A FLOWER IN THE DESERT
In 1970, when I was 17, my life was turned upside down by a very simple thing: a pointing finger—my pointing finger.
I was in an ordinary room with ordinary-looking people, but my finger was pointing at what was extraordinary—indeed (it seemed) impossible: a place where there were no things, no people, no colors, no shapes, no movement—in fact, where there was nothing at all.
My finger was pointing at me.
I was not at all prepared for this vision of nothingness. Raised in a conventional English family and educated in a conventional English school, where things out of the ordinary, no matter how far out of the ordinary, were still things, I expected to see things everywhere I looked. But there in that room, following the directions of the workshop leader, the philosopher and mystic Douglas Harding, I was instead looking directly and unequivocally at nothing.
Or, to be more precise, at no-thing, for what I saw turned out to be not just nothing. It was, for a start, awake, had always been awake, and would always be awake. Which was absurd, for that meant that I had always been awake—long before I was born—and that I would always be awake—long after I was dead.
In one brief experience, the basic assumptions of my life had come undone, and I began a new life based on the astonishing experience of being made of no-thing.
Here is the story of that life—an ordinary life lived in the light of the extraordinary.
I am lying in bed, slowly waking. I don’t know the time, but I can tell by the two pale rectangles of light glimmering in the darkness that dawn is near. In the distance, I hear the sound of a train.
Distance? An assumption. The rolling, rumbling sound, small and faint, vibrates in the silence of this room.
Lying in bed? A convenient lie. For in the darkness, among these warm and comfortable sensations, no bed or body appears. Beyond these thoughts, no mind governs.
I reach out my hand, searching for my watch on the floor. By its battery light, I see it is six o’clock. I have an hour before my family wakes—time to write these words.
At this moment, three paths are crossing. Three? Yes, three. For besides your path, which beyond the pages of this book forks into your past and future, unknown to me, and besides my path, selected bits of which glimmer in the darkness between the pages ahead, there is a third, broad path upon which we can travel together. It stretches from this book in front of you to You and from my computer screen in front of me to Me. Not such a long path, eh? And not particularly interesting, either, you might think. But—forgive me—you would be wrong. For here is a path showered with more magic than the most fantastic fairytale. Step onto this one-foot-long path, and you can walk all the way to infinity. Pass through this mild countryside, and you will encounter such dangers as will challenge you to risk, and lose, your life. Arrive, both dead and alive, at your destination, and you will find that your end is your beginning, and that you have never left, since even before you were born, this marvelous home.
What end? What beginning?
The answers fork into paradox and vanish below the horizon of words.
“But look,” I say, “over here. How clear the sky! How beautiful the view!”
But I am getting ahead of myself. Come. Let us go together. The door is open.
When I was seventeen—I’m going back almost thirty years now—my own path brought me to a featureless, unpromising place.
I had prayed to God ever since I was a child, committing myself each day to serving God, asking for God’s help. But at seventeen, walking out of the church one day and looking up at the grey clouds hanging in stillness over the slate rooftops of my town, I realized that, despite all my dedication and desire, I didn’t know whether God existed or not. I had spoken to God, but God hadn’t spoken to me. Was God there, beyond the silence and the apparent indifference? I didn’t know. And I concluded on that day that I would never know.
For after all, who was I? An unremarkable schoolboy on the edge of adulthood. If the great minds of history hadn’t been able to prove God’s existence, I wasn’t going to do any better. The arguments seemed to be no more than arguments: debatable, inconclusive, joining together in the end in the age-old appeal to faith, like various streams flowing downhill to the one great river of hope. The faith that the vicar had preached from his well-built, wooden pulpit could easily be—at best, perhaps—nothing more than a sincere wish. At worst—well, opiate for the masses. How could I tell?
I couldn’t. The clouds said nothing. The rooftops said nothing. And the people in the streets of the market town, their faces ruddy from breathing the cold, winter air, went about their business, laughing at each other’s stories, making arrangements for deliveries, driving off home. Was God here in the town, or outside the town, or anywhere? Screwing up the unanswerable question and throwing it in a litterbin, I walked away.
“What are you going to be when you grow up?” The question made me cringe inside. How, after walking through cornfields on a summer’s afternoon, clouds shaped like great dollops of cream drifting across the far, blue sky, butterflies dancing with abandon in the still infinitude of the sun, how could I even imagine I would grow up into anything so limited as a person, let alone a person defined by the path of a career?
For to be someone meant that I would be reduced from the All into a piece of the All. I would be confined within the edges of a thing, like a great polar bear pacing back and forth, back and forth, in a small cage at the zoo, its freedom reduced to a slobbering memory. I would be trapped for ever inside the hell of an object called me.
Of course, the people who asked me this question, many of whom were inside my head, weren’t asking a metaphysical question. They simply wanted to know what job I was going to choose to pay my way in the world. Was I interested in being a teacher? Would I be an engineer like my father? (Was I going into the family business?)
But when I heard these questions, all I could feel was the crushing force of the assumption that lay like a python coiled within them—the underlying question, “Which bit of the world are you going to imprison yourself in for the rest of your life?” The fact that workers changed jobs, even careers, three or four times in their lives was little comfort. Was a prisoner who wanted freedom placated by being moved from one cell to another? I wanted freedom. And I still had it—the freedom of being nobody, of being so unconfined that I could flow into anything—into the rivers and the stars and the stories I loved to read. The freedom of being a child.
But I was no longer a child. At seventeen, it is true, I could delay the decision a little longer by going to university and immersing myself in novels and poetry, which I did. And I could take some time to identify with one of my heroes, Jack Kerouac, that free spirit of the road, and travel overland to India, which I did. But I had also seen the hobos. I did not want to pursue my freedom the rest of my days sitting on a park bench drinking cheap wine.
And so before me I found the beginning of a path and the decision that was not a decision but an imperative: to take, today or tomorrow or the next day, but inevitably to take, that step which led away from freedom and, of course, there it was in the end, toward death.
I walk, at sixteen, out of my home in England, taking the footpath along the side of the house towards the fields. It is an old path, the black, drystone walls on either side of it bulging as if, over time, they have become pregnant. As I walk, my attention is split. I look down at the large roots crisscrossing the floor of the path like the veins on my grandfather’s hand, and I lift my feet carefully so as not to trip. But I want to look up, too. For above me is an enticing, overarching lacework of branches, cascading with a myriad pointed, red-brown leaves. I know these trees well. Here on the left is one whose trunk forks, becoming two trees in one, and inside the fork is hidden, away from the path, a dark hole. An owl’s home, perhaps.
The path inclines slightly up a hill, at the top shedding its walls and surrounding trees and entering an open field. I love this place. At night I come here, feeling my way through the narrow darkness of the tree-lined path until, like a baby at birth, I issue forth into the wide arms of the field and the light of the stars. I lie down on the belly of the Earth, my eyes searching the sky for the patterns of the constellations, for the red gem of Betelgeuse, for the huddle of the Pleiades. I am at home in the stars.
But in the daytime, today, the path does not stop here. It skirts the field along two sides, exits through a gate beside a lone, stone-built house, and crossing a road to pass through another field, finds itself at the edge of a valley. I stand at this edge, enjoying the view. Below me, the fields fall away steeply. Green hedges, homes to sparrows, rim the fields. What is down there, where the path is lost in the folds of the valley? A stream? Yes. And beyond that? The evening meal with my mother and father, brother and sister. And further into the distance, a myriad images cascading down twenty-eight years and opening now into this sunny, winter day in California.
Does the path stop here in the present? I don’t know. I glance ahead from the edge of the moment and see more images, some frightening, some enticing. But there is no certainty. I don’t even know if, in this earthquake-prone state, I will live beyond today. Will I reach old age, as I hope? Will I be happy or sad, rich or poor, alone or surrounded by family and friends? And even if I do live till I’m ninety-nine, what then? Will the path end there on that sad height, or will I lie again in the womb of the earth and then ride a star-lit path into another world?
I do not know and may never know. The journey could end at any time in ambush and oblivion. And my ignorance arises not only from looking into the future. When I look back along the way that I have come, beyond that walk across the English fields, back down the years till the images become sparse—my uncle swinging me around his body so wildly, the smoke rising from the gardener’s leaf pile behind the nursery school, the large, black spider sitting in perfect stillness at the center of its dewdrop web—when I look back as far as I can see, I find there also that I know nothing. Beyond those memories is an edgeless absence of experience where all I can say is that I have no memories. I am surrounded by questions. Where did I come from? Where am I going? Why does my path seem to peter out at its beginning as it does, from my present view point, at the end? Was my beginning an awakening from an oblivion occasioned by an ambush of which I have no recollection?
But there is another question, one which underlies these questions about the beginning and ending of my path of images and memories. Who, naked of those images and memories, began this journey, got dressed in this person, and then, having crawled and walked and run along this path, will surely stumble and fall and, naked once again, exit without trace? Who is that one? Who, before and beneath and after all experiences, am I? And who, underneath your experiences, holding this book in your hands, travelling your path, are you?
At the age of nine, I went to a boys’ boarding school in the country. Behind the school, beyond the farm and the road, was the moor, a treeless expanse of heather and rocks that stretched for miles. On clear days, climbing up from the road through the bracken and reaching the plateau of the moor, I could follow the narrow, winding sheep trails until the views of the valley and the school had sunk far below the horizon. Up there, I was left with only the wind and the high, hovering notes of the larks for company. What a luxury it was to leave the crammed quarters of the school on a Sunday morning and, choosing my own direction across the moor, let my mind sink deep into its vast aloneness and the vastness and aloneness of the sky.
Once or twice a week in the winter, after lunch, most of the boys in the school had to do a run called ‘Short Johnny on the Moor.’ It led up onto and then along the edge of the moor for a mile or two before descending steeply to cross a stream and head back to the school. Short Johnny was really an easy run, though cold rain made it hard.
More extended runs were for senior boys only. ‘Long Johnny on the Moor’ started and finished in about the same places on the moor as its shorter version, but it stretched out in the middle for an extra mile across the rolling hillocks of bracken. And then there was the ‘Ghost House,’ a run which headed straight up onto the moor and, crossing the remains of a Roman road, made a long loop around a disused game-shooters’ shelter that stood alone among the sheep and the changeable weather.
However, there was another run, an almost legendary run, which happened just once every year or so. This run, called ‘Dick Hudson’s,’ was for volunteers only, boys who wanted to see if they could endure a long run. For it was very long, passing the Ghost House in its early stages and reaching far across the moor to a place beyond any landmarks I knew.
In my last year at the school, when I was twelve, I set out on the Dick Hudson run with a teacher and four other boys, three of whom had run it before. We began on the familiar track past the farm to the gate at the road above the school. How tiring the first part of a run always was for me before I got used to the repetitive rhythm of my feet reaching, one after the other, for the ground ahead and pulling it under me. My chest ached. The energy in my legs felt heavy and old. At the gate, I paused to rest and looked up at the moor, canopied by grey clouds. The other runners passed through the gate, and after closing it, I began again, pushing my body across the road and climbing the steep hill to the sheep trails and the open moor above.
When we reached the moor, the clouds had descended to the ground and had formed a mist there. We headed into it together, aiming in the direction of the Ghost House. As we ran, my body became used to the effort of running. The ache in my chest melted away. The tiredness evaporated. I breathed deeply the cool, damp air and became absorbed in the group’s movement across the moor.
In half an hour, the Ghost House appeared through the mist. I glanced at its glistening stone walls and iron roof. Here many times before, I had swung around the building and headed back toward the school, like a comet at the furthest edge of its orbit responding to the distant pull of the sun. But this time we did not turn back. We kept moving forward into what was for me unfamiliar moor.
I was running near the back of the group. One boy was behind me, puffing heavily. In front of me was the teacher. Ahead of him were the three other boys, the ones who had, a year or two previously, done this same run. They were full of energy, searching together for the way they had come before, competing for the firmest sense of direction, running ahead as the leaders of the group. Gradually, they got further in front until they had become a separate group, running out there on the edge of my consciousness.
Time stretched, measured only by the constant rhythm of my feet pounding the ground and my lungs inhaling the cool air. The heather and rocks flowed by. I was a boat, ploughing through waves on my way into the unknown, the grey mist a veil that lifted only to reveal another veil beyond it. I ran, following the path, the teacher, the others, drawn on by the impetus of the group, my mind submerged in the physicality of the run.
“I can’t go on!” The sudden words came from the boy behind. I stopped and turned, surprised. He was standing on the path, his face, arms, and legs flushed.
“All right, Tim.” It was the teacher speaking. He also had stopped and was walking past me to stand in front of the boy. “Do you think you can find your way back on your own?” The boy nodded. The teacher looked around into the mist and then back at the boy. “OK. We’ll see you at the school.” I watched for a moment as the boy turned and began walking back. He was soon gone. The teacher and I turned again and resumed running.
But the run was different now. In those few moments with Tim, we had lost touch with the other boys. As I looked ahead, all I saw was thickening mist and sheep trails branching left and right, petering out in the greyness. I couldn’t sense the other boys. They were somewhere ahead, but their shapes had dissolved in the mist. They were gone.
The teacher quickened his pace. I followed, pushing my energy to keep up with him, grasping harder at the ground to move it faster beneath me. But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the reserves for extra effort. Soon the teacher too was disappearing into the mist ahead of me.
He looked back and stopped. “I need to catch the other three,” he said quickly. “You go back to the school, OK?” Then he left me.
I stood there for a moment, facing the mist and the empty moor, a dismal view of heather and rocks fading into emptiness. I was alone, tired, in a place I didn’t know.
I turned and ran back along the path. In a few minutes the path branched, one sheep trail carelessly meandering off to the left, another meandering off to the right. Unsure, I stopped. I hadn’t seen this fork before. The two paths looked the same. I glanced around, afraid. Stories told in my dormitory’s darkness rose to mind—sucking bogs, bottomless holes, search parties returning empty-handed. I wished I were there, scared in my bed. A wind ruffled my shirt. Anxiety seeped into my heart, welled up into my throat and eyes.
I stand at the window of the apartment, looking at the rain falling on the alley and the dilapidated fence and on the church and apartment buildings beyond the fence. Through a gap between the buildings, I see cars swishing back and forth along Guerrero Street. I am depressed. At thirty, I have no career. Twice a week I take my high-end degree and my heavy heart to the houses I clean. Three times a week, if there is work, I take them to lift rocks and clear briars for a gardening company. But today the rain has cancelled the gardening, and I am fed up with reading and dreaming and waiting and hoping. Yet I am afraid to move. Afraid to make a phone call, afraid to put on my polyester suit, afraid to tell the interviewing eyes how good I am at what I imagine I can do. I can’t imagine I can do anything anymore. Before me, as the rain falls, Guerrero Street turns into a shadowy, alien river.
I chose one of the paths and began running. When the path branched again, I chose again, and ran on, surrounded by mist. Nothing was familiar. The sheep trails were a complicated spider’s web and I a desperate fly. I ran across bracken and rocks and paths. I ran, not knowing, afraid, trying to conjure the lights of the school out of the mist like a second-rate stage magician. But all I saw, in front, to the sides, behind, were the moor and the mist.
I ran on and on until at last the flatness of the moor gave way to an edge. The trail I was on descended, taking me down through bracken and fading light to a stream. Here, suddenly, as if it had never been, the mist lifted, and I could see beyond the stream a broad, gravel-and-clay track. I crossed the stream and stood on the track, looking around me like a sleepwalker slowly waking. For I knew where I was—nowhere near where I should have been, but that didn’t matter. I was no longer lost. I was instead standing on a track that, like a friend, extended a hand to me and with its other pointed out the familiar road below. Beyond the road, I knew I would find the old farm track that led across the fields back to the school.
Something at my feet caught my eye. Lying on the gravel was a small, wooden doll’s head, the size of a marble. I picked it up, turning it in my fingers. Two black dots in the red face eyed me. A curved line smiled at me.
I held the head tightly in my hand like an amulet and ran down the track to the road.
I would be arrogant and stupid to think that my path has to be your path, or that the path I am on is the path, though I used to think that way. How could it be? Have you been lost on Ilkley Moor? Have you been swung by my uncle around and around in dizzy ecstasy? Have you been imprinted with an image of the full moon rising over the edge of a lake in the mountains of California?
“But,” a voice inside my head objects, “you said at the beginning there was a third path which we could travel together. What happened to that?”
“Nothing happened to that,” another voice replies. “But you must forget about paths. The important thing is to find, not seek. Traveling on a path for its own sake becomes in the end wandering.”
“Look, you two,” a third voice counters, “there is a path, and there isn’t a path. It’s everyone’s path, and it’s your path and my path, and it’s no-one’s path. And when you reach the end of it, you are at the beginning you never left. It’s mystery and paradox. Stop trying to figure it all out.”
Well, OK. There is some truth in each of these positions. But all this talk seems rather complicated. I meant something quite simple and concrete when I referred to a third path, too simple and concrete, perhaps. I don’t know whose the third path is, or whether it really is a third path, or if it’sthe path or just a path. All that seems rather silly now. But I do know where it is, and I know where it goes, just as I know the same things about the path I used to take across the fields near my home when I was a kid. In a way, it’s the same kind of path. But no more talk. Let me show it to you, just as my friend, Douglas, showed me twenty-eight years ago.
We are sitting in a circle with eight people in a small, oak-paneled room. Glancing to the end of the room, you see tall, narrow windows with lead-rimmed panes, befitting this large, old, country house outside London. Beyond the windows are trees, dark with leaves, standing against a backdrop of blue sky and drifting white clouds. A woodpigeon’s cooing, soft like a flute’s song, weaves in through the open window.
The workshop has already begun. You turn back and focus on the speaker seated opposite, a sixty-year-old man with white hair and clipped white beard—Douglas Harding, apparently. What is he saying—that he has no head? I exchange glances with you. What have we got ourselves into?
“But it’s no use my talking about it,” Harding says. “I could go on and on talking about it till I was blue in the face, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference to whether or not you got it.” He seems both relaxed and animated. “You have to see it, not just listen to me talk about it. And,” he adds, “I have a little experiment that will make it impossible for you not to see it.”
To Harding’s right, a middle-aged woman with glasses is smiling broadly. Next to her is a wiry, younger man—late twenties, I guess, (though at seventeen, late twenties seems already middle-aged)—sitting with knees close together and shoulders hunched at an angle away from Harding. On Harding’s other side is a middle-aged man, his head almost bald and his nose and chin slightly hooked. The man is smiling, too. The woman next to him, I am guessing, is his wife, a pale-faced woman carrying a soft, distant look in her eyes.
“Lift up your forefinger,” Harding says, “and point it at the ceiling.” He points his resolutely up, and eight other hands, including mine, point at the ceiling like a sea anemone waving its soft spines in the ocean currents. “You have actually to do this,” he says, looking around the circle. “You will get nothing, absolutely nothing out of this experiment if you don’t do it.” His voice has become stern. The hunched-up man raises his hand and points at the ceiling.
“Please look at what you are pointing at,” Harding says, “a white plaster ceiling with cracks running across it. Now look at what you are pointing with—your finger. Would you notice, please, that both the ceiling and your finger are things? That is, both have edges. Both have color. Both have texture. They are in a symmetrical relationship with each other, one thing pointing at another thing.”
“Now bring your finger down from the ceiling and point at someone across the circle from where you’re sitting. Point at his or her head. What do you see? A hairy, eight-inch meatball sitting on a pair of shoulders? Aren’t your finger and that meatball in the same kind of relationship that your finger and the ceiling were in before—thing pointing at thing?”
On the end of my finger I balance the smiling woman’s head. Meatball?
“Now bring your finger down yet again, pointing it at your foot. Surely it’s the same situation again, a thing pointing at a thing.”
It is. I glance at you. You roll your eyes, amused.
“Turn your finger around now and point it at your tummy. Finger to tummy? Thing to thing, isn’t it?”
“Point your finger at your chest. Isn’t it finger to chest?”
“Now point your finger at your face. What do you see? Don’t look at me. Look at what your finger is pointing at. Is it pointing at a face? Is your finger, which is a thing, pointing at another thing which is colored and edged and textured and shaped, which is in symmetry with your finger? Or isn’t it pointing at a no-face, a no-thing, an emptiness, a clarity which goes on and on for ever and ever, as clear as glass?”
I stare at this clarity. It is indisputable—so clear, like glass, like water, like light. How have I missed this? Right here. Unbelievable: I am made of air and nothingness.
I look over at you, and your face shines in the emptiness. We are at the beginning—and the end—of a journey, a path new and striking and yet leading to, not away from, ourselves, leaping wildly from the tips of our pointing fingers into you, into me, into this openness here, our first and last and deathless destination.
© 2012 David Lang
© Non-Duality Press
All rights reserved.
Used by permission
All “pointing” photos courtesy of Headless.org
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