“Man, proud man!
Drest in a little brief authority;
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d,
His glassy essence, - like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven,
As make the angels weep.”
(From ‘Measure for Measure,’ by William Shakespeare)
Sometimes life can be pretty complicated. Family ties (or Thai families!), friendships, work commitments, and even the needs of our pets can pull our attention in various directions. Having a religious or spiritual discipline can also become another commitment full of demands and complications that seem to clutter up our lives, adding to the mental maelstrom inhabiting mindfulness. Not that this is the point of Buddhism or any other spiritual way of life; such modes of existence are surely for freeing us from our bonds, not strengthening them further with rituals, recitations, dogmas, doctrines and intricate etiquette guidelines on how to behave towards others within or without a particular discipline.
The first visit to a Buddhist monastery or temple, whether in the Occident or the Orient, can be a minefield of conventions dictating how to talk, walk, eat, bow, chant, and when to do such things. Having written the above, it might seem that the writer is veering towards a very common modern view of religious conventions which rejects them for being as troublesome as living without them, perhaps worse. But no, this isn't the case, for chanting, rituals, hierarchies and dress codes all have their place – without them, people often become libertines, doing anything and everything in the name of ‘spirituality’, however unwholesome those actions might be.
So, where is this leading us? If religious conventions add to our already complicated lives, how can we keep them in perspective? We do so with mindfulness (sati). But even being mindful takes effort and concentration, doesn’t it? It too can be another complication focused on keeping an eye on all the other complications. But it doesn’t have to be. It depends on what form mindfulness takes. An extremely beneficial practice that I’ve used for many years is the simplest of techniques, but can have the profoundest of effects on one’s level of mindfulness, and was called by its founder, Douglas Harding, 'the Headless Way.' This form of mindfulness simply involves reversing one’s attention from the many and varied objects ‘out there’ to that which is doing the observing. Using one’s finger, one can see what is meant by pointing back at where one is looking from and noting what one finds. Doing so now, I see...no thing at all.
Well, one might well ask, what is the use of nothing – or no thing? Well, focusing on the gap at this end of the pointing finger enables the realization to arise that there’s nobody here. ‘I’ am out to lunch, as it were. Permanently so! Visual objects can be seen to arise and exist and cease in this awareness, which itself remains clear and calm, whatever’s going on ‘in’ it. And, this ‘seeing’ isn’t restricted to what one actually sees – which was Douglas Harding’s main area of focus – it can be extended to all the senses, including hearing and the mind. With eyes closed, it can heard that all sounds occur in a serene silence; as to thoughts, well they arise in an otherwise empty mind. Emotions can be experienced in this context also, allowing a detachment to develop towards them, stripping them of their power to dominate attention.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t a technique taught by the Buddha – at least no one I know has found reference to it in the Tripitaka, or Buddhist scriptures. Nevertheless, the senior Buddhist monk Ajahn Sumedho, himself a bit of an innovator when it comes to developing mindfulness techniques, did once write to me that ‘headlessness’ – which is a somewhat misleading term, by the way – is a valid form of mindful practice. Along with other ways of being alert, it leads to what he called ‘Ultimate Simplicity.' Combining Douglas Harding’s in-seeing technique with a tradition like Buddhism works well. The simplicity of the former blends with the often complicated system of the latter, creating a relaxed yet focused mindfulness as a base for all of the chanting, prostrating and the like. And this mindfulness, as Ajahn Sumedho has so often pointed out, is the “path to the deathless”, leading to the realization of Ultimate Simplicity.
As written above, some consider the term ‘headlessness’ and its variations somewhat misleading, and even Douglas Harding himself admitted in later life that he did have a head. With such a term, however, he and others were essentially pointing out the essential, using the initial impression of being without a head a kind of shock treatment into mindfulness of this moment. What’s really essential is what Shakespeare called our “glassy essence” that lies at the core of every conscious experience. recognizing this “glassy essence” – or naked awareness, consciousness, mindfulness, etc. – can be a liberating experience. It enables the viewing of all our experiences with a certain coolness, preventing us from overheating with our emotions, for instance. It can also help in discouraging identification with the body, as it is seen in relation to awareness rather than blindly taken to be one’s self. All those complications referred to above, along any others that one could mention, can be known in the impartiality of attention. It’s a case of the complicated being known by the uncomplicated.
Now, an important realization of Douglas Harding hasn’t been touched on yet, and it would be seriously amiss of the writer not to mention it. Going back to seeing the void (awareness) that’s here and the things that are there, can any distance or separation be detected between them? Not here. Again, try out this theory with some of the other senses such as hearing and thinking – is there anything between awareness and its contents, or are they one? When you look at someone’s face, in actual experience, is it face-to-face or face-to-no face? (Looking in a mirror can reveal the answer to this one, too.) With nothing to separate us, we become one. Your concerns are mine and so are the world’s. This is where compassion (karuna) and goodwill (metta) come in, for with no self-made barriers between us, I naturally care for you and you naturally care for me. Letting go of self-identification and living form direct awareness instead loosens the ego’s grip on consciousness, allowing it a freer experience of existence, and the suffering beings that inhabit it.
Anything that simplifies our complicated lives yet at the same time deepens our reflective experience of life has got to be a good thing, surely? Sitting at the computer now, it can be seen that there’s no one here typing these words, but that the words, the computer, the fingers, thoughts, sounds, etc. are all arising in awareness. And this awareness has no barrier between itself and the objects that occupy it: they are it and it is they. In this ‘fusion’ selfishness takes a vacation, and selflessness takes residence in the heart, with the experience of being a separate and (inevitably) selfish being let go of.
Note: The above Shakespearean quotation was a favourite of Douglas Harding's. If you are interested in finding out more about ‘headlessness’ or ‘Seeing’, please click here: The Headless Way