Do I see what I see or what I think I see?
Has it ever happened to you that you read a sentence that looking back did not exist at all? Or, that you saw objects or people who were not there? Absorbed in our thoughts we project our thoughts on the perception. It is mostly an innocent and entertaining mistake that illustrates that we are actually not neutral but are continuously interpreting.
However, this projecting is much less innocent if it doesn't concern a text or an object but myself. How do I see myself? What picture of myself do I carry? Is it the image that I see in the mirror? Or how I think others see me (from a distance)? Or how I look in a picture (which is of course taken from a distance)? And, what do people mean when they claim to come closer to themselves? How close to yourself can you actually come? What or who am I at 0 cm distance?
This sort of questions kept Douglas Harding busy, when he made a walk around sixty years ago as a soldier in the Himalayan Mountains. When he stopped thinking for a moment and really looked he came to a bewildering discovery. He writes about this as 'the most beautiful day of my life' in his book 'On having no head'.
Here is his account:
'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 thing-ness, all that could be called 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 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 snow peaks 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. (...)
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.' (1)
This is the description that Harding gives of his discovery. No matter how 'mysterious' the discovery was, the perception was simple, clear and direct and not a kind of dream or insanity. Whereas before there was the vague idea of a somebody staring at the world out of two eyes, there appeared now to be an immense window, wide open, without a frame and without someone looking through it...
Is that not true for all of us?
Well, you can try it out immediately. The only thing we need to do is really look and forget for a moment what we think we are (a human being with a head and two eyes). Turn the memory, imagination and belief off for a moment. Stop the thinking for a moment, the judging, the comparing and come to pure seeing.
A small 'exercise' may help.
The pointing finger
We use our index finger to better see what we see, a bit like a child who follows the words with his finger while learning to read. This pointing hand, much used in commercials, rouses all kinds of feelings. What is it actually pointing at? Let's test it out with a small detour. (Attention: just reading it is useless, you have to really do it!)
Point to the wall in front of you ... see how massive and impenetrable it is. Lower your finger slowly until it points to the floor... see the structure, the color...
Now turn your pointing hand until it indicates your feet... your legs...your chest ...stop again and again see what you see a non-transparent surface, with color, with form, with boundaries, impenetrable... in short: a 'thing'.
Finally point with your finger above your chest, to your face, to your eyes - or even better, to the place where people say that they find these things...
Where is your finger pointing then? Are you pointing to a thing? An object with form and color? Something with boundaries? A closed surface?
Or do you instead find the absence of all these things?
See how wide it is on your side of the pointing finger, how deep, how high. How transparent, and how open!
And see: just because it is so empty of all things, how free it is for all things. See how full it is of the whole colorful spectacle: the wall, the window and everything in it, the floor, your legs, your body and the pointing hand itself. See how this not-something (this no-thing) is at the same time all the things that it contains.
Have you ever been anything else?
Boundless space that moves seems like nonsense. Things, people, animals, cars all move, but emptiness? Let's test it out. Think about it: direct experience, not from memory, no imagination, no belief. See what you see, not what you have learned to see!
Stand straight up and direct your index finger again to the place from which you look - your faceless face - and notice how this place is wide open and free. Simultaneously remain looking to the things outside (among others your pointing finger) and inside to the absence of things here and begin slowly to rotate on your axis.
What is moving?
Isn't it the room that rotates, walls, ceiling, windows, pictures?
And are you not the unmoving space in which the movement happens?
If you in the near future take a trip with a car or train, see how the landscape moves: trees and towers in the distance very slowly, the houses close by a bit faster, the light poles and road signs very fast. And, notice how it is impossible for you - the real you - (the First Person) - to move even one centimeter.
Douglas Harding has invented a great number of similar 'consciousness exercises' to discover this central Emptiness, that is at the same time Fullness. Actually, he prefers to talk about tests or experiments, because he insists that one should work in a critical, scientific way. No belief, no external authority: only you are in a position to say what you find in your 'center'. To accomplish this he uses all kinds of aids to outwit 'Big Brother' (your learned conditioning). Little mirrors, paper cylinders, cut cartons, are the 'instruments' with which he creates an unfamiliar situation in which we can better see what we see, and not what we have been taught.
This is only about SEEING and not about what you feel or think about it. Feelings, (no matter how pure) and thoughts (no matter how deep) belong to the ever-changing objects of consciousness. They come and go. However, this is about the 'Background' that we actually and always are. This perceiving into the Openness can always take place in every moment, in every mood you might be in and wherever you might be. In this sense it is just, 'closer to yourself than your breath'. No mystical experience. No peak experience, rather a valley experience says Harding.
Nevertheless this 'in' seeing (this looking inward) should not be underestimated. Whoever takes it seriously - and thus goes for what he sees and not what he thinks he sees - gets an entirely different perspective. Where previously I saw myself as a tiny puppet walking around in an immense world, I now see that the world actually appears in me, in this immense Space. Things and people, but also emotions, get another place. The questions that life asks get their proper place. They appear here in the Openness, where they cannot threaten anyone. 'The solution to your problems is to see who has them' says Ramana Maharshi.
Also, the relation with others gets a new meaning. In the usual use of language, one speaks of a 'face to face' meeting, or an 'eye to eye' conversation. As if I, from behind my two eyes look at the other there who is also behind his two eyes. Object opposite to object, symmetric. That is what we imagine, mislead by language. However, whoever really looks notices a totally different situation that is not at all symmetric. The face of my friend there appears in the Openness here ('face to no-face'). The imaginary screen disappears. Confrontation changes to recognition. The recognition of oneself in the other. The exchanging of each other's faces. If that isn't love...!
The 'practice' of seeing
Of course this demands that you don't halt at this first glimpse. This evolution is not just thrown in your lap. Most probably it calls up many resistances in the beginning. After all, it puts a bomb under our safe I-image (the fictitious person that we have built up in the middle of our universe). This demands a kind of practice. A becoming aware with which this new seeing (and this is to be taken literally: the visual seeing) becomes the rule rather than the exception.
Harding speaks about looking in two directions: outward and inward. Therein one can see over and over again that 'that there' appears in 'this here' (2). In addition, 'that there' is not only the outer landscape of people and things, but just as much the inner landscape of thoughts and feelings. 'This here' is the conscious Emptiness, the Openness, the blank screen on which the film of the world is rolled out. Here and There are at the same time completely opposite and nevertheless entirely one:
Because here I am formless and without color, it is possible that forms and colors appear.
Because here I am motionless, it is possible that movements appear.
The silence here is the always-present background of the sounds that resonate therein.
In That which has no feeling or thoughts, the changing feelings and thoughts can make themselves known, without leaving a trace behind.
I have to be free of whatever I take in: the cup has to be empty to allow it to be filled. This seeing again (rather than knowing) is the 'meditation' that Harding proposes. It is a meditation for being on the way. Seeing how the busyness of the shop street passes by in my emptiness. How the sounds of the marketplace appear in my silence. How the landscape along the way races by in my immobility. How the small bounded face of my friend appears in this unlimited space. Everywhere and always this seeing can be of service.
Also in difficult moments. After all, 'here' in my center I have nothing to lose and there is no one who can be injured. Fear, frustration, shame, rage... are seen in their proper place (namely outside the center) and because of that consciously allowed, so that they can lose their sharpness in this way.
Still, that first 'seeing' remains the certain compass that cannot be improved or replaced. It is not to be remembered and thus also not to be guarded. 'Seeing' always happens now and asks that you are ready to open yourself for what is now, without pre-conditions.
'I gain nothing from seeing Who I am, yet I gain everything. This seeing is not to be practiced yet it requires lifelong vigilance and dedication. It's no task at all, yet the hardest of tasks. There is nothing to do, yet all to do. It's the very end, yet the beginning of the Way'. (Douglas Harding).
(1) 'On having no Head' pub. Shollond Trust Publications, 87B Cazenove Road, London N16 6BB. Tel & Fax: 020 8 806 3710, www.headless.org
(2) The reader should understand that words such as 'that there', 'this here', 'center' are not used as ordinary indications of place. In direct seeing every distance between the object (or the other) and myself simply disappear