Where Buddhism Meets Gendlin

Month: March 2024

Preparedness for the Revolution

That day, concentrating to understand what Douglas Harding meant when he said, “I have no head,” my attention ‘looked back’ toward where I expected my seeing to be ‘coming from.’ As a result, my thinking ceased; because no such seer was to be found, and I was left with only the bare activity of seeing a luminous valley before me. Some such discovery – that I am not the kind of being that I imagine myself to be – was inevitable in the situation. What’s deeper than my constructions, that didn’t come into full view, however.

Right there – if I was prepared for such an inversion of the usual way of seeing; if I could see with an unflinching heart – right there was the opportunity to have ‘just the seen.’ With such an unusual, unconstructed perception, a special case of awareness can be discovered – one not established on the subject-object dualism. One can live deeply, seeing deeply, with that ground.

Later, I found the following words which worked well to describe this moment’s opportunity. The Buddha spoke these words to a yogi called Bāhiya: “Let there be, Bāhiya, in the seen, just the seen.” When I took my attention back to find the ‘I’ who was seeing, then for a moment, thought stopped – because there was in fact no locatable ‘me’ behind my eyes looking out. I have discovered from experience, over the years since that day, that in the state which the Buddha described to Bāhiya, this kind of seeing has no ‘from’ (and likewise no a ‘toward’). Space as we normally know it collapses.

If you are ready for the shift, a dissolution of your unexamined sense of ‘I-dentity’ occurs; an ‘I-dentity’ which has hitherto, for as long as you can remember, functioned to concoct your seeing according to personal agendas. The popular way of speaking about this these days is in terms of ‘projections.’ We see ‘over there’ what we are ‘here’ – at our end of the imagined ‘from and to.’ We see what we are conditioned to see. If, after becoming aware of the projections, they don’t happen, then there is ‘in the experienced, just the experienced.’ If you are experiencing ‘seeing’ there is just the seen. If you are experiencing hearing, there is just the heard. And likewise for all that you sense and cognize, whether you call it ‘internal’ or ‘external.’

Now that I look back to that occasion, I can understand that the possibility in the moment when thought stopped was to experience my unity with all of life. When one’s heart is sufficiently open, then naked seeing simple ceases to support the egoic sense of self, which really only sees its own self in the other. You may have had an intimation of this kind of experience if you have ever experienced an eye-to-eye encounter with an infant in its first month of life. Meeting the child’s simple, intimate, undefended gaze can be disconcerting to our habituated sense of self. The directness of the child’s gaze is such that you might feel uncomfortable at your end, unless you are in a special mode of consciousness – for example, if you have a parent’s presence, which is conditioned by millions of years of evolution. (Think ‘oxytocin,’ for instance.)

If, on the other hand, when looking back at the child with naked awareness – that is, if you don’t have some egoic state at your end – you will experience the dissolution of your ordinary sense of self. In his words to Bāhiya, the Buddha described the cessation this way, “When, in the seen, there is just the seen, then you are ‘not by that.’” Your awareness will not be established on the basis of imagining or conceiving the other at all, and at that juncture your egoic sense of self has no basis to stand upon. You might feel naked.

This egoic sense of self is what the Buddha spoke about soon after his awakening (recorded in a text called The Noble Search). There he is portrayed as saying that the truth which he had discovered was too profound for the unprepared to see – “hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning.” He felt that it was too subtle to teach to ‘this generation which delights in the sense of an ego-self. They delight in the sense of an ego-self, rejoice in the sense of an ego-self.

In this text, the Pāli word which I’ve translated here as ‘sense of an ego-self’ is ‘ālaya,’ which points to a ‘substrate.’ So, based on how it manifests at the substrate level, I’m tempted to translate it more evocatively as ‘the ego bubble.’ He’s saying, “People relish their ego-bubble. They love it and rejoice in it. It’s therefore hard for them to see this truth of dependent arising.

This is a helpful pointer to how we can think of our ‘preparedness’ for the revelation of a genuine ‘unestablished awareness,’ and the inversion of our usual world-view. Preparedness comes seamlessly when we compassionately study the ‘ego-bubble’ and become so familiar with it that we intimately know its drawbacks and dangers. We need to know ourselves. We need to comprehend our false sense of self so thoroughly that it loses its power over our experiencing. Then a deeper ground of living emerges.

And this needs to be a ‘combodied’ approach – that is, an approach based in mindfulness in this very body, this lived body which co-arises with all. This is the path I took to heal from the errors of understanding which beset me over the next couple of years.

Let’s notice now, then, that the real issue is not about ‘heads.’ The subject of the statement “I have no head” is ‘I.’ It is identity which is the heart of Douglas’ message. As for heads, I’ll demonstrate that we need not fixate on having or not having ‘a head’; and, I’ll do that without losing his essential point. My demonstration will involve understanding how thinking and saying function in relation to experiencing. This understanding was also an important part of my healing. This will mean a revision of the Harding method of speaking – a revision which we can look forward to. Nevertheless, we will stick to Douglas’ admonition to test all this in experience – to “look for yourself.”

Today I leave you with promise that I will also unpack the Buddha’s enigmatic comment on this very topic, recorded in the text known as the Sutta Nipāta. A man called Bāvari consulted the Buddha about a hostile threat, made by a rogue.  This villainous man declared that Bāvari’s head would be split into many pieces through the power of black magic. The Buddha’s paradoxical response, uttered for Bāvari’s consolation, was that:

The head is ignorance. Understanding splits the head in pieces. It is destroyed by understanding, with its army of powers – that is, with confidence, mindfulness, meditation, determination and energy. These are the powers that split heads.’ (Sn1026)

No Need for Struggle, or War

What is this sickness called ‘war’? Isn’t it centuries of carnage on the basis of fabricated conflicts of interest, which are in turn concocted on the basis of an even deeper fabrication – that of ‘identity.’ The narrow vision of “Us versus them” is, in my understanding, a mental illness.

Decades ago I was conducting workshops, and I offered an experiment in my groups in which the participants would be allocated an identity by me as the facilitator (playing God, if you will).  The premise of the experiment was that we don’t know what our identity is, in ordinary, everyday terms, unless others help us in forming and confirming it. All identity is formed interactively. The purpose of the exercise was to bring various sequences of behaviour forward which would illumine how identity is dependently formed and is dependently maintained.

[It would take up unnecessary space to say, here, how I did this; but, briefly, it involved putting coloured dots on the participants forehead, where they couldn’t see the dot, while others could; and then giving appropriate instructions involving what methods they could and could not use to find out their identity. For example, no words or other obvious symbolic gestures. Originally, I myself participated in this exercise in a workshop with Douglas Edison Harding (1909-2007), in the early ninties. I then adapted it to my own varying purposes.]

Our social identities are formed in interaction with others. The experiment was meant to convey a sense of real-life situations, obviously. For example, a baby is normally born without identifying with its skin group, its language group, or its native culture. Her/his/their enculturation is a fact which the baby can’t think about until much later – well after ‘identity’ has been set in train. Yet, immediately after birth (and even before), everyone around the baby begins ascribing a particular kind of identity on such bases; as I said, long before the baby has any self-consciousness of either of themselves as speakers of language, or of themselves as enculturated – long before we could think of our society’s methods of designating our existence and our inheritance. Waking up is in part waking up to how we’ve been formed by our culture. Beyond that, waking up is activating ways of relating that  connect us to a deeper ground than culture.

Back to the workshops. There, I only offered the participants four different identities – one of four colours which corresponded to the four corners of  whatever room we were in. One unexpected insight we got at the time happened because on one occasion I contrived something that they wouldn’t expect. I arranged it that there were a few people in the workshop who couldn’t be identified by the others in the group. I gave them  a colour which didn’t match those of the corners. Their ‘no-identity’ status meant that they didn’t fit the pre-existing categories, which were symbolised by the coloured dots in the four corners of the room. Everyone else negotiated the experiment ‘successfully.’ Afterward, when everyone reported their experience of the experiment, those few differently-labelled people reported what it was like not to find their place in the available groups.

They reported that it was disconcerting, even frightening, to not find a place for themselves in the whole group. In the course of everybody seeking where they ‘belonged,’ these people went through the attempt to belong in a pre-established group, and they found that they were rejected by each of the four groups. Even in such an artificial circumstance, this felt destabilizing. These non-fitting people found themselves gravitating to the centre of the room, and – here’s the message for the purpose of this essay – there they found each other. They gained solace from belonging to the group of non-acceptables in the centre of the room. The recognition that they had this in common with each other met an implicit need to belong – even in this artificial setup! They could belong there together, identified as those who didn’t belong to the bigger order.

Let’s notice though, it was an identity which was still formed in relation to the whole group. Even the outsider depends on the normal people for their identity as an outsider. Look around us: the politicians of every political colour harp on about the faults of others because they are nobody without those others. I am asking, “How do you think you can you be yourself, by defining yourself in distinction to others?”

In relation to the workshop participants (to whom I bow in recognition of their bravery), what is of special interest to me,  is that their fear arose on the basis of their thinking – not on the deeper basis of existing-as-Such. Is it really a big deal that I don’t fit in with pre-existing categories of thinking? Can I perhaps think freshly from my present situation, without moulding the situation to be a another version of the old order? If I recognise my existing-as-Such, isn’t there a place for me anywhere I am, even in death?

In the workshop, at the end of the exercise, the people who were united in their ‘outsider status’ at the centre of the room, they still thought they absolutely needed a label which could operate in the pre-established order – the order which depends upon others’ mirroring your identity. They were trying to go on in the old way. Hence this specific kind of  ‘need for another’ guided them to feel a unity with the other non-fitting members, and to establish a ‘new’ social position. Identity, under these circumstances, is still not other than fabricated. I pointed out that this is what the disempowered in any of the world’s disadvantaged districts were doing.

(Lest I be misquoted, I am not saying that the difficulties of the oppressed are their own fault. I’m talking only in the context of a much subtler and broader issue in the world, that of identity; but one which has devastating consequences just the same. Indeed, if our everyday, egoic identity didn’t keep society’s structures in place, would there be such a group as ‘the disempowered’? Wouldn’t the care for oneself and others which emerges from disidentifying with the false, wouldn’t that care ensure the ending of structures of oppression? Of course, it does. Care that’s not mired in loss and gain, acts intelligently.)

If one doesn’t privilege this merely socially constructed mode of identity, enjoying others goes with the living fact that I and they exist-as-Such. It was said, “Immature love says: ‘I love you because I need you.’ (Fromm, 1956). IN my view, love-as-such says: ‘I love you because you are.'” It is in the mode of experiencing-as-such that we know we and the other are actual. It is not possible to maintain our fictions in this mode, so love with the actual do you become that harmful behaviour dies out, with our fictions.

What was further interesting, as I conducted this experiment on a number of occasions, was how the non-fitting group could rouse antagonism (albeit mildly aggressive) toward the ‘normal’ people, toward the people who’s place was conventionally acknowledged. ‘Us versus Them’ seemed to arise out of a subtle resentment that ‘I am not  included among the normal.’ Furthermore, it felt empowering to be united as the ‘misfits.’

All of this identification, of course, is a fabrication, whether the identity is ‘normal’ or ‘outsider.’ Its basis is in the mental act of comparing.

Dear Reader, if right now you attune to dwelling in your situation – include above, below, all around, and in the middle, as your ‘situation’ – in its raw, living, unlabelled immediacy, is it comparable to anything, really? Aren’t all comparisons after the recognition, and hasn’t the recognition already changed it, moved it on to something else. When you start  looking for comparisons to that initial immediacy, then it’s changed.

Experiencing as such is Such. By the capitalisation I mean to say it’s incomparable. It’s simply itself – livingly. (If you do get that, it’s good to then check your body for the magical feelings of innate warmth and aliveness, by the way.)

Insecurity has its roots in false identity. Two beliefs or views which feed this insecurity can easily be named. They are at the root of most, if not all, wars. Firstly, to our cost, we identify with what is transient, what is contingently and rapidly changing; that is, we identify with what is insufficient by nature.

So, being a changing being who is dealing with a changing world, I grasp at changing things to alleviate my existential anguish. Is that going to work? What could better define the madness at the root of war? Especially given that, secondly, when I’m identified in that way, I have an unconscious belief that I exist in the way I think my ‘self.’ Believing that this is so, I believe that I can be annihilated. In other words, ultimately we fear our identity will be negated and annihilated by any other who is different.

This concocted mode of living is one which generates beings lost in thought. Such a way of life will never penetrate to the knowing at the heart of experiencing-as-Such. It can never satisfy us.

Even so, it is powerful. It can lead us to destroy ourselves and the other species with whom we share this beautiful planet. Perhaps that is what the insane presidents and generals want, given their manifestly high level of dissociation from reality. These lost creatures. It is undoubtedly a miserably deficient way to live, to struggle so. I’m reminded of ‘I know the truth‘ by Marina Tsvetaeva. She knew another way:

I know the truth — give up all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.
Look — it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.

– from Tsvetayeva: Selected Poems, by Marina Tsvetaeva.
English translation by Elaine Feinstein. Original Language Russian.

Harding and Having No Head

Sonorous thro’ the shaded air it sings.” (Pope, Odyss. viii. 214, ref OED)

I thought I would be able to write about human transformation by simply giving a model of the human being that works. But my own deepest personal trauma kept presenting itself as I wrote. I was probably a little slow to realise that I’ve got to include it in the writing; but that’s where I’ve arrived.

This approach immediately presents me with a dilemma. I want this writing to be as relevant as possible to a wide audience, but I am going to start with a highly unusual situation. I’m confident that this particular instance of human healing and awakening will have universal relevance; but, even so, it might initially seem to be far from my readers’ everyday life. I therefore hope dear Reader, that your kindness and patience will allow the unusual in this case – to put aside the thought that such a case is not likely to apply to you.

I hope to demonstrate that such an ordinary behaviour as ‘seeing’ – the ordinary sense of sight, seeing per se, regardless of the nature of the seen – is a doorway to a healthy mind-process. Indeed, that any ordinary sense activity is a doorway into the transformative wonderment toward life which we humans so need.

Close to fifty years ago I saw that I am not locatable anywhere perceptible. I am not found or located in what comes and goes; especially and least of all: behind my eyes. Another way of saying this is that after a very precise date, I could no longer ‘self-locate’ on the basis of the familiar inside/outside division. Wherever I looked, that distinction didn’t work to tell me who I am. However, for me this wasn’t as liberative as Harding must surely have intended it. I entered a profoundly ambiguous state tainted by childhood trauma.

This fifty years of work have not been fruitless, however. I am more at ease with my unfindability than ever; and, indeed, I find it a blessed fact. The changes which I have experienced since then, though these changes may have been gradual, even very slow, can be understood, and that is my goal in this project. More than that, though, I am sure a theory of human change can be derived from this understanding – if only because I am a human like any other (at least in respect of those aspects which I will include in this account).

Mine will be only one theory about human life, and I am not suggesting that it needs to be the only one; but, to be clear, I write it in the confidence that it is about being human, not simply about being an unusual individual who had an unusual experience. The basis of this confidence is that ‘experiencing’ is universal. As author Sue Hamilton-Blyth said (2000),

This is not to suggest that we all have the same experiences, but, rather, that what we have most in common is that we all do have experience – and, most fundamentally, the experience of being a human being on earth. Moreover, we all experience the notion of identity, of being human being A and not human being B.” (Hamilton-Blyth, Sue. Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder.)

I’m taking this to be a self-evident first principle for all that follows in my own project. While possibly not ultimately provable by logic, it has nevertheless the sonorous ring of sanity. So it is: that I start with a description of the occasion of this particular trauma.

In 1975, I saw that I cannot be located. At first, my way of speaking about it owed its origin to the man Douglas Edison Harding and his little book On Having No Head. However, the matter was far from complete with that days’ events. Unrecognised by myself I was traumatised by the experience. The trauma in the situation was the shock of suddenly losing a fictitious sense of myself. I say ‘fictitious’ despite the fact that this kind of mental fiction was (and, is) shared by the majority of the general population of any country in the world – whether the culture is individualist or collectivist.

As I alluded to above, the egoic fiction says that you can be identified with what comes and goes, what is perceptible. I was not prepared for such a revolutionary turnabout in my consciousness of myself. It was an inversion of the common everyday understanding of ‘self.’ This understanding could be essentialized as: Our self-representations present us with who we are.

This break with convention occurred on a balcony of a home in North Canberra, Australia, on a fine winter morning, late June 1975. At this point in my life, I was not ready to so suddenly disidentify with the accumulation of self-representations I had built up since I was a small child. Hence, I experienced it as the loss of all that told me who I am. This project will be, then, in part, an examination of the meaning (that is, the experience) of the question, “Who am I?” – an inquiry into ‘Identity.’

As a separate project, I am writing an autobiographical fiction to explore the human phenomenon of Identity. So, to give you a feel for the experiential aspect of what I am conceptually describing, I’ll adapt passages from that manuscript.

It begins early to mid-winter in Eastern Australia, in the capital town Canberra, when breath forms clouds in the morning air, and frosty grass crunches and squeaks beneath one’s tread; when growth seems stilled for a time. It was Sunday morning of the last weekend of Australian June, 1975, around ten o’clock.

We begin our tale with a seemingly innocuous invitation from my friend Matthew. I am lodging temporarily in my friend Matt’s rented house, and I have just risen from a sleeping bag.


I had woken up earlier that morning on the floor of the study in Matthew’s share-house in Nardoo Crescent. I entered that day, the second full day in his home, supported by a sense of new a beginning. Dwelling each night in a sleeping bag in the corner of someone’s study, on the floor, might not sound an auspicious beginning to anything; but not waking up in bed with my dissatisfied wife held, for me, the promise of the freedom I was seeking.

In the kitchen, Matt handed me a thin paperback, saying: “This might prove interesting to you, Tige.”

“Yes?” I respond. I took the book. “Thanks, Matt.”

The cover was striking. It was a plain white cover; and in the front was a cut-out in the shape of a human head. I had never seen a book published with a hole in its cover. The first page was presented through the shape, and there revealed was the title of the book: On Having No Head. “Clever,” I thought, as I considered the design. I browsed its pages. The full title was On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious. A book on my favourite topic. I had been immersing myself in D.T. Suzuki’s translation of the Lankavatara Sutra, and absorbing everything written by Suzuki. I was reading almost nothing else but books on Zen in those days, contemplating myself and the world in their light.

It was a mild winter morning, so I made a cup of tea and took the book outside to sit in a plastic chair in the benign sun. Matthew went about his day. There was a balcony at the rear of Matthew’s place, which overlooked the peaceful plain of a suburban valley. The air was crisp. The sky, a luminous pale blue. I placed my tea on the table beside the plastic chair, then paused to look out over the valley spread before me. Here and there over the still valley, the household chimney were threading the air with low, horizontal smoke-streams. The slight haze didn’t obscure the hill on the other side of the valley. Standing for a moment, I took pleasure in the familiar form of Mt. Majura over there. Then I sat down, put my feet up on the balcony railing, and I began to read:

The best day of my life – my rebirthday, 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.

With that, Douglas Harding had had me transfixed. This ‘rebirthday’ idea was as compelling as any of the enigmatic Zen koans and mondos detailed in my three volumes of Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism. I too was looking for a rebirth. Without pause, I entered into Harding’s invitation, asking: “What can he mean?”

Certain phrases in this book were like signposts to that meaning. They appeared to raise themselves above the crowd of Harding’s sentences: “…absorbed in the question ‘What am I?‘” he wrote. And these: “I stopped thinking“; “Past and future dropped away“; “…utterly free of me.”

I looked up and out to the sleepy valley. Those sentences echoed for me. “Only the Now,” the voice of Harding said. I was excited. This was a wholly new kind of book on Zen, with a wholly unexpected line of inquiry.

Right now, under the blue of a southern sky, where I was gathering my energies inwardly on Matthew’s balcony, a flock of a dozen pigeons were circling above me. I noted the birds. And at the same time, I noticed how easy it is to be distracted from making this reading an experiential task. “If this not going to be just an intellectual reading,” I thought, then I really have to concentrate on ‘reality reading.’ Hence, I now more deliberately zig-zagged between reading a little text and then referring to my own immediate experiencing. Only the Now. The meaning wasn’t in the words, but in the experience.

The pigeons were now at about forty-five degrees. My sneakered feet on the railing, the book before me. I began to practice. I read a passage or two, and then took my eyes off the pages to look past my sneakers, out over the peaceful suburban valley, then up at the birds – all the while delving into the meaning of ‘I have no head.’

I noted the morning sun shimmering off their wings as they wheeled about, and a line for a haiku emerged in my thoughts: “Light bright off wheeling wings…” I looked back at the circling flock again, and then I looked inward, directly back to where I sensed I was seeing them from – back to where my head most assuredly must be. At this point, no change in my habitual impression of ‘having a head’ occurred.

I turned back to the little book. There on the page Harding continued his description of his awakening, which occurred when walking among the magnificent Himalayan mountains. He recorded that suddenly his thinking went quiet, and that when he looked, he saw: “…khaki trouserlegs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in — absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head.

What could this man mean? I wanted to know.


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