Spring/Summer 1996




Kriben Pillay

Kriben Pillay : Douglas, the objective of this interview is to pick your brains as it were not so much about what you have always stated in your books and in your workshops, but more pointedly to ask you what do you feel it means to be Douglas Harding? I think when we read about so-called enlightened people, people who have discovered some earth-shattering insight or gone through some kind of transformative experience which you admit to in your book On Having No Head of seeing the world in a totally different way, traditionally these people have always been put on a pedestal as having some kind of consciousness which is very different to the consciousness of the ordinary person in the street. One example and I shall ask you about this later in the interview is that of the enlightened person who does not dream, who has a dreamless sleep, virtually constantly, or perhaps doesn’t sleep at all, and so on and so forth. And I think with regard to yourself, the information might be useful in demystifying some of these traditional concepts. So that’s the thrust of my interview with you today.

What does it feel like to be Douglas Harding, given all that you’ve written and spoken about in a very direct way? If the ordinary ‘Joe on the street’ says, ‘well, okay, I’ve turned around 180 and I see who I really am so what?’

Douglas Harding: What does it feel like to be Douglas Harding? Well, I suppose really that this Douglas Hardingness is inescapably colouring the whole of my life. I mean one isn’t, at least I’m not, avoiding that identification, connection, expression at all. On the contrary, particularly lately, I’ve been saying how absolutely essential, precious, extraordinary is that identification. The one in the mirror, I find, is not for putting down, not for dismissing, not for undervaluing. On the contrary, I think what I would say about Douglas Harding particularly I suppose as revealed through his face, voice and behaviour, face particularly I would say that it is enormously precious for these reasons. First of all, it is unique and no other face has been like that ever, no other face would behave exactly like that. Some would come fairly close, certainly never the same. And in all the millions of humans who will live in the future, none would have that face. And the number, think of the number, how many thousand millions of people on the earth this is unique and this is very important it signifies to me that one has something unique to contribute, one is a special incarnation of Reality, one is a special expression of Reality that’s needed to complete the total picture, and so that is enormously important. But if it’s only that, if that’s the whole story, then that, however valuable, however inspiring, is eventually the road to hell. Why is it the road to hell? Because it’s what distinguishes me from all others. Now that which distinguishes me from all others, the little guy in the mirror, in combination with this which joins me to all others whom I identify with in my reality totally who I really, really, really am is exactly who you really, really, really are, and all sentient beings really, really, really are. So it seems that this combination is marvellous. Separate the two and I’m in deep trouble. To go for the phenomenal Douglas in all his Douglasness alone, which is what we normally do after all this ego trip which lasts a lifetime to go for that alone is half the battle, is half the job and is the half which leads to hell. In combination with who I really, really am here, is exactly what the doctor ordered, and so it is that combination, that union of the two that is not separating them functionally; but certainly, I mean they come totally together, their function is totally different and they’re different aspects of who I really, really, really am each of which is complimentary to the other. About the dreaming thing, do you want me to answer that now or later?

KP: I’ll come to it later. Douglas, there is almost an innate curiosity in human beings about the fellow who makes certain claims and then, I think, especially in the spiritual world, wanting to know what this state is. Of course you very eloquently make people see what this state is, but I think many would still say ‘listen, for me I come to Douglas Harding’s workshops and I have an experience of turning around at 180 and seeing into the void, and for some people it can be very transformative, but I go home and I’m beset with all my worldly problems and chores and what have you, and surely you’re not saying that this is exactly how it is for you, Douglas Harding?’ Is it perhaps more stabilised? Throughout the literature of mysticism there is one thing that seems to characterise somebody who has made this discovery, be it Ramana Maharshi or whoever, and it is that the thinking mechanism does not seem to be in operation to the same extent that it is in the average person. The average person goes around incessantly thinking; thinking about this, that and it always refers, finally, to one’s sense of self. I’m either going to experience some pain in the future which I’m trying to avoid now, or I’m trying to experience some kind of pleasure, and the mind incessantly goes around these concerns. And the enlightened person is supposed to be someone who is not thinking in that way anymore. There seem to be some who have even said that there is a cessation of thought. What is the thinking mind like for Douglas?

DH: Well, before I try and answer that one, let me get something out of the way. I don’t use the word enlightened anymore; it’s a buzz word, it’s a word which is a very, very tricky one, and I don’t say I’m enlightened and you’re endarkened. I do not say that. In fact, I don’t feel that way. I don’t feel myself to be enlightened in a world of endarkened people. That distinction is not real for me, it does not feel like that. I meet people. I don’t think ‘you don’t see what I do’. It is the last thing I think and I swear that it is my experience and you see the way I think of other people vis--vis myself they and I living are living from the same place, in the same way and in the same fashion.

All of us are living from who we really, really, really are and we couldn’t do otherwise. And if they wish and certainly most people wish to overlook this fact or to ignore this fact; of what they’re looking out of, of who they really, really, really are it doesn’t prevent them living in that place, and so one cannot feel enlightened or superior to them at all. It’s just that I happen to be interested in observing what I’m looking out of, interested in making this 180 u-turn to be awake, not only to the object as object, but to the subject as object. In fact, I’m not content with one-way looking but with two-way looking, but other people have the right to delay that. Why should I really feel superior to all that? Now you talk about stopping thinking. Well, I’ve read all the books about Ramana I’ve never met him and I think he says a lot of things some which don’t mean much to me, it seems to be more part of that culture but one of the things he does say in places is that you don’t have to do anything to see who you really are, you don’t have to stop thinking to see who you really, really are. It is obvious, there is nothing more obvious in the whole world. I say that too. It’s absolutely obvious, and you say, well does that stop your thinking, Douglas? Well, not really, because it’s perfectly compatible with seeing here the one who is supposedly the thinker. The thinker goes along perfectly well with the realisation of the identity of the one here who’s alleged to be thinking, but there is a sense and a very, very important sense in which seeing who I am does involve cessation of thought, because when we think about a thing we are making it an object. It is there, the thinker and the object thought about, and I am not that. The thinker and the thought are two, but this vision of who I really, really, really am is not thought, it is directly experienced. So here there’s no thinking. Seeing who I really, really am is not thinking, it’s not a conceptual experience, it’s more like a percept—but an absolutely direct experience of what’s here.

To look at the outside world at all is to see it, perceive it with all sorts of names, coloration, past experience. I see that tree now I mean I recognise it not only as a tree, but a Yew tree in Spring. I think all of us, adults or even children, are incapable of destroying, getting rid of thoughts. To deal with the external world is to clothe it with meaning, and meaning means thinking. And thinking and meaning mean relying on all my past experience of Yew trees and so forth and the language itself. The world as I know it is a huge construct there; present, past, future. It is coloured and structured by past experience, by present data and by future intentions. That’s what the world is like. Now here it’s not like that. This which is containing that thought-full stuff is not of the same order this is not a thinking thing at all, but pure, pure simple being. That being I call it perception but that could be misleading of the direct realisation of the thought-free one here. The idea and a lot of people have said this, but I don’t care, I’m saying it and I’m being my own authority here that one has to stop thinking, somehow kill the mind, insofar it means anything at all, to me it means kill the idea that there is something here which is mind stuff here. The mind stuff is all this stuff; my thoughts and feelings and structuring the world which I perceive, and so on. The whole thing, the phenomenal universe, is full of thought and feeling contributed from here but this is thought-free.

KP: But wouldn’t you say Douglas, that having realised this, there is less pre-occupation with one’s petty concerns? Compared to the person who actually sees this, the average person goes around totally identified with everyday thinking.

DH: Well, they’re missing a very, very great deal. I mean, I wouldn’t devote my life to sharing this if I didn’t think of it as enormously valuable. I mean there is something enormously to be gained by seeing who we are, but it doesn’t enable me to despise other people or look upon them as unenlightened.

KP: Yes, I get that point. What I’m just saying is: you are suggesting that there is a different relationship with thought.

DH: Oh yes, I am.

KP: Would you not say that, by and large, we go around believing ourselves to be the thinking? Would you not say that the average person goes around caught up in ‘my car is not working, I’ve got to fix it, what am I going to do about it, why is it happening to me’ and it goes on and on?

DH: I know. I think he’s just immersed in this world and he has no escape. Not escape it’s the wrong word he has no peace, no stillness at his centre. He imagines he hasn’t because he is he is that. This is not an achievement. This is what he is. Everyone of us is doing it, doing it right, living it from who we really, really, really are everyone of us is doing it right, but he is not cashing it. It’s like having a million pounds in the bank and thinking you are a pauper and writing no cheques on it.

KP: Douglas, your daily activities involve, obviously, some planning for your next trip and so forth, and whatever you are involved in at home; by way of writing, household chores and so forth. So you would then say little Douglas is busy with all of that, perhaps thinking about letters to post …

DH: I wouldn’t quite put it like that. You see I don’t think there are two centres who I really am here and little Douglas who’s there this kind of supermarket of consciousness with little Douglas a corner shop, a little tiny bit of consciousness no doubt borrowed from here but no, it isn’t. Little Douglas, really, is not conscious; little Douglas is a phenomenon for others, for me and so on. But he’s not a sentient being. Sentient being is one Being in all beings.

KP: So a new thought arises in that sentient being?

DH: Yes, that’s right and the mystery is why these thoughts, which are so partial and very often misleading, arise from who we really, really, really are. And of course, that is the whole mystery, to which there are no answers. But certainly, it is very mysterious why illusion should come along anyway because the illusionary thoughts arise from the same indivisible consciousness in which we all share.

KP: So this leads to the next thing I find quite interesting. I, for instance, sometimes find myself very alert to my thoughts. For instance, my recent loss. Grief arose and one was alert to it. In fact, I find it easier to be alert to those things, to be awake to it, and to see it within myself. But then, other times, there is a sort of hypnotic state as it were, you’re just being carried along by this and afterwards you realise gee whiz, I seem to have been unconscious. Do you feel that this still happens to you?

DH: Yes, it certainly does, and I thank God it does. It means that one is more of a human and not less human, and anyone who did not feel grief at a bereavement like yours, anyone who never thought an unworthy thought, would be an impossible person, a monster impossible to live with. The people who fill my heart and I love, are people who have a weaker side, who have these limitations as people. Yet, they are truly human in the best and most loveliest sense. Who I really, really am hopefully doesn’t make me less human, but more a human, and that humanity involves these feelings. I think that this is a human condition and not to be deplored, it is something to be experienced and is never separate from who I really, really am. Which does, in a sense, transform it, but does not abolish it. One’s stability does not abolish one’ s humanity, it doesn’t cease to be. In fact, it’s more human and it’s certainly, as such, not only imperfect but imperfectable. Affection lies in who I am not in my phenomenal Douglasness.

KP: I understand the humanness of grief and pain and all of that, but very often when these arise within me there’s an awakeness to it, and actually seeing that this is within me, the impersonal me. I’m also talking about those times when there’s a kind of unconsciousness which Gurdjieff would have called being like a robot you know just going around and not being awake and then suddenly realising that you were for 10 minutes or so, or half an hour, whatever, in a kind stupor. And I think, when one practises the seeing, this division becomes more acute, of actually knowing times when there is a wakefulness and which is very difficult perhaps to talk about, and times when you suddenly realise after the fact I’ve been going around in a robot-like fashion. But I’m asking, does this state still exist for you? Can one be alert all the time as it were?

DH: Well, this is good perennial question, always crops up, and well I’m sure you’ve heard me say this, that Ramana himself gave the key when he was asked a similar question. He said when he was asked whether he was brilliantly awake or alert all the time that sometimes it’s like the treble melody in the piece of music which you attend to; if you’re attending to that music then that’s what you attend to, not to the bass accompaniment. But if the bass accompaniment were to stop you would notice it and sometimes his experience is more in the bass accompaniment, and sometimes in the treble melody, and therefore there are rhythms of attention. And the way I put it, is this. I think practice is enormously important indispensable to keep coming back to this. Coming back to it until it’s natural to be natural. And this coming back to who one is, is only possible because one has to some extent gone away. I mean, it’s like my love for Catherine, for instance. For hours and hours, it might be the whole day when I didn’t think of Catherine it doesn’t mean that I don’t love her anymore. There’s a level in my being when I go on loving her whether I’m celebrating it and spelling it out or not. The love is going on anyway, and it’s similar with who I really, really, really am. I mean this deep, deep conviction of who I really, really, really am is not an idolatrous being hooked on all the time in being absorbed in that Reality. I think this is freedom. And one is free to play around, not in total negligence of who I am. But leaving that realisation on hold is going on at a certain level and I’m convinced that it doesn’t have to be raised to consciousness the whole time. To think that it has to be raised to full consciousness the whole time seems to me a species of idolatry.

KP: There is a kind of paradox, isn’t there, that one has to practise to be what one is naturally?

DH: Yes well you practise to really get rid of the illusion not to achieve the Reality.

KP: Yes, that is a very important point, because in the spiritual supermarket that has mushroomed over the last 20-25 years, there seems to be a constant movement to achieve some extraordinary state, and you’re directly the opposite. Would you not say that we’re really practising only to remove the illusion?

DH: That’s right. All of us are living from this. Ramana kept saying everyone’s living from this everyone’s enlightened. Everyone is firmly stationed where else could they be but in natural nature and the only difference between himself and others is that he enjoyed it and others ignored it. It’s not any different at all except in that.

KP: But you would not deny that certain disciplines, if practised arduously at great sacrifice, can lead to fairly extraordinary experiences, but they’re simply experiences, and we are over-looking the experiencer?

DH: Oh yes, indeed, and one of the traps, one of the side diversions of this whole thing, is at a certain stage to cultivate the siddhis, powers, that do come with the seeing of who one is— and they do come. And it’s different for different people. Some people get a good old helping, others don’t. But that’s one of the snags, one of the diversions, and it’s a very serious one.

KP: And perhaps because it’s simply just that, an experience no matter how extraordinary it is it’s what prompts those who have these to don some fancy clothing and set themselves up on a pedestal.

DH: I think that in some cases, yes and it is to get power over others and this is the criterion, really. I mean, am I out to get power over people? And one of the ways to doing it is to claim that one’s special and dress up in special way and put on holy airs and so forth. I think this is such a pity.

KP: Douglas, the other question I think readers would like to enquire into is the dreaming one. A lot of psychologists, and some I’m going to use the ugly word enlightened people, say that dreaming very often is simply the working out in sleep of problems that we have left unattended to during our waking hours. So symbolically, the brain is trying to bring some order to itself and most dreams, not all, are simply that and therefore, theoretically, a problem-free mind would not dream as much in sleep. What’s your response?

DH: My response is a very simple one. The mind is made up of problems. The problem-free mind is a contradiction in terms.

KP: The mind is a problem.

DH: That’s a problem. I mean, here I have mind-body, here my universe and my mind are together they really are together and they run on problems. This is a very good diagram. I have a negative, sinister hand and a positive one, and see where they are coming from here [pointing inwards] which is problem-free. But out there are all problems. I dreamt last night Catherine had to wake me up I had this vivid dream, it wasn’t a nightmare, but it was a vivid dream and Catherine had to wake me up because I disturbed her and I really had quite a dream last night. A very complicated one and I’m not a bit surprised. I mean there’s the mind having problems. And this fallacy of misplaced perfection to think you can clear up the mind, is absolutely ridiculous. The mind is like that.

But, I would say that this seeing who I really, really am I haven’t been the most wonderful practitioner but this has been my aim through the last half century a really long time and I would say that there’s no effort to be clear here it’s with me and sometimes vividly and sometimes not. But the idea that Douglas’ mind has got to be cleared out and made to function perfectly is ridiculous. But made to function better is not ridiculous, and I think it is obvious that when I live my life on the basis of a pack of lies it is not worthwhile. When I live my life on the basis of what is so and this has been my aim for the last half century it’s going to work better, and indeed I’m sure it does work better. And I can give you lots of instances of that, but that may make it sound like a kind of self congratulation, but I am quite sure this again is not reasoned out, it’s a hunch, I guess; I think it’s more than a guess, my faith that anyone who sees who she or he is, however briefly and you can’t do it wrong, either you do it or you don’t, it’s a 100 % or nothing the effect is going to be there in one’s life. It doesn’t mean that one’s humanity is perfected, but it’s somehow sweetened.

KP: Douglas, what would your response be to a situation where someone says ‘I’ve been to one of the workshops and I’ve participated in the experience and I really do see who I am, but I still need to go to a therapist’? Do you feel there’s a contradiction?

DH: No, I don’t. It depends on the nature of the problem, on why you’re going to the therapist. I mean I break my leg, I go to an orthopaedic surgeon, and if I have a phobia well there it is, this problem hopefully the therapist might be able to do something right there. But I’d say, have a go first really, really dedicate yourself to the truth of who you are and I think the chances of your needing psychotherapy are very, very small.

KP: I’d just like to share this with you, Douglas. When Shamala passed away, well the first few weeks there wasn’t too much grieving, but you know, into the second and third month, the force of it all really hit home. But not once did I ever think that I should go to a counsellor, or a grief counsellor. In fact there was just a simple watching of what was arising and to find that eventually it dissolved into this seeing. And now there is no sense of separation a sense I would call love, but yet it’s not a feeling a sense that there was never a separation in the first place. So what you said earlier on is: first give this a chance. I do think there are therapies and therapies out there, and a lot of therapists themselves are involved in the misidentification.

DH: Some of them are in a terrible mess and some of them need to be in a mess to understand others, I think.

KP: Yes, but what I’m trying to get at is that therapy could still leave you seeing only one way .

DH: I think so. Let me put it this way. Let’s agree that something is for improving, things not perfect, things not well with me entirely. Now what shall I do about it? There are two basic answers. One is to improve my functioning as a human being, and the other is to look and see whether I am in fact a human being. They are two antithetical proposals, and I go for the second, and this is a radical addressing of our problems in life. Who has the problem? Certainly a great inspiration is Ramana. For me, Ramana’s teaching can be summed up. He never said it quite like this, but I think that it’s a fair summary of his teaching: I don’t care what your problem is, the answer is to see who has it.

KP: One last question, Douglas. You are almost 87 years old. Is there the human side to what death might be like for you? Is there a human thinking about it, about dying?

DH: About dying? Yes, I’d like to have a peaceful exit, but not a painful one. I’d rather have a heart failure than cancer. I don’t think of it very much, but occasionally I do. But as for death itself I think that the answer for the problem of death is to get used to it.

KP: Just one final point about awareness being aware of itself. Sometimes the mind says that in deep sleep there was a sense of awareness being aware of itself. But sometimes it’s not there. It is going back to what you said earlier, the analogy about the treble and the bass. Do you think that death is just that, awareness being aware of itself? You obviously see that Douglas is going to cease.

DH: Yes, I mean enough is enough. I’m going to be let off being Douglas. 80 or 90 years is quite enough thank you very much. But fortunately that’s not what I am. What I am is timeless. Timelessness is enormously important. I mean, we ask what happens after death? That is a non-question. This which I really, really, really am is not a past or future thing, it is now, it is present and it is really essential to get the feel of this not as a separate exercise but coming back to who one really is. One is in the timeless. There’s no change there or no registration of time, and no time to wait and see. But it is awake for all the time things out there.

KP: I think for many of us the problem arises when the mind, which is of time, wants to somehow continue in some after-death state and says I want to be aware of my timelessness.

DH: The time and the timeless cannot be separated. The timeless needs the time world as much as the time world needs the timeless. These are the two sides of the coin and this is where Zen is so good. Nirvana [state of non-identity] and samsara [state of identity], though utterly to be distinguished, are not to be separated. They are one.

KP: What you are saying is that it is nonsense for me to want to experience timelessness.

DH: Well, I don’t think it is very helpful. Stay here and be who you are, and that simple regard embraces all the functions.

KP: We could say that when you really see that, then there is obviously no need to say I am it.

DH: No, it’s simple.

KP: Yes, it is, but I think we’ve got it all wrong when we start saying: well I am capacity, I am this, I’m that.

DH: Well, I think one has to talk in those terms, especially when sharing. I don’t go around saying I’m this. It’s simpler than that. But we have to distinguish in our everyday life whether we see this, which is so simple. When I do a workshop I simply have to use that kind of language; I am timeless, I am capacity, I am the void, and so forth. And this is because we are in the sharing of this, and in the explanation of the experiments we do have to use language which is largely in the interests of communication.

KP: On the matter of death, would you not say and I think you alluded to this in your book The Little Book of Life and Death that where there is still a strong identification with the face in the mirror, the personality, there might be some kind of continuity of that for a little while?

DH: I think empirically this is well documented. I mean these stories of ghosts hanging around at the scene of the crime I think these things do occur. I don’t see why, I mean I don’t understand it, or I don’t see why old Douglas if he wished if he had some terrible un-resolved problems or committed murder or was himself murdered and something needed to be cleared up should be around this place being a nuisance to people. I suppose the miracle of Being is so astonishing that I don’t rule out anything; anything is possible. Also, the ideas that I understand. I don’t understand a word of it really. I’m full of wonder. I would say a few things very simple things and very ordinary, everyday things seem to me the deepest things I know. And it’s not the wonderful, spiritual, conceptual stuff the lovely words and the transcendental language but the ordinary things which teach us something. All these things I enjoy so much because it’s so ordinary, common and sharable, and the highfalutin, conceptual, spiritual world seems to miss this. It goes off the point. It’s cuckoo land, largely.

KP: You could say that the so-called spiritual journey is to understand that there is no journey.

DH: Really! Or come home and discover the fact you were there all the time!

KP: Douglas, thank you.

28 March 1996

Books by Douglas Harding

1974. The Science of the First Person. Nacton, Ipswich: Shollond Publications. 

1979. The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth - A New Diagram of Man in the Universe. Gainseville: Florida University. 

1986. The Little Book of Life and Death. London: Penguin Arkana. 

1988. On Having No Head - Zen and the rediscovery of the obvious. London: Penguin Arkana. 

1990. Head Off Stress. London: Penguin Arkana.

1992. The Trial of the Man who said He was God. London: Penguin Arkana.

1996. Look For Yourself. London: Head Exchange Press.

1996. The Spectre in the Lake - A Modern Pilgrim's Progress. London: Head Exchange Press.

Lang, D. (ed.). 2000. Face to No-Face. Carlsbad, California: Inner Directions Publishing.

Chapter on Douglas Harding

Bancroft, A. 1976. Twentieth-Century Mystics and Sages. London: Penguin Arkana.

Journal Inspired by the Seeing Experiments of Douglas Harding

The Headless Way - International Journal for Celebrating & Sharing Who We Really Are Published by: Head Exchange Press, 87 B Cazenove Rd, London, N16 6BB. website: www.headless.org

To repeat our initial question, then: where do we go now? The answer nowhere. Let us resolutely stay right here, seeing and being This which is Obviousness itself, and take the consequences. They will be all right.
On Having No Head
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