I trust you have been keeping well, but I hope you have been doing much better than that. It is possible to fill your time with meaningful and engaging activity even in a pandemic and I hope all of you have been able to realise this.
In this letter, I want to help you with two specific suggestions.
I have written on the Eastern concept of Non-Duality before, and the Buddhist notion of "anatta" or no-self.
One month ago I wrote a letter on Ramana Maharshi's Atma Vichara, a very pointed and direct technique of cutting through the illusion of the self and understanding what these terms even mean.
This letter is a direct continuation of that letter. In this piece, I will introduce you to two novel ways to recognising the nature of one's mind.
I heartily encourage all of you to listen to it.
The Man with No Head
"The best day of my life — my rebirthday, so to speak — was when I found I had no head."
For months Douglas was absorbed in the question "what am I?".
One day he was contemplating the mystery while walking through the beautiful valleys of the Himalayas. The weather was pleasant, the view was grand and realisation dawned upon him.
"What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: just for the moment, I stopped thinking. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. I forgot my name, my humanness, my thingness, all that could be called me or mine. Past and future dropped away. 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 trouser 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 — absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not a head."
If that last part confuses you, read it again. This idea of having no head can sound strange and counter-intuitive but it is in fact very easy to grasp.
Douglas isn't talking about the physical, but the experiential.
From the third-person, that is; when another looks at you, you indeed have a head.
But from the first-person, that is; direct experience, you do not.
Look down at your body, you might see your legs, you may see your arms, you might see your torso. When your attention travels up your torso you find that it terminates in — absolutely nothing whatsoever! Certainly not a head.
When looking for your head from the inside out, you fail to find it. In its place, you find a void, a space where everything else; the sights, sounds, sensations and thoughts that make up your world emerge. In Douglas' words; "I had lost a head but gained a world".
Long after his decapitation, the man with no head passed on in 2007.
The Headless Way teaching and resources are now managed by his long time student Richard Lang.
Richard has said that the way the realisation really happened differs from the popular account. It was not in the Himalayas but rather when gazing at this self-portrait by the Austrian Physicist Ernst Mach.
Look at it carefully. We are so used to looking at portraits in the third person, that viewing one in the first-person can be jarring. Ernst Mach woke up one morning and decided to paint himself from his own perspective — without a head.
Now, what is the significance of this? Harding often remarked that it was common for students to recognise headlessness only to respond "So what?"
"It is in fact very difficult to deal with this 'so what?'"
"Having then said, 'So what?' in the face of the highest teachings, there is nothing to do but persist in confusion."
Sam Harris, Waking Up
Suffering is resistance to what is. It is a failure to rest in what is arising in experience moment-to-moment. Everything we do is to alleviate suffering and seeking happiness, in ourselves as well as others. Yet we do not tend to stop and ask "what is this suffering?" or "who or what is it that suffers?"
We feel like we are behind our eyes looking out into a world that is separate to us. Continually thinking, striving, planning, working, yearning to live in a world where we can relax and let be.
These thoughts arise moment-to-moment and we take them to be what we are.
It is the identification with these thoughts that is the fuel of our suffering.
Underneath this chatter, this layer of concepts, naked awareness is there to be glimpsed clearly. Underneath the illusory self is what we really are simple knowing itself.
In the film of our lives, we mistook ourselves as the main character, but we were the screen all along.
Simply looking for who we thought we are and our true face is revealed.
Direct experience, first-person experience prior to the narratives we frame around it, is what really is. Here there is no suffering, nor is there anyone to suffer. Liberation is simply this.
When thoughts and concepts subside we effortlessly return to the present, to direct-experience, to the first-person.
When we realise we can simply let go of the current thought and come back here at any moment, we discover incredible relief from the vicissitudes of life.
Learning to rest here, is the ultimate meditation.
The Self at Zero-Distance
In the first of his guided lessons, Richard Lang made an interesting observation that illustrates the arbitrariness of our concept of self.
Picture yourself, bring yourself to mind — what do you look like?
If you are like most people, what you are bringing to mind is from the third-person.
It is the image that others see of you in your presence. It is this image that you identify with.
It is even worse than this though.
Not only, are you identifying with your image in the third person, but you are doing so are an arbitrary vantage point.
If you are like most, the image of yourself you conjure in your mind is what I would see if I were with you — about 2 metres away. The distance where I can pretty much see your full face and body. Think about this.
If I was a hundred metres away and you were a few dots in my field of vision, would the "you" that I see be any less you than at two metres?
If I came very close to you and looked at you through a magnifying glass is what I am seeing any less you than at two metres?
Not only, is what you call yourself an image at an arbitrary distance but also an arbitrary angle.
Almost no doubt you would have visualised yourself in portrait from the front. I doubt you would have visualised yourself from the side, or from behind or above, but should these profiles have any less claim to being what you are?
The concept that we take ourselves to be can be revealed to be no more than an arbitrary image, a thought floating in the space of the mind — what we really are.
Rather than imagine what another can see, when they look at an arbitrary distance, from an arbitrary angle, why not see ourselves from our perspective? From the first-person, at zero distance.
From here the view is not separate from the viewer and there isn't a head in sight.
The Poetry of David Whyte
Only a few weeks after released Richard Lang's series on the Headless Way, Sam released another series called Contemplative Action by the marvellous poet David Whyte.
"You are more marvellous in that simple wish to find a way than that the gilded roofs of any destination you could reach."
David Whyte, Santiago
David speaks about what he calls "The Conversational Nature of Reality". A constant interface between an apparently internal world, with an apparently external one. The dance of life itself, in which every moment we are with.
It really is a conversation. Every moment through our thoughts and actions — our yearning, planning, our attempts to accomplish our goals — we are expressing what we want from reality.
In turn, in the feedback we receive, in the obstacles we encounter, in the criticisms we meet, it is expressing what it wants from us. It never seems to fully satisfy, misunderstanding us in the same way another person would in conversation. But then again, we never seem to fully satisfy it, and the interplay of life continues moment-to-moment.
of a bell
or a blackbird calling
from a corner
into this life
or inviting you
to one that waits.
The above three stanzas open David Whyte's poem The Bell and the Blackbird.
A part of the inspiration for the piece came from an old Irish story.
A monk was sitting in quiet and was struck by the sound of a church bell in the distance.
"That is the most beautiful sound in the world."
Not even a moment goes by when the silence is interrupted once more, this time by the call of a blackbird.
"And that also is the most beautiful sound in the world."
I believe this poem is a pointer to the direct-experience of life that is revealed by our spiritual traditions. What Buddhists refer to as "the nature of mind beyond concept" or "suchness", what the Advaita Vedanta tradition reveals as being one's true self, and the very same headless void pointed out by Douglas Harding.
It is the continual invitation to put aside our cares, our plans, our aspirations and our neurosis and return to simply being here. In the present, in the immaculately real — be it in the form of the chime of a bell or the call of a blackbird. Asking you to wake into this life.
I know my interpretation may sound far-fetched to some of you, but allow me to share with you the very next stanza.
either way wants you
to be nothing
but that self that
is no self at all,
wants you to walk
to the place
where you find
you already know
how to give
every last thing
To be nothing but that self that is no self at all.
Half a step
and the rest
These are the first three stanzas of David's poem; Just Beyond Yourself.
Once again I believe there is a pointer here to the intimacy of the present moment, to direct-experience prior to all of our concepts.
"Just beyond yourself, it's where you need to be"
It isn't far away you need to go, but just beyond yourself.
Beyond your thoughts, your plans, your aspirations, your goal-seeking, your neurosis, beyond your attempts to go anywhere or become anything.
Beyond all our abstractions is the intimacy of direct-experience, the here and now.
"Half a step into self-forgetting and the rest restored by what you'll meet"
When we put aside our idea of a self and what we believe it needs, what is left? Simply this experience, or in other words; what you'll meet.
"The cooking pots have left their arrogant aloofness and seen the good in you at last."
David Whyte, Everything is waiting for you
I want you to be exposed to more of this, but I don't have much to share. I worry that I may have overdone it. There isn't a free copy of the above two poems online, I only shared a few stanzas but wonder if I have transgressed in doing so.
If you would like to read the rest of these poems please consider purchasing David's collection The Bell and the Blackbird.
Although, I find the effect of hearing them read by the author even more mesmerising.
I heartily encourage you to accept it. In it, there is a stream called "Contemplative Action", where you can listen to these poems read by the man himself free-of-charge.
The quote above is from a poem called "Everything is waiting for you", which is neither in the collection nor in the Waking Up app.
A lyrical bridge between past, present and future: David Whyte has a TED Talk and it is brilliant (~20 minutes)
The Conversational Nature of Reality: A conversation between David Whyte and Sam Harris on the Making Sense podcast (this conversation is also available on the Waking Up app which you can get for free for a month with this link)
Richard Lang's YouTube Channel: It provides instructions into the headless way. It even has older videos of instruction by Douglas Harding himself
The Headless Way Website: There are a lot of resources here for those of you who are interested.
Another week, another letter.
To those of you who have read this far, I am truly grateful.
Last time when writing about the beginning of the universe, I found myself starting in the morning and typing away until ten o'clock at night.
This time it is only around six and I even took a substantial break in the middle of the day. These Sundays are truly days well spent.
I hope you are all getting value from these letters and I hope you know you are free to reply to any of these — I always enjoy your responses.
It is my wish that the conversational nature of these letters reflects that of reality itself.
Stay happy everyone,