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Zen

On having no head.

In a couple of weeks, I will be attending another 7-day Zen meditation retreat (this will be my 4th).
Why the heck do you want to spend 7 days sitting silently on your butt I hear you ask?

Well, for one reason, it gives me the opportunity to investigate the illusory nature of my self. To wake up. For, as the saying goes, things are not as they seem. Nor are they otherwise.

Here is the thing…..I totally understand how many people might switch off as soon as I start talking about Zen. It naturally triggers a whole lot of popular-culture preconceptions and religious connotations that many find uncomfortable or just plain uninteresting.

So to give you some rough approximation of what is (sorta) going on when I go away on a Zen retreat, you might be more interested in this practical exploration from a completely different container.

On this podcast, Sam Harris interviews Richard Lang a meditation teacher and writer. Richard was a longtime student of Douglas Harding, the author of On Having No Head, an exploration of the concepts of no-self and non-duality.

Don’t be put off by Sam Harris’s rather dense monologue at the beginning of the podcast. It is worth listening to for his example of using our ‘blind spot’ as an analogy to waking up to a reality we are not usually aware of.

If you prefer you can just skip forward to the 16:20 mark where the interview with Richard begins. Or, you can go to the 50:16 mark where Richard begins a guided exercise to help you explore your own sense of self. I encourage you to actually DO the exercises as you listen to them.

Sam Harris #181 The Illusory Self

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. And what I found was khaki trouserlegs 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 in a head.

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.
It was all, quite literally, breathtaking. I seemed to stop breathing altogether, absorbed in the Given. Here it was, this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void, and (and this was the real miracle, the wonder and delight) utterly free of “me”, unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence, body and soul. Lighter than air, clearer than glass, altogether released from myself, I was nowhere around.

Yet in spite of the magical and uncanny quality of this vision, it was no dream, no esoteric revelation. Quite the reverse: it felt like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, an end to dreaming. It was self-luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind. It was the revelation, at long last, of the perfectly obvious. It was a lucid moment in a confused life-history. It was a ceasing to ignore something which (since early childhood at any rate) I had always been too busy or too clever to see. It was naked, uncritical attention to what had all along been staring me in the face – my utter facelessness. In short, it was all perfectly simple and plain and straightforward, beyond argument, thought, and words. There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden.

Douglas Harding — On Having No Head.

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