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Further Impressions of the Headless Way

Introductory Note, by Shawn Nevins

My visit with Douglas Harding was...inspiring, Metta. You told me to, "imagine that you have arrived and things are perfect as they are." It took the visit to Harding for that to sink in. Harding's techniques of "seeing" allowed me to see what you asked me to imagine.



Further Impressions of the Headless Way
by Shawn Nevins

"I am not asking you to understand, I am asking you to look," by Saint Theresa, is a quotation filled with challenge.

Douglas Harding quoted her early in the twelve days I spent with him in England. The challenge is to experience rather than think about Reality; to drop one's beliefs about their nature and the spiritual path. The danger in the challenge is in potentially exchanging one set of beliefs for another. It is easier to believe in El Dorado than go there.

I attended a four-day workshop with Douglas Harding in England and spent the following week at his house. I wanted to immerse my self in the man and his message and determine if his way could lead one to discover their true nature. What follows is to help you and me to learn from what I heard, saw, felt, and thought over that twelve days.

The four-day workshop, billed as a "Gathering," drew approximately 45 people to Felsted, England. Catherine and Douglas Harding spoke each morning for a couple of hours, three guest speakers took a turn in the afternoons, and the evenings saw a question and answer/discussion format. Interspersed were some yoga, dance, singing, and zazen.

Douglas made a point of saying he did not structure this Gathering. Rather, he did what the organizers asked him to do. Several times he said it was an unusual format and I don't think he approved of the melange of offerings. I gather a typical workshop is focused on the Hardings and the experiments. That it what I will focus on, as well. The stories of crazy Irish psychotherapists, drug-fried Osho devotees, and the cigarette-smoking and saki-drinking Zen abbot will wait till later.

The Harding's format was similar to the workshop in Princeton on which I reported earlier this year. Even most of the experiments were familiar. One notable exception involved people drawing what they see of themselves from the first person perspective (not an outside observer drawing you, but what you see of yourself). What results are 45 pictures of bodies with empty space above the chest, which is essentially Harding's realization of his true nature: a headlessness that reveals an aware nothingness containing everything.

I could not escape the fact that the empty space, the void, was the same for every person. We all share this void. More startling is what appears when you lay the pictures in a circle on the floor, so that the empty space faces toward the center of the circle and the feet face outward. "Either we're all crazy or there is something profound here," I said to myself. There on the floor was a perfect representation of the fingers on the hand of God -- the Atman and the Brahman. Forty-five bodies sharing and emanating from the Void. This was not some thousand-year-old picture in a book of metaphysics, either. It was freshly made, moments ago, by living hands.

Harding's way is in turning concepts into precepts, making you feel that you just experienced what you previously only dreamed about. A key point for Douglas is that this seeing is always available. No long years of discipline and training are needed to see who you really are.

He says:
"If I have to know anything about Douglas [psychologically] before I can see, then I'm stuck."

"I fear this [discussion] is descending into the psychological realm and that's not what Catherine and I are about. We're about this person here [at awareness] and not the little one here."

"There is no way of polishing that brick [the human] and making it a mirror."

"This is not a matter of deconditioning. There is no end to deconditioning the human. The deconditioned nature is present, always, right now."

"If you don't look now, it's not because you aren't ready, but because you don't want to."

"I think what I've done in my life is test the teaching of Ramana Maharshi -- that the solution to all your problems is to see who you are. I've found this to be true."

"If we're serious about our problems, we go to where they are resolved [the Center]."

Naturally, this position of Douglas' stirred up a hornet's nest of psychotherapists in the audience. After much discussion, Douglas did agree that in rare instances a person might be so sick that they needed the help of psychology before they could see their real nature.

Through the experiments, Douglas believes seeing of one's true nature is made easy; perhaps too easy.

"You've got to see it and take it seriously -- not dismiss it."

"You may have the seeing, but miss the significance."

What is difficult is to not forget the seeing; to live it consciously everyday until it becomes habit.

"Everyone lives from their true nature. To live from there is not seeing that you're there....You're not conscious of it."

"It's possible to see who you really are and be a disgrace to this vision, until you are settled in it."

While the experiments dominated most of the Harding's time, they did delve into some concepts regarding the nature of the human. Douglas divides the human into "Awareness (spirit), mind, and body," with "mind providing the filling for awareness." Douglas also diagrammed an interesting "Four Wombs (Stages) of Life":

Four Wombs








Note the double arrows between each womb. They signify how one travels back and forth between the wombs. People try to escape the traumas of life and return to the embryonic stage through pleasure. Those on the Headless Way continually bounce between wombs 3 and 2 as they try to live the seeing. There is even travel back from womb 4 (death) by near-death experiencers. Harding also notes the significance of the tunnels that connect each womb. We are born from a tunnel, Harding utilizes tunnels in some of his experiments, and tunnels are generally reported in NDEs.

I found it impossible to judge from the workshop if Harding was pointing a way to enlightenment. I needed to get closer to the man. Ever giving of his time, he invited me to spend the week at his home in exchange for helping him with the gardening. Thus began a magical week at Sholland Hill, England.


"This was my path and perhaps it will be
of use to someone else."
-- Douglas Harding

I believe this is what every true spiritual teacher says. No teacher can lay out a sure path for the seeker. Every teacher's path is infused with his personality, and the student's best hope is that they will find another piece to their path. That is what I hoped for from Harding.

Harding is ninety-years-old, has a full white beard and thinning white hair. He carries a healthy amount of weight with the careful gait of the elderly. Typically, he wears a t-shirt spotted with stains from preparing meals and marks from the blue pens he uses to sketch diagrams in his notebook. Harding is quite active, even though he swears he is naturally lazy. He spent his days reading and making sketches in preparation for a workshop in France, and in cooking three meals a day for the assorted folk staying with him that week, along with an occasional snooze. In between working and reading, we talked.

Douglas' conviction is deep. When he speaks, his words carry you with him. Sometimes he speaks as passionately as a young man and at other times it's as if he's in the nothingness quietly calling out to you. I asked if when he first "saw" he was convinced of its validity. He simply said, "Yes," but it was as if a granite mountain whispered the answer, such was the authority.

Still, while I glimpsed the nothingness that Douglas says is our true nature (our first personhood), I was not sure that was enlightenment. I expected enlightenment to carry a force of conviction that would leave one without a doubt as to Reality. Douglas says seeing is enlightenment (he doesn't like the word enlightenment, though) and that my doubt is typical resistance to the seeing. The third person (the little Shawn) continually throws up questions and concerns.

The key is to stick with the seeing until, "seeing becomes natural." "Remember you have a long habit of not-seeing," Harding says. He feels that, "determination, passion, and trusting (that the seeing will give you the answers) determine if one sticks with the seeing." As for why he's stuck with it, "I think what's kept my eye on the ball these sixty years is having something to do. Devising experiments has kept me on this. I think by giving this away I have gained it."

My pattern for the week was to glimpse my nothingness, then doubt it and ask Douglas my questions and concerns. Douglas' answers would lead me back to seeing without doubt, but shortly after I'd tumble into doubt again. Many of my questions centered on what seeing reveals about death.

For Douglas, our true nature, consciousness, awareness, spirit, first personhood, center, voidness, or nothingness and everythingness (he uses these terms interchangeably), is timeless. It is outside the realm of birth and death. Your seeing center was always there, there before you were born and there after you die. While the headless seer in womb three dwells in time and timelessness, after death we dwell in the absolute timelessness of womb four. "The more we get used to seeing, the more we feel at home," he says. "Seeing is the homeopathic remedy for death."

When I asked if seeing affected what happens to you after death, Douglas laughed and said, "I think I'll refer this technical question to Abbot John [the Zen abbot staying with us]." Evidently, Douglas doesn't know or care about escaping a possible wheel of life and death. One glimpse of seeing is the whole experience and the real work is in living the truth of what you see.

The classic Indian metaphysical question of what happens to consciousness in dreamless sleep drew this response from Douglas, "Of course the Indians say that dreamless sleep is God consciousness. For me, however, consciousness is timeless, so the question of consciousness in dreamless sleep is a dead duck [since sleep occurs in time]."

Looking for inconsistencies in Douglas' philosophy, I asked for an explanation of what was doing this seeing. Douglas said, "Looking in is consciousness turning upon itself -- God self-aware courtesy of Shawn. It seems like there is a third-person consciousness that has to do something to see the first-person consciousness. It's kind of a working hypothesis. It seems that way, but it's not really."

I also wondered why we couldn't always see clearly; if the third person obscured the first person. "Well, I might say it does in a way, but I try not to get too complicated. I try to stick to this (pointing to his face).... We all dither instead of being resolute in our handing over to seeing."

Douglas says it is good to doubt and question everything he says, but questioning is often a form of procrastination. It is better to act; to do the experiments and see. As for my line of questioning, he said, "I think the more we focus on the seeing, the more these big metaphysical questions we bellyache about, will either be answered non-verbally or cease to be of importance to us."

Still, some of Douglas' ideas I couldn't help but question. He lent me a recent paper of his titled God. One of the points was that our body is universal. Literally, that all things make up our body. This stems from an idea of his early years that tools are a literal extension of the body (his Spectre in the Lake deals in depth with this).

Douglas explained to me that there is much of our body we can't feel such as cells, or hair, or gastric juices, so feeling can't be the criteria for judging what is and is not us. He said modern science supported the idea that all things were connected and any pin that drops is felt in the farthest corners of the universe. He felt this was important to understand and later said, "As a little child, we were cosmic in nature. As we get older, we are shrunk into a box. I think there's a part of us that remembers this and needs to go home. I think it's important mentally and spiritually."

Despite my mind's continual objections (the dragon which guards the pearl, Douglas would say), my moments of seeing the light lengthened as the week progressed. Especially evident was the fact that, "We are built at center to give our lives for others." While many seem to interpret this as an excuse for much hugging and brotherly love, I tended toward the grey tones that Douglas emphasizes. It simply seemed that whenever I faced another person, they were the only one there. They entered into an awareness and action took place in that awareness. Our awareness is filled with others.

For me, seeing is frightening at times. Often, I feel myself slipping away as if someone just took the core out of me. That is replaced, though, by a simple awareness that becomes my new core. It is liberation to see that I am not my mind or my body. Even at Douglas', though, the seeing fades in and out, and I wonder how it will fare in the real world.

I asked Douglas how to maintain this seeing while I'm in the States: "Well, the best is in this face to face meeting. You're always meeting people. Are you going to meet them like this (hitting his two fists together), or like this (hitting an open hand against a closed fist)? It's a constant reminder to see who you really are. Of course, you're always welcome here and there are friends in the States and you can always share this with others. This (again hitting open hand against closed fist), though, I think there's the real secret to keeping this up."

To me, as well, the daily reminder of the seeing is in our face to face meetings. When I meet another person, do I really see two faces or is there only one? As my head dissolves when I turn my awareness upon the seer, my side of the meeting dissolves. As I die, I see how my awareness contains the world. As my first personhood dawns, my third person joins its place beside the other contents of consciousness. Little Shawn becomes just another piece of mind stuff.




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