We have another original article for you, a really fine piece by David Lang, who was a friend of Douglas Harding’s, the founder of the Headless Way. David is a longtime, avid proponent of this remarkably effective and freeing method of coming to see truth for ourselves. His presentation here is unique and incredibly powerful. I think it’s a classic piece that could have a lot of impact in our community. I’ve not read anything quite like it. You are welcome to skip right on over the rest of this introductory article and go read it right now. But in the event you don’t wake up down there, come back here. I might have something for you. Then you can go read it a second time!
I’ve been an admirer of The Headless Way for years, because I love two things about it: simplicity and directness. The Headless Way is all about right now, and it works. It’s only been in the last few weeks that I’ve come to see that my own Direct Pointing sessions have a lot in common with the Headless Way. They’re nothing at all alike in terms of method, but both approaches are experiential, simple, and encourage immediate recognition of our true nature. I bow to these true pioneers in our community.
I’m also bringing David’s book back for a second turn as our First Chapter Preview. It’s a fine book from Non-Duality Press that was first introduced here back in September of last year. To my wonder and shock, AC’s readership has doubled since then; thus, it seems appropriate to again give it top billing in honor of this terrific new article.
Some Hits and a Miss
I usually offer a report on my One-to-One work, and this issue is no exception. I did a good bit of work in Europe both last week and this one–via Skype, of course–and had some success. There was a success in the US, too, I also had a “miss” with a guy in Canada–a session that did not result in his reporting a change of view. We’ll take a brief look at what we may be able to learn from that session and others like it. It would be lovely if every session had a successful conclusion, but I notice that isn’t the case.
First off, what we call awakening, or coming to the Understanding, happens when it happens. No one controls it, and no one can predict it. I could “miss” on the next dozen people in a row, and then “hit” on the next hundred. It actually has nothing to do with me. It looks like it does, but in fact my job is only to show up, say hello, and get it started, which is what I did with my friend in Canada.
He was and is a long-time student of the teaching. He’s been at this thing for decades. As is typical, he’s a smart guy, and has read a library full of books. Had I been a betting man, I would have bet that he would’ve come to the Understanding in just a few minutes. I approached our time together with complete confidence. But I would have lost that bet. Sadly enough, the client is not really charge of their own awakening either. They, too, are “off the hook.” Still, these things are always worth the time it takes to do at least a cursory postmortem.
One thing that happened early in this session may have been the telling point. I’m guessing about this, but I do think it was significant. I had only been talking a very few minutes when I noticed that my friend was no longer looking at me. That’s not a good sign. I saw what looked like hand movements, and put two and two together. I asked, “What are you doing, taking notes?” He said, “Yes, I get something now that I didn’t get before, and I want to make sure I have it later.” I said, “That’s a story of future. You’re telling yourself you’ll need that information to wake up after you talk to Fred.” We were dead in the water before we really got started, or so I believe. Let me explain.
Information may be king in the ways of the world, but it is not king in these circles. If we make any sort of study of Nonduality, then we know absolutely everything we need to know to recognize our true nature very early on in our study. I realize that’s hard to believe, but it’s the truth. As a point of fact, I’ve had two people wake up while talking to me–in person, not online–who had never even heardthe word “Nonduality,” or “Advaita,” and to whom “awakening” was something one did in bed each morning, but not as a part of a spiritual journey.
So, it’s clearly not information we need. It’s openness. It’s the willingness to allow our intuitive seeing to trump our acquired knowledge. It’s the willingness to be wrong–about everything. Over and over again we vote with our minds for our minds instead of attending to our actual experience, and then we wonder why we don’t wake up. We can’t wake up with our minds! We just can’t, although everyone tries to, including me, I did it too; I’m not above any of this. But the mind is an expression of duality, not wholeness; it’s simply not the tool for this job. It’s like grabbing a hammer to saw a board.
I’ve said here before that the people I’ve had the least success with are people (like I was) who have preconditions about what awakening should look like for them. I hold to that statement. We can be secretly holding out for a fireworks-and-angels type of awakening and not know it. I’ve come to believe that this is a very common position, probably the most common position, and is one that is unknowingly held by some of my most charming–and cerebral–clients. So long as that position is held onto, knowingly or not, I’ve got nowhere to go. Shy of the miracle of such a rarity actually displaying itself, awakening simply cannot happen.
I’ve guided people to the (clear, present, obvious) truth, shown it to them, had them wrap themselves in it (so to speak), explore its qualities, report on it as its happening, and then come up for air and tell me that “nothing happened.” It never fails to stun me when we miss. It no longer surprises me when people wake up. It surprises me when they don’t.
But looked at from their point of view, they’re absolutely right! Nothing new, nothing other, nothingelse has happened. Direct Pointing is not about introducing us to something new. It is about interfacing in a new way with what is always already happening–This! THIS This, damn it! (If you were with me in person you’d see me banging the table with my fist when I said loudly, “THIS This!” We have to be willing to notice and accept how things really are. What we think simply doesn’t matter. You can’t think your way clear.
This–THIS very This, this mundane, run-of-the-mill, ordinary, all-encompassing, boundless This, is also known as What Is, Consciousness, Awareness, Awakeness, God, Tao, Life, Not-two, One-without-a-second, Brahman, Allah, Presence, Oneness, Wholeness, ad infinitum. My information-based, logic-centered, cerebrally-attached clients–who are just like I was–secretly want “something new to chew on.” This is what the mind wants. However, if you are starting out as the whole thing to begin with, then the very notion, the very concept of introducing “something new” is, sadly enough, impossible.
If Oneness is stuck on experiencing something other than Oneness, then it’s going to be disappointed. See how that might work? This is the truth of how things are. But we can successfully resist the onslaught of truth for many lifetimes. In fact, we’ve already done so! In lieu of the mystic magician’s blessed, rabbit-out-of-the-hat new information, many of us will only accept a big, showy, feel-good, explosively fabulous, LSD-like, fireworks-and-angels grade, tie-me-up-and-make-me-see S&M-style spiritual experience. That’s what we really want, even those of us who say they don’t. We want it, because we think that in the light of that event, we’ll be forever convinced. We won’t be. That was my own experience, and I see it all the time.
But this is the problem. We are secretly harboring a demand. We are holding out until the universe does things our way. “And goddamit, I ain’t waking up ’til I get what I want!” You’re right, you’re not.I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. This is a predicament we’ll be addressing regularly this year. For the moment, there’s a new half hour video underneath David’s post that some of you may find helpful whether you’ve yet to awaken at all, or you’ve had an awakening experience and feel like you’re moving between the senses of “I got it,” and “I lost it,” which we here term oscillation. Among other things, it’ll give you an exercise in standing as awareness that can change your experience right now.
Now I am very pleased to present an article that is devoid of debate, and heavy on experience. Wake that non-existent character up and tell him he has a job to do! My suggestion is that you step out of your mind, and into your body and explore this piece with great care and zest
Rating the Experts
My friend and teacher, Douglas Harding, used to say that before we see who we really are, we read the scriptures to see if we have got it right (‘it’ being our own spiritual experience), but after we see who we really are, we read the scriptures to see if they have got it right! Making the point that true spirituality is concerned with the question of our fundamental identity, he was emphasizing that ultimately only I am the authority on what it’s like to be me, and only you are the authority on what it’s like to be you. Scriptures can be useful guides-on-the-side, but their validity should be measured against our experience, not the other way round.
In this post, I invite you to exercise your own authority by seeing for yourself if some of the masters got it right. My proposal is that we test a few of their assertions by using some of what Harding called ‘experiments.’ Harding claimed that basic truths about our essential nature are as observable and verifiable as physical truths. If the sages claim that we are one with all things yet at the same time empty of all things, for example, or that we are infinite, or perfectly still, then we shouldn’t have to take those ideas on trust but should be able to verify them for ourselves, just as we shouldn’t have to take on trust the idea that a heavy object drops at the same speed as a light one. In both cases, spiritual no less than physical, we should be able to test the propositions for ourselves.
One objection to Harding’s premise is that testing how fast two objects of different weights fall is easy to do—you can try it with a penny and a quarter—but determining if we are one with all things is incredibly difficult. The Buddha, for example, uniquely gifted and motivated as he was, nevertheless spent years, indeed, lifetimes preparing himself for the supreme moment of self-realization. We are not the Buddha—so goes the objection—and it would be both incredibly presumptuous and a huge mistake to believe that we are at this very moment and in this very place poised for enlightenment.
There are two answers to this objection. First, how do we know we are not ready for self-realization? If it does take many lifetimes to reach readiness, isn’t it possible that we have in fact already spent those lifetimes (but have simply forgotten them) doing all the things necessary to prime us for the supreme moment? Our penny might be just about to drop. It’s worth taking a few minutes to look at who we really are, just in case, isn’t it? What can we lose?
The second answer is even more radical. It is simply the claim that self-realization is easy, no matter who we are or how prepared we might or might not be. This brings us conveniently to the first of the assertions by spiritual masters which I am proposing we test. Ramana Maharshi, the preeminent twentieth-century Hindu authority on self-inquiry, said: “It is easier to see who you are than to see a gooseberry in the palm of your hand.” What could be easier than seeing a gooseberry—or the equivalent ordinary piece of fruit, depending on where you live—in the palm of your hand? Just about nothing.
Was Ramana right? Let’s see by doing one of Harding’s experiments. Please:
- Point at your feet and notice your feet there.
- Point at your knees and notice your knees there.
- Point at your chest and notice your chest there.
- Point at your head and notice the absence—yes, the absence—of your head here.
Nothing could be easier than that, right?
Of course, I’m not asking you to imagine that if you pointed at your head you would see its/your absence. I’m asking you to take the time and make the effort (little as it is) to actually look. You know the analogy about the difference between reading the menu and eating the meal or between looking at a brochure on Hawaiian vacations and spending two weeks lying on white sand beaches sipping margaritas (I mean, juice…)? It’s true of the experiments, too. Just reading about pointing at your absence—taking it on trust or imagination—is nowhere near the same as actually seeing the absence of your head. It’s the looking that matters, not the idea or the image. So if you didn’t actually point and look before, perhaps you could do so now. There isn’t really much value in reading this essay without testing for yourself the propositions put forward in it.
You may be thinking, though, that I am confusing our inability to see our heads directly, due to our being inside them, with the perception of their actual absence. In other words, the absence we see isn’t a real absence but is merely a physical blind spot. We have all got heads here where we are; we are just in the wrong position to see them.
In addressing this reservation, it’s useful to distinguish between ourselves as others see us and ourselves as we see us. When we imagine ourselves as others see us (or when we look in the mirror, which is in principle the same thing), we obviously have heads. This is the outside, third-person, indirect view of us—the view from there—and as such it is perfectly valid. But it is not the only view. We can also see the inside, first-person, direct view of us—the view from here, which reveals quite clearly the head’s absence—and this view is perfectly valid, too. It seems invalid only if we have already prejudged the issue by assuming that the outside view is the only real view and that if we could only actually see ourselves, we would see ourselves only as others see us: topped off with heads.
From the first-person point of view, however, the assumption that we are in a blind spot when it comes to seeing ourselves is itself the real blind spot. Zen master Huang-po is very clear about this. Referring to the direct vision of absence, he states unambiguously: “It is that which you see before you; begin to reason about it, and you at once fall into error.” When we reason about it—when we apply to our lives the faulty assumption that we cannot see ourselves directly and that only others have the legitimate view, which we can only imagine secondhand—we make the huge mistake of turning a blind eye to the bona fide vision of our absence that is staring us in the face.
In one of his talks, Zen master Ta-hui described this vision of our absence thus: “It is vast and unobstructed, utterly empty.” Let’s do a bit more pointing to see if his description matches our experience—that is, to see whether or not he got it right.
- Point again at the absence of your head.
- Notice that your pointing finger has edges. It is small and circumscribed. But what about what your finger is pointing at? Is your finger pointing at anything with edges, anything small, anything circumscribed? Isn’t it pointing at a space which is, as Ta-hui puts it, “vast and unobstructed, utterly empty”? Look carefully. Can you see anything at all where you are? And since your finger is pointing at you, isn’t it true to say that you are a vast and unobstructed space, utterly empty? Isn’t that a pretty good description of you as you see yourself?
So do you think Ta-hui got it right? (I’ll refrain from sounding condescending by adding, “Well done, Ta-hui!”
Incidentally, the observation that we are a vast and unobstructed space is much like saying we are infinite. Rumi, being a poet, puts it like this: “In this house is a treasure which the universe is too small to hold.” Similarly, the Zen master Yung-chia Hsuan-chueh asserts that “Like the empty sky, It has no boundaries, yet It is right in this place, ever profound and clear.” And in almost the same words, the Zen master Yung-chia Ta-shih notes that “like space it knows no boundaries, yet it is even here, within us.”
Try this for a test of your infinite extent:
- Point again, and notice how the empty space (the absence of your head) has no edges, literally.
- Test this by dipping your hand in and out of the space. (Others would say you are moving your hand back and forth along the side of your head, in and out of your field of vision. Fair enough, but they have only the outside view of you. This test is about the inside view of you.)
- Doesn’t your finite hand disappear into (and reappear out of) the space, where no edges are visible? Aren’t you dipping your hand in and out of the infinity you are?
So, again, did the experts—in this case Rumi, Yung-chia Hsuan-chueh, and Yung-chia Ta-shih—get it right? Aren’t you without edges? Which is the same as asking, Aren’t you infinite?
But let’s make this project of testing the scriptures a bit more challenging (as if being empty and infinite were chickenfeed!). Let’s bring into the conversation the supreme scripture of Mahayana Buddhism, The Heart Sutra, which begins with the encomium, “Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom, the Lovely, the Holy!”, a clue that the sutra is about to impart the deepest of all spiritual truths.
According to the sutra, Avalokita, “The Holy Lord and Bodhisattva,” experiencing self-realization (or, as the sutra puts it, “moving in the deep course of the Wisdom which has gone beyond”), observes that “Here,…form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form; emptiness does not differ from form, form does not differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form…”
Is the Heart Sutra telling it like it is? That is, is it describing you? Let’s take a look.
- Hold your hands flat at your temples on either side of your face so that you can see half of each hand sticking out into your field of vision—as if you were a horse wearing blinders.
- Notice first the absence of your face between your hands—that between your hands is emptiness, unobstructed by your face.
- Now notice that in the empty space between your hands is displayed the scene you are looking at—perhaps your computer screen or living room.
- Look carefully. I challenge you to actually perceive (rather than assume or imagine) any distance separating the emptiness between your hands and the scene between your hands. Like an image which is one with the mirror in which it is displayed, isn’t the scene you see one with the space in which it is displayed, not a hairsbreadth separating one from the other? Aren’t you, as emptiness, one with the form of the scene?
Again, it’s up to you to say whether or not the supreme scripture of Mahayana Buddhism has got it right—that it is accurately describing what you look like to yourself.
We’ve just tested a number of propositions by spiritual experts: that self-realization is easy, that we are fundamentally empty, that the emptiness we are is infinite, and that this emptiness is also, paradoxically, form. We’ll tackle two more propositions, just for good measure.
The first follows from the theme of The Heart Sutra. If we are emptiness and if emptiness is form, then we are one with everything, including all human beings. Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Zen, expresses the notion like this: “The true person is not anyone in particular. But like the deep blue color of the limitless sky, it is everyone, everywhere in the world.” Jesus had a more personal way of making the same point: “Wherever two or three are gathered together, there I am in the midst.”
Here’s the experiment designed to test the proposition that, seeing the absence of our head, we can also see that we are one with others.
- Find a few people, at least three or four, who are willing to participate in this experiment.
- Standing up, get into a close circle. You can put your arms around the people next to you if you like.
- Look down, and continue to look down throughout the experiment.
- Notice the absence of your head above your own shoulders. That is, notice that you look like no one in particular.
- Notice the absence of heads above all the shoulders. That is, notice that everyone looks like no one in particular.
- Now, very important: notice that there are no dividing lines between the absence of your head and the absences of the other heads. There is only one absence, like the one sky. It belongs to no one in the circle, and yet it belongs to everyone in the circle (and to everyone outside the circle, too). Indeed, it is everyone in the circle—it is who everyone really is.
© 2013 David Lang
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
- A Flower in the Desert available from Nonduality Press
- eBook from Nonduality Press
- A Flower in the Desert available from Amazon.com
- Kindle version from Amazon.com
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Standing As Awareness