Okay, this post is the last thrust in our trip down the proverbial rabbit-hole, which so far has looked at what the ego is, and how the late Douglas Harding can help us answer that big, big question — who are you, really? This is part one of a two-part post.
I had no idea what I was getting into. Back in October, I arrived at an island retreat called Hollyhock, to take what I thought was a five-day course on Buddhism. I didn’t know we would spend those days in uninterrupted mindfulness, without speaking, and that we’d spend about six to eight hours a day in formal meditation.
After the initial welcome at the main hall, our teacher led my group up the path to our meditation hut in the forest. On the way there, he stopped us and told us to look up. It was a still and clear night, much darker than we city dwelling visitors were accustomed to. I had never seen stars like that.
“Please be aware,” he said, as we all stared silently, “that you are seeing.”
He repeated himself. I was transfixed on the stars, but I remember thinking, “Well, duh,” when his comment registered. Of course I’m aware I’m seeing. How can you see without being aware of it?
His comment echoed again in my head a moment later, and I realized what he meant. For the first time, I recognized that I was normally only aware of what I was seeing, and had taken for granted that I was seeing at all. My awareness had become preoccupied with the content of existence, not the fact of existence itself. Suddenly, it struck me as so peculiar that there was stuff out there to see at all, and especially peculiar that there was something present — me, evidently — to see it. I don’t know why it had never occurred to me there was anything odd, or at least curious, about this arrangement.
In that instant, the stars became more real, more imposing, though I can’t say their appearance changed. It was something like admiring a photograph of a tree, and then realizing you were looking at a real tree. This experience definitely had an effect on me, but I didn’t grasp its relevance right away.
A day later I would. Our group was sitting in a warm, circular hut in the woods, in total silence, the evening of the second day.
Sitting for hours is tough work. The idea is to simply watch what’s happening, and there is quite a bit going on. Without the regular distractions of music or traffic or television, you can’t help but notice how much the body and the mind are really up to.
Your awareness fills with the chaos of dozens of sensations happening at once: the aching of your knees, the pressure of your bum on the cushion, the rising and falling of the breath, itches, tingles, weird digestive processes you never paid much attention to.
And thoughts! They come out in full force. They’re loud and pushy, and they just won’t stop coming.
There’s so much going on it’s hard to stay aware of it. You easily lose yourself in the stuff that’s happening. Suddenly you find you’re in the midst of an imaginary argument loosely based on a real argument you had a week ago with your friend. Your mind is saying what it wishes it said then.
Then you snap out of it. Whoops. Stay aware. You return your attention to the breath. For a moment or two, you’re fully with it.
Then your knee-ache gets more demanding, so you direct your attention to the feeling to try and observe it. You’ve been sitting too long on a hard surface, and the knee is tightening up. You know it will throb later, like it did after last session. You notice the intention to adjust your position, and flinch as you almost do it automatically. But you know you should stay put. You think about getting a good meditation cushion when you get home. You also make a mental note to remember to keep the thermostat down, it’s getting hot in here…
…and like that, you’re lost again. You return the attention to the breath, vowing again to stay aware.
After not too much of this you can’t help but notice all these feelings and thoughts are constantly coming and going, and it never stops. Whatever arises seems to come into your awareness from nowhere, and it changes a bit in its texture in intensity as you watch it. Then it eventually recedes, or gets crowded out by something else, until you can’t detect it anymore. It leaves no trace, and by then there’s a new thought or a new feeling, or many, and you forget about it.
During an hour-long meditation session, a whole load of weird stuff parades across your awareness. It’s just a big, maddening show with no plot, and this insidious tendency to keep changing its form.
From my week of meditating in Hollyhock, I learned two major realities about life:
#1: Your whole experience in life is a only a constantly changing arrangement of thoughts and sensations. There are unlimited forms it can take and all forms are constantly giving way to new ones. Whatever it is at any given time is just a combination of the five senses and thought.
#2: It is incredibly easy to get lost in the details of all those things, which makes you forget #1.
All of life seems to be just a constant turnover of “stuff,” in this way. As Winston Churchill said, “Life is just one damn thing after another.”
When you sit with your eyes closed, this is very apparent. It’s like you’re watching all sorts of things happening on a blank screen: thoughts, bodily feelings, sounds, emotions, and it’s so busy you forget you’re watching it. There is so much chatter, particularly from the mind, that it’s really hard to sit and watch it at all. It really makes you want to get up and read a magazine, or grab a beer.
But now and then, you catch a space between the thoughts and sensations, even if it’s really brief. You actually see (or sense, somehow) the blank “screen” on which all of this stuff is projected. It doesn’t take too many meditation sessions to get a glimpse of it. So you know it’s there.
And it makes sense. You can’t watch a movie without a screen. You can’t have “things” without some space for them to happen in.
What is the screen?
It’s pretty clear that this combination of sense perceptions and thoughts is constantly rotating, constantly turning over, constantly giving way to other things, throughout your entire 70- or 80-year existence in life. It’s just one big moving scene, not unlike a movie, only that it’s three dimensional and it includes tastes, smells, feelings and thoughts, in addition to sights and sounds.
But the space in which all the action happens — and the fact that there is a space in which all those things happen — does not change. It’s always there. It is the only constant in life. It is the only part of your experience that is present all the way through from birth to death.
Think about it… there is no thing that stays the same throughout your life. Even if you look down at your body, can you honestly say it is really the same body you had 10, 20 or 30 years ago? We all know that the cells that make up the body are renewing themselves constantly, and you have to admit you don’t look like you did ten years ago. Sorry.
Clearly your body is a thing too, coming and going throughout your life. You can call it yours, and you are in charge of it, but it isn’t exactly you. Which is a good thing, because clearly it’s just passing by, and going downhill for most of the ride. In this sense it’s no different in any fundamental way than a car that drives by you on the street, or a loud sound that comes out of nowhere, and fades. The only real difference between them is how fast they come and go.
Thoughts are things too. They have no mass or visible features, but they arise just like other sensations. They have a form. They have details, therefore they are things. If you sit and pay attention to them, they arise in very much the same way as aches, tingles, sounds and tactile sensations do.
All things — all forms — whether we’re talking about thoughts, sensations in your body, the bark of your neighbor’s dog, or a bird flying by the window, all arise in awareness, in a boundless space. There has to be space for these things to exist. This space has no form of its own.
Think for a moment about the stars out in space again. The stars have form: they have color, they emit heat, they have size and shape and mass. They do stuff, and eventually they change into other forms, red giants, black holes, supernovas. They are contained by space, which is empty.
It seems like a paradox. Space isn’t a thing, it’s an absence of things. It’s no thing at all. But it is there. It is real. You can perceive it; you can be aware of it. But your mind can understand it only in terms of what it is not. The stars occur within that space. If there was no space for them to happen in, they could not exist.
But the space itself has no features at all. Yet it persists, and its presence is 100% necessary for the existence of all things.
Life is full of things, but it is more than things. It’s space too. Space permeates every corner of life, because no things can exist where there is no space. That means it permeates your body. As we talked about previously, if you could keep zooming in on your body, you would see cells, then molecules, then atoms, and eventually empty space.
Who you really are
So if life is just impermanent things arising and fleeting in space, what are you?
The conventional way of thinking of yourself is as a body, with a mind attached to it somehow. But experience shows us that both the body and the mind change completely, many times over throughout life.
The only constant in life is the space in which all those things happen. It’s the same emptiness from which thoughts emerge, the emptiness in which stars sit and burn, the emptiness that accommodates everything you’ve ever seen, heard, or touched. Every sensation, every perception, every thought, comes and goes. The space in which they happen is featureless, boundless, has no taste, smell, or texture of its own. It looks like nothing. Like space. It is timeless and imperishable, which you could describe (if you happen to like the word) as immortal.
So who are you, in the Big Picture?
You are the screen.
You are the empty, 3-dimensional screen on which this greatest of all shows is projected. You are the space in which all of this happens.
When you consult spiritual or religious sources about what you are, the answers are remarkably consistent. Ancient and contemporary sages seem to agree, and the answer to that question is always something like, “You are awareness,” or “You are consciousness,” or “You are emptiness.”
My experiences, both in and out of meditation, lead me to the same conclusion. Sitting there watching what happens, I can’t help but notice that only the background to all that “stuff” — the space in which that stuff exists — is constant throughout my life, so what else could I be? How could I be any of the fleeting, changing, arbitrary things I have been aware of?
It is clear to me now what is meant by “You are awareness,” though it was once just a cool-sounding concept. I’m not trying to convince you of this, only suggest that you might discover the same thing (perhaps you already have) and in the mean time you might want to look into it for yourself.
Douglas Harding’s headless method excites me so much because it is a very simple way to actually perceive and live from the empty space the sages had always talked about in such evasive, mystical terms. I know that still sounds like gibberish to a lot of people, but those who have found meaning in Harding’s method know that it shows you plainly how to keep track of that eternal, motionless, aware space that is who you really, really are. It shows you how to access it at all times, whenever you realize you’ve become lost in things again.
Not that it’s the only way. As you’ll see in the conclusion of this post, people have known this for a very, very long time.
This post is part one of a two-part article. The second part will be posted later this week.
Photo by bryangeek