MANY REGARD LIVING WITHOUT ATTACHMENT AS A VIRTUE AND SOMETHING TO WHICH TO ASPIRE. But, in my experience no amount of striving, even for those who meditate, can bring you to this state. To strive for such a state is to be attached to it and so paradoxically the very thing sought carries within it a kernel which makes it an inevitable impossibility.
Just over a month ago I was living happily in Turkey. I loved both the people and the climate. Life revolved around domestic chores, servicing the needs of Irem my partner, and twelve year old daughter. Every day I would walk and make some photographs, cook lunch, write a little, wash-up and smile.
It’s now been a couple of years since the day when, whilst wiping up some dishes, I felt the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders and knew that, despite appearances, all is well and as it should be.
Attachment to Prematurely Editing Self-Talk
Simply Reinforces The Ego
With this realization came a detachment from the habitual self-talk in my head. I had listened to this intently in the past and let it create all kinds of emotions within. As a psychotherapist I come across articles by those who suggest we rewrite our self-talk – reframing these words to be more positive. It doesn’t really work because words aren’t the source of anxiety they are, rather, a consequence of it.
The words in my head didn’t stop with the cessation of anxiety. Now, however, I find I have the power to edit and rewrite them without adding a personal level of judgmental stress.
Happy in Hartland
Today celebrates my second week living in Hartland, Devon. I am still lodged in a B & B, but very comfortable here. I was roped into selling books in aid of The Small School, because my daughter is now a pupil. It was a wonderful morning in which I met all manner of sociable people living simple, ecologically-based lives. Certainly, there seemed no sign of the ambitious hurly-burly world of Istanbul where I was just two weeks ago.
I am amazed because the cold, some might say, inclement weather seems to warm my soul.
Abandoning A Mediterranean Beach
How can this be so? The recent past of swimming off a Mediterranean beach already seems a dream of yesterday. It’s fading, whilst life today is three dimensional. Were I attached to the past I would be enduring pain, rather than the bliss that comes from being open to possibility. Such openness is an unexpected quality of living without attachment.
Many in the Non-Dualist community claim we can do nothing to bring about such a way of being. Fundamentally, I agree, but since each of us is simply pure being experiencing a unique mysterious reality bubble in which we appear to be an individual who can make choices there’s no shame in going along with this game of life, provided we don’t get suckered into believing we’re really a person deciding anything.
Living The Dream
Think of a dream. In it you seem to make choices, even if the normal laws of physics no longer apply, or you have special powers such as the ability to fly. When you awaken, however, you tell yourself it was all a dream. Today I regard everyday reality as also a dream. For me life is like an infinite Russian doll in which being is layered upon being, a dream within a dream, within a dream.
So if you are riddled with attachment and negative self-talk, or believe that the world is a terrible place, why not pretend that you accept that what happens is what happens, eschew making up stories to explain events, and simply attend to what comes along.
Terry Cooper, a former director of Alpha House, the U.K’s first therapeutic community for those suffering addiction problems, once shared with me a metaphor that seems apposite. It dates from days when milk was delivered to people’s doorsteps in bottles.
Terry advised that when milk was delivered we should take it in and keep it fresh. We might put it on tea, or coffee. We could make porridge, or add it to corn-flakes. Later we might bake cakes, or even Yorkshire Pudding, or Welsh Rarebit. If any, then, is left we make a milky pudding. At the end of the day we wash the bottle and leave it on the step to await the morning and a new delivery.
We have choices about how we consume our milk, and even if we choose to wash out the bottle or return it unwashed to the door-step. But what happens at the dairy, or the farm, or in the families of milk or cowmen isn’t our concern, We cannot influence them, or even pretend to do so.
I think this a great metaphor for how to engage with life, even if milk-men now only exist in that dream we call the past.
WORDS . . . TRICKY BLIGHTERS, because they are rooted in dualism. That’s why some like to make photographic images. No duplicitous words there.
Take the idea of ‘The Decisive Moment’. It was popularized by Henri Cartier-Bresson as a way of describing a split second when an apparent outer event coincides with an equally fictitious inner psychology. But don’t you sometimes need more than a split second to fully become aware of your, repetitive, free flowing, original nature?
It’s all appearance and fiction because it’s not two becoming one but, rather, multidimensional awareness overlapping and interconnecting. For many, however, their fate is to experience nightmares in which their worlds, and they, are experienced as separated.
Consciousness plays such roles usually without revealing your real identity, but sometimes, as part of the show, you may find yourself knowing what you really are.
Dr. Ihaleakala Hew Len, for example. He admits to curing an entire ward of the criminally insane without visiting with any one of them. Instead he read their files and worked upon himself using ho ‘oponopono a traditional Hawaiian healing practice. This powerful technique demands that we take responsibility for whatever appears within our experience in the knowledge that it really dwells within us, clouding the clear plane of awareness.
Language separates because sentences are split syntactically into subjects and objects. The thing to remember, however, is that despite this apparent dualism, every sentence carries a complete meaning. It is this not simply the specific meaning of a sentence that is conveyed, but also the implication that communication reaches out.
Photography, too, has always been a medium of communication. But in the wonder of conscious-awareness, who or what is specifically communicating with whom?
Michael Eldridge, my friend and teacher, writes: ‘And so,’Photography and Awareness’, although the other way around would make more sense because with a developed and acute awareness, photography just follows like a happy and obedient puppy.’ I like this metaphor.
Cartier-Bresson put what Michael alludes to in this exchange:
‘Why did you press the button at that precise moment?’ asked the painter, (66 year old Paul Bonnard).
Cartier-Bresson turned towards one of the unfinished canvases leaning against the wall, and pointed in detail: ‘Why did you put a little touch of yellow here?’
Michael goes on: ‘. . . I would prefer the word ‘Absorption’ to ‘Awareness’ but it would sound silly as a title, so we’ll let it stand.
‘You see, when we are in a state of absorption, the awarer (sic) is not there as a separate entity and there is no duality.’
Here I take issue, although it’s probably just words being deceiving. This state of ‘absorption’ to which Michael refers, is misleading. Nothing, and on-one, gets absorbed into anything else, because they are both properties of the great illusion. No matter how much you may hypothesize on the nature of living the only thing that ever resists dissection is the fact that you experience and that you are aware of doing so. From where you, apparently, are everything you experience occurs upon a screen of awareness with which you originally, and correctly, identified .
Nathan Gill wrote in 2000: ‘If all there is is Consciousness, if there is only Consciousness, then why or for what are you still seeking? If there is only Consciousness then right now you must be that and everything else that appears in and as awareness must also be that, including your sense of separate self if that is how you appear now. Any personal sense of I or ‘doership’ or ego must be Consciousness. What else could it be?’
‘And we all experience this state when deeply into a book or film, or fishing or playing chess whatever. And of course children spend most of their waking hours in this wondrous state until adults begin to interfere. And the deepest state of absorption is when we are in the act of creating, whether a painting, a poem, a garden etc. In short, simply doing the things we love, if we haven’t forgotten what these are.’
I love this idea but feel impelled to clarify something. Awareness implies a grasping of life’s immediacy. There is a possibility, for most largely misconceived, of taking responsibility. Absorption, on the other hand, suggests something less concrete. Something dreamlike perhaps?, to be possessed, not quite all there, spaced out.
It’s not forgetting what creative things we used to enjoy that causes our problems, but rather having forgotten what we are.
Jean Bolen, a Jungian Analyst, once explained to me that when this happens archetypes may consume us. We then become insensitive to those with whom we live or work. A variety of symptoms may break out, as a result, ranging from a chaotic lifestyle with its missed appointments and inability to stay with planned agreements, to plain old fashioned narcissism and insensitivity.
American psychiatrist Milton H. Erickson was once consulted by a painter who suffered with a creativity block. Erickson gave the man a post-hypnotic suggestion that the next time he attempted to paint he would go into a deep trance and complete the painting with no memory of the event.
In due course the man set up a canvas, and before starting took a bite from a cheese sandwich he had prepared for his refreshment. When he took the second bite he found that the bread was dry, which puzzled him. Upon looking up he was amazed to find that his room was quite dark and before him was a fully painted canvas. A whole day had passed.
Many of us would like to enjoy such ability when completing tax returns, or cleaning the lavatory basin, but we must ask ourselves what role awareness plays in this story.
The question also relates to how art is regarded.
Dutch-born painter Willem de Kooning first began to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in the 1980s. He began working far faster than ever before, producing more than 300 paintings before he died. These lacked the density and layered complexity that had put de Kooning at the forefront of Abstract Expressionism. Where before he took eighteen months, or so, to complete a work, often painting and repainting layer upon layer on the canvas, his work was now ‘complete’ when ‘assistants’ were ‘satisfied’ by it.
This is one of the dangers of focusing upon ‘absorption’ as a destination. Within the dreamlike matrix projecting what we call ‘reality’ awareness tends to conjure up what incomplete aspect of the idealized image it has of itself that it focuses upon.
Sometimes, words matter after all.
Cartier-Bresson said many wise things. Here are three of them: ‘You just have to live and life will give you pictures. . . . We must avoid however, snapping away, shooting quickly and without thought, overloading ourselves with unnecessary images that clutter our memory and diminish the clarity of the whole. . . . While we’re working, we must be conscious of what we’re doing.’
MICHAEL ELDRIDGE, COLIN TRACY AND I ARE PUTTING TOGETHER A PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP ABOUT AWARENESS. It takes place in Bristol from 3rd to 6th July.
Workshop poster by Colin Tracy
To be frank, though, I doubt our work has mass appeal. Digital people tend to find themselves hypnotized by the Apps on their phones, and being being available with a service, or ‘selfie’, whenever their boss calls. There is an audience, for our workshop, of course. It’s made up of those who like to slow down and enjoy each moment of living.
In galleries people come with time to look, see, explore and comment. Sometimes they are moved by what they encounter.
Playful comments, especially in visitors’ books, are the ones I enjoy most, because they reveal that people really have been touched by the work. Polite comments tend to be well meant but point to someone’s social conditioning. All are welcome.
Thinking about awareness led me to consider the nature of photography as a medium, particularly in this age where digital manipulation easily makes images share many of the attributes of painting. There is a cross-over with digital art.
Digitally Enhanced Bonfire
I posted an image about this on Facebook a day, or so ago. I titled it ‘Digitally Enhanced Bonfire’.
Today’s work is more solemn. It’s not about changing light, but changing attention. Please watch and let me know what you make of it.
When Richard Sylvester asserts as the title of a book he wrote ‘I hope You Die Soon’ he is not exhorting you to commit suicide. The ‘You’ he hopes will die soon is the small ‘you’, your ego seemingly bounded in space and time. It is born and dies, believes a story about itself including, for most, a specific gender.
Others, of course, hold different opinions about little ‘you’, based upon the opinions formed as a result their own egos.
When the certainty of your ego falls away you are left with a sense of unbounded knowing and not-knowing apparently occurring locally, surrendering itself in the people and objects that seem to manifest before you.
Richard puts it thus:
“When the sensation that I am in control of my life and must make it happen ends, then life is simply lived and relaxation takes place. There is a sense of ease with whatever is the case and an end to grasping for what might be.”
Few of us appearing as within our materialistic world think much about such a death; two hundred years ago each of us would have known siblings, if not a parent, who had physically died when we were children. Death was much more commonplace back then.
Today, dwelling upon death – particularly suicide seems the province of the insane, yet it’s simply the opposite side of what we call life. An analogy is to think of the moon. Most of us only get to see the hemisphere that faces us, yet we intuit it has another side even if we think little of it. I doubt if any of us seriously think that we live there, even in our imagination.
For some the prospect of death holds out the promise of release from the pressures of contemporary life. It may also be an escape from pain and, in the context of suicide, an ultimate act of self determination.
A number of noteworthy people have chosen to take their own lives, and arguably were of sound mind when they did so.
Donald Vaughan Sinclair (1911 – 1995), the model for Sigfreid Farnon in the books written under the pen-name James Herriott by James Alfred “Alf” Wight, OBE, FRCVS (3 October 1916 – 23 February 1995), ended his life by taking an overdose of barbiturates. His wife had died just two weeks earlier and his friend and partner Alfred Wright just a few weeks prior to her death. His brother, Wallace Brian Vaughan Sinclair (27 September 1915 – 13 December 1988), the model for Tristan Farnon in the Herriot books predeceasing him by a few years.
Arthur Koestler, CBE (1905 – 1983), a Hungarian-British author and journalist. Koestler was an energetic intellectual, a talented writer, and above all a survivor. His works include: ‘The Sleepwalkers’, (1959) in which he argued that modern science is trying too hard to be rational, and that faith and reason may co-exist; ‘The Act of Creation’, (1964) a book about processes of discovery, invention, imagination and creativity in humour, science, and the arts; and my particular favourite: ‘The Ghost in the Machine, (1967) an early treatise on System Theory as related to neurology.
Hunter Stockton Thompson (1937 – 2005), the American journalist and author, died at Owl Farm, his “fortified compound” in Woody Creek, Colorado, at 5:42 p.m. on February 20, 2005, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Nathan Gill (1960 – 2014) was one of the pioneers in a western movement that has come to be known as Neo-Advaida. He wrote a series of books on the nature of consciousness whilst continuing to work as a gardener. These gentle books still mischievously play in a reader’s topiary of awareness. They are titled: Clarity, Already Awake, and Being: The Bottom Line.
He claimed: ‘As Consciousness You are already awake and aware. . . . ; it’s simply that this is veiled by appearances, the story of ‘me’ as an individual.’
Not all suicides may be justified as a kind of sanity.
Robin Williams (1951 – 2014), the actor, had been suffering from severe depression, as well as dementia associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Terence Donovan (1936 – 1996), a photographer was referred to with Duffy and Bailey, nicknamed by another photographer Norman Parkinson, in the Sunday Times, as one of the ‘Black Trinity’, of innovative, if irreverent London photographers from the 1960s. Donovan was a black belt in judo and co-wrote a popular judo book, Fighting Judo, with former World Judo Gold medallist Katsuhiko Kashiwazaki. He was also a Buddhist. He took his own life in a state of depression; some say as the result of the side-effects of the powerful medication he was taking to combat a skin condition.
How do we separate sane from unsound suicide, especially in the context of non-duality?
When I was seventeen I was recruited into the Mental Health Department of the County in which I was raised.
County Hall, Dorchester
As a Welfare Assistant I rapidly learned of the ways in which people suffer, both in youth and old age. To help me assist them it was arranged that I would attend some third year lectures in psychiatry offered to student nurses at the local psychiatric hospital, which in the days before ‘Care in the Community’ was the home of around six hundred souls, many of whom had lived most of their lives there.
These talks were both informative and unnerving. At the conclusion to each of them I became convinced that I suffered with Schizophrenia, Manic Depressive Psychosis, Psychopathy, or whatever the day’s topic under discussion.
Like many before me, I came to the conclusion that my symptoms came within a ‘normal’ scale of disturbance, whilst those of patients suffering mental illness were simply ‘special cases’ that occurred under specific physical, (including biological predisposition), and social conditions.
One specific condition we studied is known as disassociation, describes a wide array of experiences from mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experience. Sometimes disassociation can include: a sense that self or the world is unreal (depersonalization and derealization); a loss of memory (amnesia); forgetting identity or assuming a new self (fugue); and fragmentation of identity or self into separate streams of consciousness.
Disassociation is quite different from the experience of those living through the lens of non-duality, or rather the lack of any lens at all. For the non-dualist the world is not only real, but imbued with a sacred intensity. The body and the mind are no less part of this munificence; it’s simply that we don’t accord them importance above any other feature of consciousness.
Examples of work made by patients in the Art Therapy Department were shown to me, at the hospital. Many seemed remarkably well executed, and although sometimes bizarre and disturbing, most seemed in sympathy with the prevailing art of the day that command today astronomical prices.
We must be cautious when examining the lives of artists. The really good ones reveal to us the deeper facets of what it means to live with intensity. However, the likes of Van Gough, Gauguin, or even Rothko, amongst us must be seen to manage the daily aspects of living, lest they be thought crazy and incarcerated for ‘treatment’.
I survived for less than two years as a Welfare Assistant without getting myself hospitalized. Late in my second year of employment I was promoted to being a Mental Welfare Officer, with statutory powers at my disposal to compulsorily admit people to psychiatric hospitals in specific circumstances. These are laid out in The Mental Health Act of 1959.
According to this Act:
An application for admission for observation may be made in respect of a patient on the grounds:
(a) that he is suffering from mental disorder of a nature or degree which warrants the detention of the patient in a hospital under observation (with or without other medical treatment) for at least a limited period ; and
(b) that he ought to be so detained in the interests of his own health or safety or with a view to the protection of other persons.
In addition to ensuring a patient, thus committed, got safely to the hospital it was the function of Mental Welfare Officers to represent a lay-person’s opinion, so no one got admitted to mental hospital simply because medical practitioners claimed they were mentally ill.
Although we were chosen to be the eyes, ears, and voice of reason in the face of technical psychobabble, I remain unsure to what degree any of felt free to keep sane individuals who were determined to kill themselves for good reason from preservation in hospital. We certainly had no influence once people became patients following admission. They were often subjected to Electro-convulsive Therapy, which marred their intellectual capacity.
The sections of the 1959 Mental Health Act that refer to compulsory hospital admission and treatment are superseded by a new Act in 1983. Amendments in 2007 broadened the range of professionals who may apply for such admissions, once they had received suitable training.
It’s been years since, as a professional, I thought about suicide. I stopped practicing psychotherapy in 2006, and speaking personally the most overcast days always seemed preferable to self-imposed oblivion. Too much radiant joy, seemingly within, resonates with dramatic sombre, brooding clouds in the skies above. I attempted to capture something of their quality in the Trees and Sky Exhibition back in 2010, and continue to be excited by dark weather because it seems pregnant with unpredictable possibility.
Suicide and Non-duality?
Rupert Spira, who is also a teacher in non-duality, once wrote a sensitive response to someone who was disturbed by the suicide of Nathan Gill. In it he explains that, “from a materialistic point of view, the body gives rise to the mind and the mind gives rise to consciousness.” In this model killing the body does away with the mind and so that is the end of suffering.
There are problems with this conclusion, however, even though it’s the way most think in western society. Difficulties arise because research into dying reveals a number of anomalies. People report being visited by dead relatives, and even angels, prior to death. Extant relatives report intuitions at the time close relatives die, even when these occur on other sides of the globe. Sometimes the dead appear in the dreams, as in the case of the man who drowned and appeared in his mother’s dream dripping wet, whilst assuring her that he was not suffering. These are not simply old wives tales, or fallacies, they are collaborated by contemporary research carried out by Dr. Robert Fenwick, a British neuroscientist with impeccable credentials.
Rupert Spira, in his response, goes on to explain: ‘from a spiritual point of view the body is an appearance in the mind, and the mind is made of pure Consciousness. Therefore, from this point of view, the death of the body is simply a cessation of an appearance in the mind; it is not the end of the mind itself.’
It follows from what Spira writes that in such a model suffering may continue after the death of a body, and that a mind may create a new body, within a new world, in which pain may continue.
The problem with Rupert Spira’s answer, even if well intentioned, is that it, ultimately, is rooted in duality. Body and mind are seen as separate, much in the same way that a single cell forms part of the make-up the body of a larger organism, rather than also being seen as an essence which also contains the organism.
To truly unify the life and death dichotomy we need to experience something like the Auguries of Innocence described poetically by William Blake.
‘To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.’
It’s difficult to describe such an experience in a scientific way, but we can say that Newton’s Laws of Motion are accurate within certain contexts, and may be regarded as examples of predictable results anticipated by of Einstein’s Theories of Relativity under specific conditions. Within Einsten’s Special Theory of Relativity, however, Space-Time is a unified concept, although, when described in Newton’s Law of Motion it appears as if Space and Time are discrete, separate, phenomena.
I think we may also claim that bodies, and the worlds they inhabit, may be considered as specific examples of mind precipitated into an apparent local awareness, with its concomitant objects, as a result of a self-reflexive process. The objects that we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell, and which are seen to travel through and decay in time, are no more than specific examples of life’s possibilities.
To claim, for them, substance greater than what remains unmanifested in our perception of space-time, is a misunderstanding. Whatever is missing from the manifestation before you is simply the other side of the moon; the limitless sacrificing to awareness a background, so that what appears seems like a universe composed of separate objects, including thoughts, and other bifurcations.
In other words, unmanifest is there simultaneously with the possibility that becomes an object as a perception within Mind. Without unmanifest there is no manifest. All, ultimately, are limitless, timeless, boundlessness.
The apparent you, living within your world as a personal entity is a shadow without substance; your movement, including thoughts and feelings, are specific instances of timeless, limitless, boundlessness, expression.
Does this mean, then, that all instances of suicide are both unavoidable and acceptable?
In my view the answer to this is an emphatic ‘no’! Whilst each of us expresses the timeless, limitless, boundlessness, in specific ways – a common way is to understand ourselves as separate from that clarity which perceives and knows our true identity.
Ralph Steadman, a long, close, friend of Hunter S. Thompson sums up the quality of his expression:
“… He told me 25 years ago that he would feel real trapped if he didn’t know that he could commit suicide at any moment. I don’t know if that is brave or stupid or what, but it was inevitable. I think that the truth of what rings through all his writing is that he meant what he said. If that is entertainment to you, well, that’s OK. If you think that it enlightened you, well, that’s even better. If you wonder if he’s gone to Heaven or Hell, rest assured he will check out them both, find out which one Richard Milhous Nixon went to — and go there. He could never stand being bored. But there must be Football too — and Peacocks …”
Thompson lived his life on the edge of death and, in doing so, probably experienced and knew more of what it means to ‘suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ than most. He experimented with drugs, and alcohol. Ultimately, he experimented with death as if it were the next logical step in the story of his life.
Steadman, and Thompson had designed the cannon that would shoot his ashes into the heavens at Woody Creek some time before his suicide. He once remarked: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
Hari Kunzru wrote, of Thompson whilst reviewing his novel ‘The Rum Diary’, that, “the true voice of Thompson is revealed to be that of American moralist … one who often makes himself ugly to expose the ugliness he sees around him.”
He died as he lived, a martyr to his cause.
George Mikes, in ‘Arthur Koestler: The Story of a Friendship’, wrote that Koestler more than once said ‘that he was not afraid of being dead but was afraid of the process of dying. He did not wish to suffer the indignity of losing control over his body or mind. His suicide was not unexpected among close friends.’ Shortly before his suicide, his doctor had discovered a swelling in the groin which indicated a metastasis of the cancer.
It seems, then, that Koestler chose to manage the form of the death of his physical body, and that somehow he had premonitions that he may have to face such a decision.
Koestler was someone of considerable intellectual prowess, who possessed considerable survival skill. He recognised, in his concept of ‘a holon’, what Blake had articulated in the Auguries of Innocence. No doubt he experienced his death as an expression of the survival of something essential to what had been his life.
Donald Vaughan Sinclair spent his life relieving animals of their suffering, either by helping them to heal or, where this became impossible, by killing them with an overdose of anaesthetic.
It was by this method that he chose to end his own life when those closest to him had all ceased to live. No doubt, he felt that it had been a good party but with the departure of the last guest it had come to an end.
All three of these men chose to die in the spirit that they had lived.
The same conclusion must be made for Nathan Gill, who saw clearly that his true identity was timeless, limitless, and boundless. As his body fell away he cooperated with the process drawing what had been his earthly identity back into the light of consciousness from which it had emerged.
Depression is a completely different way of being than that experienced by those preparing for sane suicide. It can only exist when experiencing separation, and in which both the world and the body are felt as unbearable burdens. Suicide, in this context, is never the end of the party or a celebration of life, but an attempt to escape living and, as Rupert Spira intuits, must ultimately be doomed to failure.
Psychosis also has its roots in separation. Those suffering delusions, and hallucinations, by definition feel themselves to be separated from any sense of completeness. They believe themselves to be ‘evil’, or ‘sent by a divinity’. Some hear disembodied feelings, or experience unexplained bodily sensations.
Depression and psychosis are expressions of timeless, limitless, boundlessness, but they do not occur in isolation from those witnessing them. They arise in the lives of therapists, welfare officers, nurses, and others, as well as those suffering directly. Working with such symptoms gives many a raison d’être, and may ultimately liberate therapist and patient alike.
It’s years since I last saw Tony Parsons. He was about to board a flight to Amsterdam with his wife Claire. I hadn’t noticed him in the throngs of people. With a broad smile, he suddenly seemed to manifest directly in front of me from the back of a stranger exclaiming: ‘Hey, I know you!’
Indeed he did, years before, I was thinking of purchasing a publication called ‘The South West Connection’. It was a guide to alternative therapies published quarterly, not unlike ‘Cahoots’ a magazine created by a co-operative in Manchester, and to which I had been part of the editorial team.
Of course, this wasn’t entirely what he meant.
At the time I was without funds, but Tony had the necessary finances to make the purchase. Even though he had no experience in publishing he, and Claire, had settled on a deal with the owner and they invited me up a cottage they rented in the south of Wiltshire. We exchanged stories, and other information. I gave him some advice about publishing, although I’m unsure to what extent he took any of it. Soon we seemed firm friends.
As time passed, Tony and Claire moved to a smaller property in North Dorset. As someone pretty much rooted in a materialistic world-view I thought this a step backward, even though Tony and Claire had purchased the new cottage. The day they moved in their nearest neighbour brought them a bottle Premier Cru as a housewarming gift. Tony told me, with a twinkle in his eye: ‘He told me to open the bottle and let it breathe for a while before consuming it – as if we might be peasants and know nothing of wine’.
It was at that moment that I realized that, like his condescending neighbour, I really knew very little about Tony at all. He had apparently been a builder, but that could mean anything from a property developer to a plumber. Apparently he had done time in Poona in the orange fatigues of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, but that too wasn’t unusual for people showing up around me back then. I was practicing as a psychotherapist and many members of extant, or past, sects seemed to come through my door seeking ways out of, what seemed to me like, self-imposed misery.
Tony told me that the Bhagwan was a great guy, intelligent, but nothing more. Like so many of his words this sentence has come to have different meanings with the passage of time.
In the autumn, hay was harvested in the field beyond Tony and Claire’s garden wall. Tony seemed to relish in describing the round bales, which a machine had wrapped in black polythene, as ‘huge black condoms’. I loved the way he could be so irreverent about everything.
Huge Black Condoms – image Jeremy Atkinson
I continued to advertise my practice in ‘The South West Connection’, which after a while was expanded into another version for the south East of England and the Home Counties. This was the ‘The South East Connection’, and together both were referred to as simply ‘The Connections’.
Usually, I delivered my advertisement in person to Tony and Claire’s home. It was not simply an excuse to see them, Claire would sort out all the dyslexic mistakes in my copy.
After a while it became clear that Tony was absent more times when I called than previously. I asked Claire about this and she told me that he was ‘playing golf’. Tony played a lot of golf that year.
I missed him, but more than that I fretted because I felt he knew something that I had yet to learn and hoped that a book he was supposed to be working on would reveal it to me.
One day I called, because I was in the vicinity, and Tony and Claire were both at home. The ambiance was energetically relaxed, as it can be on the start of a journey when the suitcases are packed yet there are several minutes in hand before the boat departs. Cake and tea were available in abundance and Tony happily informed me that he had abandoned ‘the book’.
Life, for me, had not been going as I had expected. After some glorious years playing impecuniously I was now more than stony broke and in danger of going to the dogs. I discovered that I might earn some much-needed cash by working for a London agency as social-worker. The prospect didn’t appeal to me, because I had just spent several years attempting to leave the social work profession and in the process had forfeited some pension rights, and other security. To return to such work seemed like a step backward.
When I told Tony about this he responded enthusiastically ‘That’s all right’, disappeared upstairs and upon coming down presented me with a copy of his book ‘The Open Secret’.
It was a thin self-published edition, nevertheless I held it preciously, and indeed I could hardly wait to get away so that I could read it. When I did so it was neither what I expected, nor what I thought I needed, yet something within its covers, together with Tony’s optimistic words about working in London, provided me with reassurance.
London proved to be a great adventure. While I was working there Tony and Claire moved to Cornwall, and although they continued to produce The Connections I no longer saw them.
I spent half of the week in London and the remainder of my time in Dorset attending to my practice, recovered from my debts. After some relationships with extraordinary women I was discovered in a lecture theatre at The Institute of Psychiatry by the psychologist whom I was to marry.
One day, whilst my wife was visiting her parents abroad, I went to one of Tony’s presentations at The Friend’s Meeting House in Hampstead, which wasn’t far from where I was based.
He met me warmly at the door and kissed me gently upon the cheek. He did this with everyone back then. The room was packed. At the start of the meeting he announced, to my delight, ‘I am known as Tony Parsons and I am not enlightened’. The room filled with laughter, mine included.
Tony had come up from Cornwall. He insisted, however that he was ‘not a person’ and ‘Tony Parsons did not exist’. Everything within the room was a magnificent, ‘hypnotic dream’, he claimed.
You came here on a train . . . ?
When a woman challenged him about this, asserting: ‘Come now Tony, you came here today on a train’, he retorted, ‘Did I? I did not’.
There were mixed reactions to this, even though the room was silent. I understood something of what Tony claimed because since working in London I had spent considerable time travelling in trains. Frequently, whilst waiting in a carriage, an adjacent train would begin to move – yet in my perception, including my feelings, it would be my carriage that seemed to move. Suddenly the illusion would collapse, and it became obvious that I was sitting still and the movement seemingly external.
Later, when I began commuting between London and Istanbul, something similar occurred for me in the sky. Even in turbulence, it seemed as if I were sitting completely still as both land and clouds ambled slowly by.
At such moments it was impossible to limit myself to a specific identity, with a name, destination and personal history. This huge magnificent world simply surrendered itself within the infinite vastness without personality that absorbed any sense of a separate me.
So Tony had been right when he told me a few years before that going to work in London would be all right. My experience reminded me of the Zen parable about the farmer whose son was conscripted into the military.
This farmer had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. The neighbours came to condole over his loss. The farmer said, “What makes you think it is so terrible?”
A month later, the horse came home–this time bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbours became excited at the farmer’s good fortune. Such lovely strong horses! The farmer said, “What makes you think this is good fortune?”
The farmer’s son was thrown from one of the wild horses and broke his leg. All the neighbours were very distressed. Such bad luck! The farmer said, “What makes you think it is bad?”
A war came, and every able-bodied man was conscripted and sent into battle. Only the farmer’s son, because he had a broken leg, remained. The neighbours congratulated the farmer. “What makes you think this is good?” said the farmer.
It is one thing, however, to read such a story, and quite another to live out of unbounded possibility. You cannot simply as an act of faith, indeed to do so, whilst living out of a relative perspective is foolhardy because, it seems to lead to unnecessary suffering.
This reminds me, somewhat, of the woman from a sect who went to a Neuro-linguistic Programming, (NLP) workshop. In an exercise she attempted to program lots of illness and other disasters into her life because she believed that if she could go through all this suffering in one lifetime, then she would not need to be reincarnated in the future.
Tony, of course,tolerates nothing of the relative in his meetings, (although I have only ever attended the one). His words are like an eraser that removes the dichotomies of, both written and spoken, language through which we are wont to filter Beingness.
Critics pillory him for this, claiming his message to be nihilistic. From my reading of Tony, however, what he claims isn’t that life is, or isn’t, without meaning, but rather that what ‘Is’ arises regardless of any values, or meanings we may choose to ascribe to our experience, as such. Sometimes he errs on the side of ‘meaninglessness’, no doubt because he is keen to discourage people from turning his words into a prescribed path to liberation.
My own contribution to that meeting, so many years ago, was to ask Tony: ‘If everything arises ‘As It Is’, then why do we need ‘Intensives’ to help us get there?’
‘Intensive’ was the word used to describe the residential events Tony had begun to offer in Wales. He replied that perhaps ‘Intensive’ was not a good description, and perhaps ‘Residential’ might be more appropriate.
Tony was on his way to a ‘Residential’ when I last met him. His presence, like his books, has spread across the globe. Frequently criticised, for proscribing meditation practices lasting years, as well as ritual purification, his message isn’t without precedent.
‘An athlete … sometimes awakens suddenly to an understanding of the fine points of the game and to a real enjoyment of it, just as the convert awakens to an appreciation of religion. If he keeps on engaging in the sport, there may come a day when all at once the game plays itself through him—when he loses himself in some great contest. In the same way, a musician may suddenly reach a point at which pleasure in the technique of the art entirely falls away, and in some moment of inspiration he becomes the instrument through which music flows. The writer has chanced to hear two different married persons, both of whose wedded lives had been beautiful from the beginning, relate that not until a year or more after marriage did they awake to the full blessedness of married life. So it is with the religious experience of these persons we are studying.’
E.D. Starbuck. An Empirical Study of the Growth of Religious Consciousness, 1911
My own experience shares something of Starbuck’s description. Prior to ‘simply being’ I experienced life, mostly, as ‘a person’. Intellectually I understood the parable to the Taoist farmer, the horse, and his son. Sometimes, I could make sense of the story of my life as a result of knowing about the farmer’s story.
I think of this today as psychological understanding.
One day, however, I was standing in the kitchen drying dishes when I became underwhelmed with a euphoric knowing that nothing could be different from how it is. The doer, acting upon the world, dropped away. I continued to dry the dishes, of course, and continue to answer to my name, recognize my wife and others when they appear before me, and act upon what needs to be done. I may appear to others to make choices about the colour of my new shoes, and when to replace my wallet – yet for me there is no doer choosing but simply preferences arising.
I cannot explain this change as being a result of meeting Tony Parsons, in isolation to arrays of many other experiences. To do so would be like him claiming that ‘The Open Secret’ had nothing to do with his throwing away the original book he was attempting to write and going to play golf for a year. These events, like my realization, simply occurred without any reason.
N.B. This is simply a story appearing before you. It claims neither substance, nor intent. Tony and Claire have not endorsed it. If it connects where you read it then well and good. If not, it can’t be helped!
This unusual photograph is attributed to Sir Cecil Beaton. It is part of the Vogue archive. I use it here because I’m going to discuss it in some detail, and since it is the subject of this post it constitutes what I consider to be ‘fair use’, rather than simply a ‘stolen’ illustration.
In the summer of 1940 The Battle of Britain was being fought in the skies over England. Beaton, who was not knighted until 1972, was working hard on British propaganda. As an aesthete he wasn’t particularly skilled at this because he made the jungles of the East and the deserts of Africa beautiful, even when littered with the detritus of war.
I admire him for this skill and wish more photographers had the ability find beauty, whatever the circumstances in which they find themselves.
On the day this image was taken Beaton was photographing Land-Girls in the Home Counties. There is some confusion about whether the young women in question were professional models, or simply local people of suitable ages and appearance. In the posed images on the roll of film, from which this image was made, they epitomise the kind of people who are known as English roses.
Beaton’s contemporary, Norman Parkinson, who spent the Second World War as a farmer, made lots of images at his home that show just how dirty and demanding farming can be. There is none of that in Beaton’s work.
So what about this image? It seems that a couple of pilots dropped by to see their sweethearts, and persuaded Beaton to photograph them. It may well have been posed, of course, but as it’s the sole photograph of the kind on the film I like to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Two flyers with their uniform trousers rolled above the knee gallantly carry Land-Girls, who in this image wear slacks, across a mere. All four are smiling and you can almost hear jocularity from the men and squeals of delight uttering from the women. In the background there are trees at the horizon, as if these images were taken in parkland.
It’s a historical document, to be sure, but more than that for we might easily substitute the RAF uniforms for denim, and the sweet English faces for those of proud African ethnicity and the magic of this moment would be preserved.
It’s a fair assumption that all four people in this image, as well as Beaton, are dead. The park-like setting is probably a housing estate, the mere drained and no longer used for agriculture.
We have established that it’s not the time in which it was photographed, nor stories we may know about the people depicted. It’s not this particular landscape, for this like the people has long since changed.
No, it’s a kind of moment-less moment beyond time, beyond space, simply aliveness finding itself in the aliveness that is us and in which we appear, to exist, as separate entities.
John Carlton, who claims to be ‘the most ripped off copywriter in the world’, mailed me today about a topic that, coincidentally, I was considering as the subject of a post here.
His story is that one afternoon he found $2 in a car park, and even though he had spent far more money that day, his find was to change his life. For many years after finding the money Carlton would look around in car parks, even under cars, expecting to see cash that others had dropped.
Psychologists call such rapid conditioning ‘imprinting‘. It’s a biologically determined phenomena, thought, to help infants bond with their mothers.
In fact John Carlton found no further money, in car parks or elsewhere, but was stuck with the behavior until he awoke from this particular trance.
My story begins with a conversation over breakfast today. My wife, Irem, was explaining how the external hard disk, which she uses to back up data, was failing to register on her computer. Her conclusion was that it was broken. The power of her belief was so strong that she had decided that she would have to recreate some documents that she needed for a workshop to be delivered later today. As a result of this conclusion much of her time would be consumed re-writing, and the printing of the re-created material would fall to me rather than the workshop organizer.
When I examined the cause of the problem I found the hard disk to be perfect working order, but a problem had arisen because she was using a USB connector that has a plug to supply power to the drive from older computers that cannot provide sufficient from the native USB port. She had inserted the wrong plug into her machine, so no data was being transferred.
The similarity between these two things is that whilst two events seem to have occurred – in Carlton’s case finding some money, and in my wife’s world a hard drive failing to function as expected by her, each of them led to their changing behaviors based upon faulty conclusions.
John Carlton and Irem aren’t unique in this respect, we modify our behavior based upon the conclusions we reach as a result of events that apparently happen to us, or close to us. The trick is knowing that events occur simply because they happen – none of us will ever find an ultimate cause, and the stories we tell about those events – even when good enough to, seemingly, get us somewhere positive can never be anything more than stories and therefore, ultimately, fictions.
I think our everyday experiences are real in similar ways to how the young can bond with strangers, or similar single powerful events may lead to compulsive behaviours. Just as such bonds whilst, apparently existing between infants and foster parents, ultimately, have nothing to do with genetic replication so events appear to happen because they are expressions of unbroken clarity, rather than discrete signals from objects separated by space-time.
Most do not think in this way. The dominant narrative, of our day, emphasises separateness and independence, even though technology seeks to network us digitally. Often the stories we share seem to separate us into tribes that seem at odds with others. These stories become lives, which demands that people think of themselves as individuals whose experiences are imbued with effort and suffering. Then misplaced striving arises for something that is always present to the awakened.
These geese are thought to be convinced that Christan Moullec, the pilot of this microlight is their parent. This is the current scientific explanation as to why, even as adults, they follow him across the sky, but none really know how, or why, they were apparently programmed in this way:
Sometime before Christmas some files on my computer became corrupted. At first I thought this was by chance but then, as time passed, and more and more files seemed affected it became clear that a virus had somehow got through and begun to affect the system. It turned out to be a polite form of coercion for on closer examination of files I found a courteously worded demand for $500 and a set of instructions about how to pay if I was to ever be allowed to use files that the virus had encrypted.
I won’t go into details as to how the money was supposed to be paid, suffice it to say that it was the digital equivalent of leaving home with a bag full of used and unmarked notes, receiving calls at payphones, and driving around the countryside at speed. For a fraction of the ransom demanded I was able to obtain software that removed the virus, and which continues to protect the system from all manner of threats, many of which I think we take for granted.
Unfortunately, those files that were encrypted couldn’t be saved. To my surprise I found myself unaffected by this even though they included the text of an entire book, and several original photographs. Where in the past I may well have cussed, and shouted in disgust, imagined that God and his angels were set against me, and perhaps even taken it out on the computer, which after all is simply a machine – I found myself insouciant.
Strangely, this unperturbedness also became a source of mild excitement. It was as if I were watching some other person than me calmly going through the steps necessary to correct the attack, whilst at the same time remaining confident that any loss of data might, if not a good thing, rather be simply as it must.
Some years ago I hired some young people to work on some projects for me. When they failed to deliver, as they had promised, they retorted: ‘It was never meant to happen’. This I found to be an irritating tautological defence, because on the one hand I agreed with them. I believed, even then, that the world is how it is rather than how I, or others may prefer it; and recognized that as a human being it’s impossible to control events. None the less, I was peeved.
This time I suffered no such discomfiture. I was immune to the attack upon my computer for even my work, much of which had taken hours, if not days to prepare, no longer seemed a part of me. Naturally, I started to question how this change within my personality had come about. I had not willed it, for indeed I had not the wit to recognize that such as state might exist and, if I had, that it could be such an enjoyable experience.
I remembered that my state of mind had a name in ancient China. Thomas Merton wrote of it:
‘The true character of wu wei is not mere inactivity but perfect action-because it is to act without activity. In other words, it is action not carried out independently of Heaven and Earth and in conflict with the dynamism of the whole, but in perfect harmony with the whole. It is not mere passivity, but it is action that seems effortless and spontaneous because performed “rightly,” in perfect accordance with our nature and with our place in the scheme of things. It is completely free because there is in it no force and no violence. It is not “conditioned” or “limited” by our own individual needs and desires, or even by our own theories and ideas.’
Chuang Tzu (莊子) and a frog
As I state in Photography and Zen, the philosopher who wrote those words was a Taoist called Chuang Tzu. Unlike Lao Tzu, who many know through knowledge of the Tao Te Ching but may never have really existed, Chuang Tzu is documented as a real person who lived during the 4th century BC. His contemporary Confucius, a former government official, stressed discipline and effort as virtues needed to lead a noble life. These attributes, of course, are exactly what are required in order to administer a state.
Chuang Tzu, however, took a different stance:
‘Fishes are born in water
Man is born in Tao.
If fishes, born in water
Seek the deep shadow
Of pond and pool,
All their needs are satisfied.
If man born in Tao,
Sinks into the deep shadow
To forget aggression and concern,
He lacks nothing
His life is secure.’
The difference between the approaches of the two philosophers is that, where for Confucius, right mindedness is an active process demanding thought, discipline, ritual and effort – Chuang Tzu thinks of it as ‘forgetting’. I agree with him, for it was not by dint of effort that I overcame any feelings of disquiet when my computer became infected, but rather, a kind of emotional forgetting that I should be feeling upset in some way.
First published on ‘Blokes On The Blog’, February 11, 2015
All quotations from Thomas Merton (1970)’The Way of Chuang Tzu’, London: Unwin Books. Text copyright 1965 The Abbey of Gathsemeni
Sometimes my images are so mundane that they are disregarded.
‘It’s a window, a lavatory basin, a nut, a face, or a sky’ are the thoughts, which seek closure rather than explore simplicity.
‘Muğla Ceviz’, (A universe in a nutshell).
These images are one point of view. In them the entirety of perception is compressed into a digital artifact.
Lost in the eternity from which we seem to emerge.
I don’t photograph in order to win competitions, or claim to be more exceptional, or different from you.
Man and Nature, The Miraculous Sky
Looking out of the window, peeing, eating nuts, delighting in the company of another – acknowledging that self and other simultaneously appear as mirages in this mysterious space is not enough for most photographers.
I wish good luck and success to those of you who want to be the best, rather than content to be whole, and who must collect ‘likes’ on Facebook and win competitions in clubs. It is as good a way as any, and there’s nothing wrong with such ambitions.
My miracle, however, like these photographs, is very ordinary. For me the moment represents something sacred – special, simple, times encapsulating wholeness – those which most take for granted without gratitude, or reverence.
It seems that since the publication of Paul Watzlawick’s informative work on the nature of communication family therapists have pondered the subject of its title: ‘How Real is Real?’ Family therapy is of course concerned with communication, but recently it has become increasingly preoccupied with the nature of ‘reality’.
Watlazick is right when he asserts, “. . . our everyday traditional ideas of reality are delusions which we spend substantial parts of our daily lives shoring up, even at the considerable risk of trying to force facts to fit our definition of reality instead of visa versa”, (Watzlawick, 1977 xi).
The problem is nested in the very meanings of the terms ‘reality’, and ‘truth’. To quote David Pilgrim: “Postmodernism refuses to concede a stable a priori self and attends to the inscriptions of personhood created by diverse and shifting discourses. Postmodernism reflects on a diverse world of multiple shifting realities.” (Pilgrim, 2000 p.7) I predicted that Family Therapy would encounter such ideas as early as 1985 when I cited Capra in support of my stance:
“Capra (1982) suggests that a bootstrap model of society would be fruitful. This means gradually formulating a network of interlocking concepts and models and at the same time developing corresponding social organisation. Such theories and models and organisations will have to be trans-disciplinary, using whatever language becomes appropriate to describe different aspects of the multi-levelled, inter-related fabric of reality.” (Bray, 1985).
Integral science, (following Foucault, 1973), holds that science may be divided into ‘Inner (a priori) Science’, and ‘Outer (posteriori) Science’. Inner Science refers to mathematics where the rules are applied in the private domain of the mind, and are accessible only to those trained to use mathematical rules; whereas Outer Science refers to experiments in phenomena that may be observed in an apparent ‘outer world’. Biology is an example of such a discipline.
Integral Science seeks to unify the rules of science regardless of whether they be ‘inner’ or ‘outer’ related:
“It is a fundamental principle of Outer Science that hypotheses be subjected to verification in the outer domain of experience by a community of trained practitioners. A physical theory, for example, is subject to the condition that its predictions must be compatible with our sensory experiences of the world of outer objects. It is important to note that only trained physicists are qualified to test physical theories against experience.
Similarly, it is also a fundamental principle of Inner Science that a community of trained practitioners subject hypotheses to verification. A mathematical theorem, for example, is subject to the condition that its proof must be compatible with our inner conceptual experiences, in particular, the inner experiences of trained mathematicians.”
From the above, we form a generalized principle of verification which does not depend on the domain of experience.” (McFarlane, 1977).
Social ‘scientists’, however recognize that perhaps more than any other creature human beings are unpredictable, especially in their imaginings. “In the natural world a frog shares the ability to be conceptualised as a whole entity; in the same way as a prince. However, only the prince will be able to imagine what it may be like to be a frog, or a beggar, and to model each if he wishes to do so”. (Sinclair and Bray, 1998 p. 62)
My issue then is not with the idea that we appear to live in a ‘Multiverse’, in which experience may seem contradictory and communication baffling, especially to families uneducated in the subtleties of post-modern thinking. Rather it is with the implication in Watzlawick’s statement that there is no reality that we can rely upon, or verify when there is confusion in our world.
Fortunately help is at hand in the writings of the English born lecturer and philosopher Douglas Harding. As a young subaltern Harding travelled to India with the sappers. During the Calcutta famine of 1943 he was granted leave, which he spent in the Himalayas. It was in these mountains that he made his amazing discovery. On returning from leave the streets were full of thousands of people who were dying of starvation. Harding did what he could, but found himself to be at once uninvolved, detached and cool. He did not deliberately withdraw from the suffering around him, but he found a place of ‘absolute detachment’. (Harding, 1990 p. 119).
Harding admits that his detachment was an incomplete ‘solution’, (as if any solution could be complete given the magnitude of the horror he witnessed). He writes: “I sought refuge . . . from the real world of inhabited space, and in particular its more tragic aspects.” (Harding, 1990 p. 129). It was not until he realised that there is no demarcation between the world’s container, and the world’s content and that these are supported by nothing at all, that he started to live life fully. . . but I rush far too quickly in writing thus . . .
Douglas Harding must be among the 20th Century’s most revolutionary thinkers. Whilst a partner in a flourishing architectural practice he taught comparative religion at Cambridge University, where he was on debating terms with Bertrand Russell, and greatly admired by C.S. Lewis. His published works include a whodunit, a philosophical treatise that took eight years to write, books on religion and the arts of living and dying and articles for the Transactional Analysis Journal, Architectural Review, Middle Way and the Saturday Evening Post. Anne Bancroft’s 20th Century Mystics and Sages has a chapter on Harding as ‘the man without a head’ – a reputation the Incredible String Band helped to establish with their Douglas Harding Song.
I first came across Harding’s ideas when in 1990 I returned to the market town in the south of England where I grew up. Here I discovered in local cafes and pubs a myriad of conversations on the nature of reality, some no doubt induced by psychotropic substances. Among the discussants, who seemed mostly confused and argumentative, was a giant Friar Tuck of a man, whom I shall call Eddy.
Time after time, in conversation after conversation Eddy would reduce speculations concerning the truth to a connectedness between others and him that would end in a belly laugh.
It should be noted here that Eddy is no psychotherapist. He is a factory worker who endures long shifts, some by day, and some by night, year in year out but when not working he brings sunshine to those that meet him.
Curious, and used to asking impertinent questions, one day I demanded his secret. “I’m ‘Ed-less”, he responded, as if this answered my question perfectly.
“’Ed-less, I mean headless”, I queried?
“Yeah, ‘Ed-less”, he replied.
Now clearly this was not the sort of answer to likely to satisfy curiosity. What did he mean? Was Eddie psychotic after all? The situation remained thus for several months until one evening a cry went through the town at ‘closing time’ ~ “All back to Eddy’s”, this of course being an invitation to party.
In his kitchen Eddy brewed tea before casually passing me a faded and stained copy of a paperback book. I read the title: “On Having No Head”, its author Douglas Harding.
On the very first line of the book Harding declares:
“The best day of my life – my re-birthday, so to speak – was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head”, (Harding, 1961. p.1).
“Hmmmm”, I pondered, “a book that can infect a manual worker is a dangerous book indeed.” And I was right for the book next turned its attention toward me.
Harding writes: “At its briefest and plainest, (a scientist’s) tale of how I see you runs something like this. Light leaves the sun, and eight minutes later gets to your body, which absorbs a part of it. The rest bounces off in all directions, and some of it reaches my eye, passing through the lens and forming an inverted picture of you on the screen at the back of my eyeball. This picture sets up chemical changes in a light-sensitive substance there, and these changes disturb the cells (they are tiny living creatures) of which the screen is built. They pass on their agitation to other very elongated cells; and these, in turn, to cells in a certain region of my brain. It is only when this terminus is reached and the molecules and atoms and particles of these brain-cells are affected, that I see you or anything else. And the same is true for other senses, I neither see nor hear nor smell nor taste nor feel anything at all until the converging stimuli actually arrive, after the most drastic changes and delays, at this centre. It is only at this terminus, this moment and place of all arrivals at the Grand Central Station of my Here-Now, that the whole traffic system – what I call my universe – springs into existence. For me, this is the time and place of all creation.
“There are many odd things, infinitely remote from common sense, about this plain tale of science. And the oddest of them is that the tale’s conclusion cancels out the rest of it. For it says that all I can know is what is going on here and now, at this brain terminal, where my world is miraculously created. I have no way of finding out what is going on elsewhere – in the other regions of my head, in my eyes, in the outside world – if, indeed, there is an elsewhere, and outside world at all. The sober truth is that my body, and your body, and everything else on Earth, and the Universe itself – as they might exist out there in themselves and in their own space, independently of me – are mere figments, not worth a second thought. There neither is nor can be any evidence for two parallel worlds (an unknown outer or physical world there, plus a known inner or mental world here which mysteriously duplicates it) but only for this one world which is always before me, and in which I can find no division into mind and matter, inside and outside, soul and body. It is what it’s observed to be, no more and no less, and it’s the explosion of this centre – this terminal spot where “I” or “my consciousness” is supposed to be located – an explosion powerful enough to fill out and become the boundless scene that’s now before me, that is me.
“…. The commonsense or un-paradoxical view of myself as an, ‘ordinary man with a head’, doesn’t work at all; as soon as I examine it with any care, it turns out to be nonsense”, (Harding, 1961. pp. 12-13).
Harding’s assertive prose, almost archaic in style and simplicity is captivating, but no less theoretical than the ideas of Watzlawick. One reads 100, or even 1000 journal articles expounding this theory, or that idea, in terms of philosophy or practice, but ultimately they remain just words. Had Harding continued in the same vein, I doubt if I would have come to any harm. But the wiley author offered a stronger discourse than logic.
The text that follows is given for information purposes only. On no account should you attempt any of the experiments reported, lest you, dear reader, also lose your head!
How to verify your headlessness:
Experiment No. One. ~ Pointing
Point at the wall ahead . . . see how solid and opaque it is . . .
Now slowly bring your fingers down till it is pointing at the floor . . . still you are pointing at something, a surface . . . Next bring your hand round and point to your feet . . . your legs . . . your trunk . . . your chest . . .
Finally, point to what is above your chest . . . to your neck . . . your face . . . your eyes . . . Or rather, to the place where people told you those things are to be found . . .
You are now pointing at No-thing at all 😉
You are now pointing at no surface, at no thing at all!
Check that it is featureless . . . colourless . . . transparent . . . boundless . . . Keep on pointing seeing into the emptiness . . . seeing how wide . . . how deep . . . how high . . .is that no-thing that is your side of that pointing finger . . .
Have you ever been other than this No-thing/All-things this perfect union of stress-free exclusiveness and stress free inclusiveness? (Harding, 1990. pp. 8-9)
Experiment No. Two ~ In the bag
In the bag!
Find a large paper bag and remove the bottom to make a tube. You (A) and friend (B) fit your faces into the ends of the bag, friend (C) asks you the following questions:
On present evidence, dropping belief and imagination, how many faces are there in the bag? . . . Are you face-to-face in there, or is it face-to-space?
Take in the human features of the face opposite . . . the contours and shapes that make it unique among faces . . . Compare these with your own lack of human features of any kind, let alone distinctive ones . . . Take in the colouring of that face . . . its various textures . . . its opacity . . . its complexity . . . And compare these with your own colourlessness . . . your smoothness and freedom from all blemishes . . . your perfect transparency . . . your over all sameness. (Harding, 1990. p. 35).
Experiment No. Three ~ At arm’s length
Take an oval or any hand mirror. Hold out the mirror at arms length until you can see your face in it. Keep the mirror there throughout the experiment.
You will only see your face reflected in a mirror, or represented as a photograph.
Dropping belief and imagination see where that face presents itself . . . Notice the place where you keep it – at the far end of your arm . . .
This distance is where others, too, recognise it. This is where they hold their cameras to photograph it, and where you put your camera to make a self-portrait. It has never been much nearer to you than that, or much farther away. (Harding 1990, pp. 26). Closer it becomes an eye and then darkness; farther away it becomes a head and torso even a full body, or part of a football team. This is not simply true for your reflection in that mirror; it’s also how others see you.
Often at this stage in discussions of Harding’s ideas certain objections arise. One example is to consider that his experiments must be disqualified because they arise as a result of distortions of perception. People assume that Harding somehow uses optical illusion to obtain his results. But this is not so. If one examines the kind of phenomena created by Adalbert Ames whereby images of two sizes are formed of different sizes in the two eyes, (Bateson 1980, pp. 40), we find that such experiments manipulate the content of what is seen, but are unconcerned about the ‘transparency’, or ‘Grand Central Station’ to which Harding is referring, where the illusions are assembled. It’s not optical illusion. They are phenomena of different logical types, (Bateson op. cit, pp 205).
The second objection that arises is that of common sense. Since everyone has a head, and everyone says I have a head, then I must have one. But this is tantamount to declaring our heads are no more real than any other social construction. Even a two year old would not stand for such nonsense! You might ask; “Can you not imagine yourself as part of a group, talking with others clearly and visibly carrying on your shoulders a wonderfully proportioned moustachioed head?” I would have to reply, “Yes indeed, I do see that fine specimen of a human being there in my mind’s eye, and I agree with all you say about him, including the distinctive features of his rugged countenance ~ but do you in turn not appreciate that I am now looking out at him, not from him and his body, but from a no-place or inviolate level? (Goswami, 1995 p. 182). He is no more real than the reflection in the mirror in the third of the experiments above.
At this stage violence has been known to erupt. People have been tortured and wars have been fought for less cause than Harding’s assertions. Thank goodness that AFT debates such matters through learned journals such as JFT and Context.
Harding is very clear: “If some misguided sceptic were to strike out in this direction . . . the result would be most unpleasant as if I owned the most punchable of noses. Again what about this complex of subtle tensions movements, pressures, itches, tickles, aches, warmths, and throbings, never entirely absent from this central region? Above all what about these touch-feelings that arise when I explore here with my hand? Surely these findings add up to massive evidence for the existence of my head right here after all?
“I find they do nothing of the sort. No doubt a great variety of sensations is plainly given here and cannot be ignored, but they don’t amount to a head, or anything like one. The only way to make a head would be to throw in all sorts of ingredients that are plainly missing here – in particular, all manner of coloured shapes in three dimensions. What sort of head is it that, though containing innumerable sensations is observed to lack eyes, ears, mouth, hair, and indeed all the bodily equipment which other heads are observed to contain?”(Harding 1961, p. 8).
“So what?” you ask in desperation. “What have the ‘deranged’ ramblings of a factory worker and a Cambridge lecturer, to do with family therapy?”
Let’s return for a moment to the third experiment above, Take your mirror out to arms length and find your face in it.
Finding a body for your head 🙂
“Where does that face really belong? You couldn’t fit it on your shoulders. The poor little thing is loose out there. It needs a body. Well, let’s find a body for it. Turn to your neighbour, and put your head on your neighbour’s body, where it fits perfectly.
“Why does your face fit on your neighbour? It fits because it belongs to your neighbour. My face belongs to you. We steal our faces from other people and put them here on our shoulders.” (Harding, 2000 p. 47).
And here is the space where our stories connect. My face appears in your space, and your face in mine. Regardless of whether your face is white, black, yellow, green or puce it is now my colour. I witness you from a transparency over which I have no control, and no wish to control. You may have an issue with my appearance, but I am for an hour or so a timeless universe in which you may express yourself.
You look at me; there is a kind of hostility in your eyes. You are a woman, I am a man and you have an agenda fuelled apparently by the abuse of centuries of male oppression, personalised by the molestation of a grandfather. As a man I cannot help you, but as space in which you narrate your stories I find ways to aid you to help yourself. You have become my focus; the universe shrinks to becoming simply space for you. Your story unfolds within it.
A Case Example
It’s late and I have seen three families already this afternoon. The face in the mirror looks tired; it’s the face of someone who wants to go home. The family has been referred by Social Services for assessment. The Local Authority is engaged in Care Proceedings with the family. The mother and children live in a family centre, the father occupies the family’s flat. The woman carries a tiny baby who smells and needs changing. The man seems hostile, he seems to resent the assessment, but has come in order to ‘win’ his children back. The three year old sits on his lap, a white candle of mucus suspended from his nose. A six-year old girl sits near the mother. Slowly I attempt to instil some structure into the session, mother leaves to change the baby’s nappy. The father is talking more reasonably. But when mother returns the three year old says he wants to go to the toilet. When Father tells him to wait he vomits on the floor. From that no-place where the universe assembles I recognise that all this process is occurring in the same space as my torso, hands and feet. It is occurring within a space called ‘my experience’. I realise that I am part of the chaos, and also its witness. I find that as a witness I am neither tired nor stressed. I encourage the family members to take some time out. The following week when they arrive they are more relaxed. There is also a vomit stain on the clinic’s fitted carpet. As the weeks pass that indelible stain on the floor reminds me of how even the most unpredictable and hostile families may be helped when engaged from the place of timeless clarity.
Recent theorists whose findings seem to support Harding’s assertion that: there is only one world, undivided into inner and outer, mind and matter, body and soul include: James, 1912 pp. 1-38; Jaynes, 1976 p. 44; Bateson, 1980 p. 20; Maturana and Varela, 1987 p. 244; Wheeler, 1982. But to read them is time-consuming, leads only to confusion, disagreement and headache. Maybe after all it is wiser to apply Douglas Harding’s experiments and simply become ‘Ed-less?
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Bray, Stephen. (1985) Absurd Therapy: A Reply to Roger Adams. AFT Newsletter Vol 5: No 4. Dundee: AFT.
Capra, F. (1982) The Turning Point, Science Society and the Rising Culture. London: Fontana Paperbacks.
Foucault, Michel. (1973) The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books.
Goswami, Amit; Reed, Richard; and Goswami, Maggie. (1995) The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World. New York: Tarcher-Putnam.
McFarlane, Thomas. (1997) Integral Science An Overview. Proceedings of the American National Philosophical Association 13th Annual Meeting. California: Stanford Press.
Harding, Douglas. (1961) On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious. Revised Edition (2000), London: Sholland Trust.
Harding, Douglas. (1990) Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom Line. London: Sholland Trust.
Harding, Douglas. (2000) David Lang Ed. Face to No-Face. Carlsbad: California.
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Jaynes, Julian. (1976) The Evolution of Consciousness in The Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral Mind. Second Edition (1990). Boston MA: Houghton Miffin Company.
Maturana, Humberto and Varela, Francisco. (1987) The Tree of Knowledge. Boston: Shambhala.
Pilgrim, David. (2000) The real problem for postmodernism. Journal of Family Therapy. Vol: 22 No: 1 6-23.
Sinclair, Joseph and Bray, Stephen. (1998) An ABC of NLP. London: ASPEN.
Watzlawick, Paul. (1977) How Real Is Real? New York: Vintage Books Edition.
Wheeler, John. (1982) ‘The Computer and The Universe.’ International Journal of Theoretical Physics. 21: 557-72
Written when a clinical tutor in family therapy with the Turkish Association for Child Guidance and Mental Health, (CARE-DER), Istanbul, Turkey.
The article appeared in an issue of Context:The magazine for family therapy and systemic practice, in the section ‘Thinking About Thinkers’, but this issue no longer appears on-line.