Spring/Summer 1996




Kriben Pillay

Kriben Pillay : Douglas, the objective of this interview is to pick your brains as it were Ė 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 Ė which you admit to in your book On Having No Head Ė 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 Ė and I shall ask you about this later in the interview Ė is that of the enlightened person who does not dream, who has a dreamless sleep, virtually constantly, or perhaps doesnít 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 thatís the thrust of my interview with you today.

What does it feel like to be Douglas Harding, given all that youíve written and spoken about in a very direct way? If the ordinary ĎJoe on the streetí says, Ďwell, okay, Iíve turned around 180ļ and I see who I really am Ė so what?í

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 isnít, at least Iím not, avoiding that identification, connection, expression at all. On the contrary, particularly lately, Iíve 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 Ė particularly I suppose as revealed through his face, voice and behaviour, face particularly Ė 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 Ė this is unique and this is very important Ė 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 thatís needed to complete the total picture, and so that is enormously important. But if itís only that, if thatís the whole story, then that, however valuable, however inspiring, is eventually the road to hell. Why is it the road to hell? Because itís 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 Ė who I really, really, really am Ė 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 Iím in deep trouble. To go for the phenomenal Douglas in all his Douglasness alone, which is what we normally do after all Ė this ego trip which lasts a lifetime Ė 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 Ė that is not separating them functionally; but certainly, I mean they come totally together, their function is totally different and theyíre different aspects of who I really, really, really am Ė each of which is complimentary to the other. About the dreaming thing, do you want me to answer that now or later?

KP: Iíll 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 Ė Ďlisten, for me I come to Douglas Hardingís workshops and I have an experience of turning around at 180ļ and seeing into the void, and for some people it can be very transformative, but I go home and Iím beset with all my worldly problems and chores and what have you, and surely youíre not saying that this is exactly how it is for you, Douglas Harding?í 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 oneís sense of self. Iím either going to experience some pain in the future which Iím trying to avoid now, or Iím 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 donít use the word enlightened anymore; itís a buzz word, itís a word which is a very, very tricky one, and I donít say Iím enlightened and youíre endarkened. I do not say that. In fact, I donít feel that way. I donít 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 donít think Ďyou donít see what I doí. It is the last thing I think and I swear that it is my experience and you see Ė the way I think of other people vis-ŗ-vis myself Ė 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 couldnít do otherwise. And if they wish Ė and certainly most people wish to overlook this fact or to ignore this fact; of what theyíre looking out of, of who they really, really, really are Ė it doesnít prevent them living in that place, and so one cannot feel enlightened or superior to them at all. Itís just that I happen to be interested in observing what Iím looking out of, interested in making this 180ļ u-turn to be awake, not only to the object as object, but to the subject as object. In fact, Iím 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, Iíve read all the books about Ramana Ė Iíve never met him Ė and I think he says a lot of things Ė some which donít mean much to me, it seems to be more part of that culture Ė but one of the things he does say in places is that you donít have to do anything to see who you really are, you donít 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. Itís absolutely obvious, and you say, well does that stop your thinking, Douglas? Well, not really, because itís 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 whoís alleged to be thinking, but there is a sense Ė and a very, very important sense Ė 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 thereís no thinking. Seeing who I really, really am is not thinking, itís not a conceptual experience, itís more like a perceptóbut an absolutely direct experience of whatís 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 Ė I mean I recognise it Ė 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. Thatís what the world is like. Now here itís not like that. This which is containing that thought-full stuff is not of the same order Ė this is not a thinking thing at all, but pure, pure simple being. That being Ė I call it perception Ė but that could be misleading of the direct realisation of the thought-free one here. The idea Ė and a lot of people have said this, but I donít care, Iím saying it and Iím being my own authority here Ė 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 Ė but this is thought-free.

KP: But wouldnít you say Douglas, that having realised this, there is less pre-occupation with oneís petty concerns? Compared to the person who actually sees this, the average person goes around totally identified with everyday thinking.

DH: Well, theyíre missing a very, very great deal. I mean, I wouldnít devote my life to sharing this if I didnít think of it as enormously valuable. I mean there is something enormously to be gained by seeing who we are, but it doesnít enable me to despise other people or look upon them as unenlightened.

KP: Yes, I get that point. What Iím 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 Ė Ďmy car is not working, Iíve got to fix it, what am I going to do about it, why is it happening to meí Ė and it goes on and on?

DH: I know. I think heís just immersed in this world and he has no escape. Not escape Ė itís the wrong word Ė he has no peace, no stillness at his centre. He imagines he hasnít Ė because he is Ė 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 Ė everyone of us is doing it right, but he is not cashing it. Itís like having a million pounds in the bank and thinking you are a pauper Ė 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 Ö

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

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

DH: Yes, thatís right Ė 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 Ė 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, youíre just being carried along by this and afterwards you realise Ė 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 Ė 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 doesnít 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. Oneís stability does not abolish oneí s humanity, it doesnít cease to be. In fact, itís more human and itís 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 thereís an awakeness to it, and actually seeing that this is within me, the impersonal me. Iím also talking about those times when thereís a kind of unconsciousness which Gurdjieff would have called being like a robot Ė you know just going around and not being awake Ė 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 Ė Iíve been going around in a robot-like fashion. But Iím 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 Iím sure youíve heard me say this, that Ramana himself gave the key when he was asked a similar question. He said Ė when he was asked whether he was brilliantly awake or alert all the time Ė that sometimes itís like the treble melody in the piece of music which you attend to; if youíre attending to that music then thatís what you attend to, not to the bass accompaniment. But if the bass accompaniment were to stop you would notice it Ė 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 Ė indispensable to keep coming back to this. Coming back to it until itís 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, itís like my love for Catherine, for instance. For hours and hours, it might be the whole day when I didnít think of Catherine Ė it doesnít mean that I donít love her anymore. Thereís a level in my being when I go on loving her whether Iím celebrating it and spelling it out or not. The love is going on anyway, and itís 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 Iím convinced that it doesnít 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, isnít there, that one has to practise to be what one is naturally?

DH: Yes Ė well you practise to really get rid of the illusion Ė 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 youíre directly the opposite. Would you not say that weíre really practising only to remove the illusion?

DH: Thatís right. All of us are living from this. Ramana kept saying everyoneís living from this Ė everyoneís enlightened. Everyone is firmly stationed Ė where else could they be but in natural nature Ė and the only difference between himself and others is that he enjoyed it and others ignored it. Itís not any different at all Ė 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 theyíre 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 isó and they do come. And itís different for different people. Some people get a good old helping, others donít. But thatís one of the snags, one of the diversions, and itís a very serious one.

KP: And perhaps because itís simply just that, an experience Ė no matter how extraordinary it is Ė itís 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 Ė 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 oneís 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 Ė Iím going to use the ugly word Ė 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 Ė and most dreams, not all, are simply that Ė and therefore, theoretically, a problem-free mind would not dream as much in sleep. Whatís 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: Thatís a problem. I mean, here I have mind-body, here my universe and my mind are together Ė 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 Ė Catherine had to wake me up Ė I had this vivid dream, it wasnít a nightmare, but it was a vivid dream and Catherine had to wake me up because I disturbed her Ė and I really had quite a dream last night. A very complicated one and Iím not a bit surprised. I mean thereís 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 Ė I havenít been the most wonderful practitioner Ė but this has been my aim through the last half century Ė a really long time Ė and I would say that thereís no effort to be clear here Ė itís with me and sometimes vividly and sometimes not. But the idea that Douglasí 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 Ė and this has been my aim for the last half century Ė itís going to work better, and indeed Iím 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 Ė this again is not reasoned out, itís a hunch, I guess; I think itís more than a guess, my faith Ė that anyone who sees who she or he is, however briefly Ė and you canít do it wrong, either you do it or you donít, itís a 100 % or nothing Ė the effect is going to be there in oneís life. It doesnít mean that oneís humanity is perfected, but itís somehow sweetened.

KP: Douglas, what would your response be to a situation where someone says Ė ĎIíve been to one of the workshops and Iíve participated in the experience and I really do see who I am, but I still need to go to a therapistí? Do you feel thereís a contradiction?

DH: No, I donít. It depends on the nature of the problem, on why youíre going to the therapist. I mean I break my leg, I go to an orthopaedic surgeon, and if I have a phobia Ė well there it is, this problem Ė hopefully the therapist might be able to do something right there. But Iíd say, have a go first Ė really, really dedicate yourself to the truth of who you are Ė and I think the chances of your needing psychotherapy are very, very small.

KP: Iíd just like to share this with you, Douglas. When Shamala passed away, well the first few weeks there wasnít 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 Ė and to find that eventually it dissolved into this seeing. And now there is no sense of separation Ė a sense I would call love, but yet itís not a feeling Ė 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 Ė and some of them need to be in a mess to understand others, I think.

KP: Yes, but what Iím 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. Letís 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, Ramanaís teaching can be summed up. He never said it quite like this, but I think that itís a fair summary of his teaching: I donít 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, Iíd like to have a peaceful exit, but not a painful one. Iíd rather have a heart failure than cancer. I donít think of it very much, but occasionally I do. But as for death itself Ė 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 itís 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. Iím going to be let off being Douglas. 80 or 90 years is quite enough Ė thank you very much. But fortunately thatís 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 Ė not as a separate exercise Ė but coming back to who one really is. One is in the timeless. Thereís 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 donít 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, itís simple.

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

DH: Well, I think one has to talk in those terms, especially when sharing. I donít go around saying Iím this. Itís 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 Ė and I think you alluded to this in your book The Little Book of Life and Death Ė 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 Ė I think these things do occur. I donít see why, I mean I donít understand it, or I donít see why old Douglas if he wished Ė if he had some terrible un-resolved problems or committed murder or was himself murdered and something needed to be cleared up Ė should be around this place being a nuisance to people. I suppose the miracle of Being is so astonishing that I donít rule out anything; anything is possible. Also, the ideas that I understand. I donít understand a word of it really. Iím full of wonder. I would say a few things Ė very simple things and very ordinary, everyday things Ė seem to me the deepest things I know. And itís not the wonderful, spiritual, conceptual stuff Ė the lovely words and the transcendental language Ė but the ordinary things which teach us something. All these things I enjoy so much because itís so ordinary, common and sharable, and the highfalutin, conceptual, spiritual world seems to miss this. It goes off the point. Itís 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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