active work may put tension on us in a way the ego can't handle.
I can best relate how this works along the lines of my hobby with photography. I've spent a lot of my time in the great outdoors, and for years refused to share this experience with others due to a certain ego. I felt that if I took pictures of my trips, it would somehow cheapen the experience, take something away from the purity of the pristine settings. Somehow this changed, thank goodness, and I became willing and inspired to do the work to bring a bit of what I was seeing back with me to share with others. I broke down and bought a digital camera, and the magic began. Some inner part of me that had been denied came back to life, and with it a better relationship to everything involved. The entire experience of hiking was somehow changed for the better.
At about this same time, I also bought my first computer and entered the world of email and the Internet. I was able to stay in touch with fellow seekers from around the country, and to share my experiences in the search for definition, as with the photography. Somehow this changed the belief that spiritual work was a solitary affair only, and opened doors of opportunity I had never dreamed of. I started a web site, and became involved with an online confrontation group. I began to move within, the connection was made.
talks about much the same thing. He describes getting answers from within as Glimpses, and stresses the importance of sharing these. It's a double-sided coin, much like the chicken and the egg dilemma, in that we must get answers in order to share them, in order to get answers. But the process is not that complicated, if we just make a move. We become a conduit, a transmitter of realization, and the more we give, the more we get.
One trap worth mentioning here is that of keeping this all in one's head. We may think that by getting a few answers in the beginning of our search, we are on the path and need not put out more effort. Being comfortable in our life, we may not wish to rock the boat of our habits, and thus keep whatever intuitions we receive to ourselves, thus miring our spirit in a dream world. Our intuitions bear fruit when they are put into action and tested in life, and when found sound, passed along to our fellows.
All of the above is what might be called a law of manifestation, an equation as Samuel calls it, and it will work for whatever desire applies it, spiritual or otherwise. If one wants money, success or security, this formula will work as well. This leads to a dilemma for some us in that we may not consciously know what we really want, until we test ourselves by putting the formula into practice. This can be a paradox. If we believe we want enlightenment, and put it to the test through actions in our day-to-day life, we may find that what we really want is freedom from fear or a desire for power. While we have temporarily fooled ourselves, we have at least come to know ourselves better, and have thus made a move along the path of self-discovery. We may eventually uncover an intense longing for home, for something stable and real, which was only allowed to manifest as the mundane patterns of fear and worldly desire. This was long buried, and is what will provide the necessary pull to carry us farther within. To get real answers, we must come to have real and pressing questions.
One thing is for certain, if we do not make a move, a commitment to action, we will not leave the head-in-the-sand false safety of our dreams. A man asleep in his bed in a burning house may dream of oneness and ease as well as anxiety and need. On the other hand, waking up may take effort, be difficult and even unpleasant, but is most necessary, too.
- Quotes of the Month -
" You are the sole and final authority on what you are looking out of.
" You're the authority on where you are coming from, on where you are looking out of, and I think you will find, as I do, that every darned thing you have been told about who you are, where you are, is exactly the opposite of the way it is.
" My experience is that to be truly human, truly individual and authentic as a person in the world, the best thing you can do is to see who you really really are. If you neglect who you really are in favour of that human thing that human thing suffers.
" All of us are living from who we really, really, really are and we couldn’t do otherwise. And if they wish—and certainly most people wish to overlook this fact or to ignore this fact; of what they’re looking out of, of who they really, really, really are—it doesn’t prevent them living in that place, and so one cannot feel enlightened or superior to them at all. It’s just that I happen to be interested in observing what I’m looking out of, interested in making this 180º u-turn to be awake, not only to the object as object, but to the subject as object. In fact, I’m not content with one-way looking but with two-way looking, but other people have the right to delay that.
" - Douglas Harding
" Meditation is the witnessing of experience. Participation in experience is dreaming. Experience is binding. Witnessing experience is liberating. That which we take ourselves to be, the self, is our least witnessed experience." - Bob Cergol
" A host of influences (cultural, psychological, and physiological) determine what we see and think, and we are rarely conscious of these influences. The lack of certainty regarding all that the mind perceives leads us to meditate on the nature of the mind. What is this flawed glass out of which we peer?" - Shawn Nevins
" Any product of thought is not proper meditation, as that is of the mind’s memory." - Gary Harmon
" With enough courage, you can do without a reputation. " - Rhett Butler
"A bit of counterpoint lunacy is indeed refreshing." - Jim Burns
" Marriage is like a midnight phone call. You get a ring and then you wake up." - Archie Ferrarina
Copyright 2003 - 2007 Robert Fergeson. All Rights Reserved.