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Beyond Vision

From Chapter Six: Douglas Harding

The British writer and teacher Douglas Harding, who was fully sighted in more ways than one, taught a remarkably direct and immediate method of seeing into our real nature. He first introduced Western readers to this new way of inner seeing, actually a very, very old way rediscovered at intervals across the millennia, in his little classic On Having No Head. It was published in its original form in 1961. An expanded version brought out in the early 1970s was very widely read and much discussed among seekers of various persuasions.

Over the following decades Douglas conducted thousands of workshops around the world, introducing participants to his growing repertoire of ingenious in-seeing “experiments.” These show through various stratagems how to access or invoke the basic experience introduced in On Having No Head. Because this “in-seeing” is really a kind of inner attentiveness, an opening-up into one’s own consciousness, it can be accessed as much by the blind as by the sighted. In the many books and articles Douglas continued to produce he carefully laid out the experiments step by step for the reader to try. He set them into a context that was both immediate and universal, showing how the in-seeing can securely ground the practical business of daily life, and documenting how it is depicted explicitly or implicitly in the literature of many of the great religions. Above all, his writings demonstrate by example how this in-seeing can become deeper and deeper over time. The Harding experiments offer one way of tapping into that mode of experience that in this book I refer to as “inner seeing.” Inner seeing as I employ the term refers to direct, experiential knowledge of our deep inner constitution – of our normally obscured selfhood. 

I read On Having No Head in the early 1990s and was intrigued by its principal claim: that the most important common feature of the world’s great religions was neither their basic moral injunctions nor their ideas about the divine, but a single core insight into our true nature. When I tried out the first and most basic of the in-seeing experiments presented in the book, one expressly designed to invoke that core insight, somehow it hadn’t worked for me. I was left with nothing more than the idea of what I sometimes called one’s “centre.”

In 1994 I read Douglas Harding’s Head Off Stress, which was both a revelation and a delight. By this time I was ready for the Harding method… I now found myself open to the book’s carefully laid out suite of experiments. They were brilliantly conceived, simple to do, direct in their effect, and far-reaching in their implications. What they evoked in a unique way was the same wide-open, space-like awareness that I had experienced through other means over the past year. The uniqueness of the Harding approach lay in its utter simplicity, the way it immediately reversed the arrow of attention so that it was no longer vectored outward toward external objects but straight inward into consciousness itself.

It would be quite fruitless for me to just comment on the Head Off Stress experiments and describe them in a general way, and equally fruitless for you to just read my words. The person who is new to this resource has to actually perform the experiments himself or herself in order to get their point… 

After I finished reading Head Off Stress I wrote to Douglas Harding, and when I received his warm and encouraging reply I began to make plans to attend a workshop he was scheduled to give in Barre, Massachusetts, a couple of months later. As I expected, getting to Barre wasn’t exactly easy. I had to make arrangements with airline representatives for the bulkhead seating that could accommodate my long legs and ease some of the pressure on my lumbar spine, which meant convincing them to waive the usual rule that debarred blind people from occupying that particular space...
Once I was set up in Barre I found that sitting through the workshops was physically challenging but deeply satisfying. Doing the experiments in a group setting felt perfectly natural, as an experience both of deep introversion and spontaneous sharing. To the extent that I and my fellow participants could tell from comparing notes after each experiment, we had all experienced the same voluminous open space where we would normally find ourselves all bunged up. This way of getting together and sharing views was not based on cultishness or the need to be led, but on a simple and transmissible means of looking within that required no validation by any authority. Naturally enough I associated the result – that experience of space that was both inner and outer – with Advaita Vedanta.

But I would eventually discover that Douglas himself was no Advaitin. He was a resolutely non-affiliated practical guide with an independent mind. What he revealed to people was the one kind of immediate experience that could instantly if temporarily cancel out our conventional sense of identity and plainly reveal the boundless no-thing within. Douglas refrained from identifying this inner reality with any specific religious tradition and made it plain that he would not act as anyone’s guru. But he and his wife and co-teacher Catherine proved to be great friends.

From our first meeting in Barre to his death in 2007 at the age of ninety-seven, Douglas cordially and consistently refused to comment on my successive attempts to interpret what the experiments told us about the real nature of the perceived world, and its relationship to consciousness. The important thing, he insisted and reiterated through our many exchanges of letters, was to just see what the experiments point to and then ground oneself in that clear, spacious reality. He certainly did so himself. As the years passed, it was apparent from Douglas’s published writings and private correspondence that his experience of all-encompassing consciousness was becoming more and more profound. At the same time, as a kind of parallel, his own religious sensibilities were becoming more explicitly – but always non-dogmatically – Christian. He made no attempt to impose this sensibility onto others.

At lunchtime on the first day of the Barre workshop I had some difficulty finding my way from the retreat centre to the building in which the food was served. It was typical of Douglas’s thoughtfulness that, noticing this, he materialized unobtrusively by my side to show the way. As we walked along together and I plied my cane, I experimentally put myself back into the reversed perspective that made the workshop so vivid. The effect was remarkable. It was exactly the kind of awareness-centred, physically relaxed openness that I had been struggling to secure in my attempts to go on long walks with the white cane, against the grain of nerve and muscle pain.

Of course I was experiencing that openness now in the perfect security of walking with a guide, but I felt sure that it had great potential for helping me smooth out my solo navigation. I told Douglas how it felt to walk like this, which naturally enough came as no surprise to him. He said that that was the way of it for everyone who got the point of the experiments. I should just allow the perspective to settle in and become habitual, he went on, and in the meantime not lose my way while I was caught up in the buoyancy of the experience.

It was at Barre that Douglas first shared with me his conviction that it was people like me – blind or nearly blind people – who are in the best position to turn inward and fully experience our fundamental nature. I was surprised at how definite his views were on this subject. Then I thought of the Maitri Upanishad. I told Douglas how this text associated the faculty of vision with the illusion of dualism, but he replied firmly that that was not what he was talking about.

Indeed, as I was to learn over the years from our re-enactment of the ancient debate between dualism and non-dualism, Douglas and I would have to agree to disagree about certain basic philosophical issues. I would find, as many others would find, that the experience of wide-openness invoked by the experiments was correspondingly wide open to interpretation. With repeated immersion and habituation and some thought, for example, that intriguing experiential space – which is somehow both inner and outer – would seem to be consistent with the single, non-dual foundational consciousness adumbrated by Advaita Vedanta. But there are many other possible glosses.

Some years ago during the course of my long correspondence with Douglas, he eventually identified himself – and these were his exact words – as “a dyed-in-the-wool dualist.” He took this position in large part for the most humane and understandable of reasons: the incompatibility, as he saw it, of a non-dualist understanding of reality and his own person-to-person relationship with his beloved wife, Catherine. But back in Barre he was already urging me to grasp something having to do with eyesight that he took to be far more consequential than the question of whether the reality that lies beneath all appearances is essentially divisible or whole. “You’ll see what I mean,” he predicted.

As my object-vision completely fell apart over the succeeding years, I was to realize the perfectly obvious sense in which Douglas had been seized, to an extent matched by few other sighted people, by an insight into what might be called the generally unremarked “down” side of external vision. This had to do with the gobsmacking, anaesthetizing, hypnotic power of images, the last distorted versions of which slowly dissolved from my life. Television had long ceased to be part of my experience, and I had become intrigued at how sighted people could spend hours and hours every day and evening staring at a cathode ray tube, or a plasma screen, or a computer monitor, or the ridiculously small visual display of a mobile device, not out of necessity but through choice or habit. I began to think of this passive staring as a kind of stupefied bondage, one that blind people are spared whether they like it or not.

But the drawing power of images was not confined to these electronic gizmos; the whole visible world exerted the same pull. For the sighted, it was so easy and natural and useful for consciousness to be directed outward to images, never learning how to reverse itself and penetrate its own depths. I’m sure it was this easily formed and hard-to-extinguish habit of visual out-turning that Douglas had in mind when he insisted that the blind were more likely than the sighted to discover the potential of inner seeing.

He was onto something there, but even for the totally blind the experience of inner seeing doesn’t just happen. When there are no longer any visual phantasms served up by television, and when even the natural world of visual objects has completely melted away, it is true that the blind person will in one way or another turn inward. But this may be for either good or ill. All too often the blinded person who can no longer participate in the external world in the same old way falls back on the solace of body-feelings, through alcohol or overeating or a cocooning form of sexual preoccupation, or into a mind that is now given over to brooding fantasy or chain-thinking (i.e., entrapment in a long, winding chain of fruitless thoughts). The trouble with this is not that it amounts to an involution but that the involution does not go deep enough. It stops at the embodied and mental forms of ego. The blind man or woman may need some instruction from an in-seer to learn that one can go much further in, right down into the consciousness-self we all share.

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