Harding and Whitman
This article is an extract from Krishna, Whitman, Nietzsche, Sartre (KWNS), published in The Headless Way, Spring 2000, No. 21. The full chapter is at Whitman Part Four.
mike king >> writings >> Krishna, Whitman, Nietzsche, Sartre
expansiveness is so unique that he illuminates Jefferies and Krishnamurti
rather than the other way round; this means that we have to look at
a complementary teaching to shed light on him, and to do this
I have chosen the work of Douglas Harding. He is a retired English architect
and physically reminiscent of Whitman, both in appearance and in his
manner of engagement with his eleves. His teachings, which are
as explicit, direct, and persuasive, as Whitman's are elusive, subtle
and indirect, can leave much the same impact on one. Any reader who
has come across Harding's books may be baffled that I should find a
connection between them and the work and life of Whitman, especially
as Whitman more than any represents the via positiva, and Douglas
an exponent of via negativa (though not entirely). Whitman's
clear-cut distinction between body and soul is common to both men, but
Whitman immediately refutes any hierarchy between them and welds the
two together: Harding rends them asunder and makes it clear to us where
his home is: not with the mortal part. Both tell us however that they,
and by extension any one of us, are not what they seem to be: Harding
has an up-front anatomy of this, almost a science, whereas Whitman uses
poetry and indirection to merely hint at it. Harding was trained as
an architect (and has lived for many years in a house of his own design),
and it is typical of the architect, who, as an artist that has to deal
with obdurate physicality in all its aspects, from the sculptural to
the engineering to the provision of sewerage and running water, is temperamentally
inclined to be the mechanic of the soul.
What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animalhood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough, and what I found was 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 a head.
It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been, was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.
It was all, quite literally, breathtaking. I seemed to stop breathing altogether, absorbed in the Given. Here it was, this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void, and (and this was the real miracle, the wonder and delight) utterly free of "me", unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence, body and soul. Lighter than air, clearer than glass, altogether released from myself, I was nowhere around.
Yet in spite of the magical and uncanny quality of this vision, it was no dream, no esoteric revelation. Quite the reverse: it felt like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, an end to dreaming. It was self-luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind. It was the revelation, at long last, of the perfectly obvious. It was a lucid moment in a confused life-history. It was a ceasing to ignore something which (since early childhood at any rate) I had always been too busy or too clever to see. It was naked, uncritical attention to what had all along been staring me in the face my utter facelessness. In short, it was all perfectly simple and plain and straightforward, beyond argument, thought, and words. There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden. 
We notice in this passage a similarity to the descriptions given by Ramakrishna, Ramana Maharshi, Krishnamurti, and Rajneesh of a moment when thought ceases and the infinite and eternal takes hold. What is unusual in Harding's expression of it is headlessness. His temperament and means of expression have an affinity with the 'sudden' enlightenment of Zen, and in the early days of his teaching he was promoted by Buddhist groups (the first edition of On Having No Head was published by the Buddhist Society in Eccleston Square). He was too radical for most of them however, provoking this comment: "The talks and study groups [at a Buddhist summer school] run from Therevada to Zen, through Zoroastrianism and Vedanta, to a sort of bizarre synthesis of ancient and modern teachings, whose pundit encourages his disciples to spend substantial periods of time with paper bags over their heads."  This is an obvious reference to Harding's paper bag experiment, outlined below, and perhaps typical of how he is misunderstood (he has never suggested spending more than five or ten minutes on the paper bag experiment). In fact all kinds of religious organisations invite Harding to give his unique workshops all over the world (which, at the time of writing, he still does in his mid-eighties), including Ramana Maharshi groups. Harding's affinity with Maharshi lie in the emphasis on establishing or even merely 'noticing' one's true identity; he says of his experience in India quoted above that it had not been the result of any formal meditation or practice, but with a preoccupation with the question of his own identity. Harding cites both the Buddha and Maharshi in the following passage:
The Buddha's description of Nirvana, in the Pali Canon, as "visible in this life, inviting, attractive, accessible," is clearly true and makes perfect sense. So does Master Ummon's statement that the first step along the Zen Path is to see into our Void Nature: getting rid of our bad karma comes after not before that seeing. So does Ramana Maharshi's insistence that it is easier to see What and Who we really are than to see "a gooseberry in the palm of our hand" as so often, this Hindu sage confirms Zen teaching. All of which means there are no preconditions for this essential in-seeing. To oneself one's Nature is forever clearly displayed, and it's amazing how one could ever pretend otherwise. It's available now, just as one is, and doesn't require the seer to be holy, or learned, or clever, or special in any way. Rather the reverse! What a superb advantage and opportunity this is! 
Krishna who revealed his infinite nature to Arjuna in order to persuade
Arjuna to contemplate the imperishable, Douglas helps one see one's
own infinite in a more direct and repeatable way. As I have already
mentioned, the infinite nature of another person is of no value, according
to Douglas, nor is any kind of devotion to the infinite in another of
any value. His technique involves a series of 'experiments' with all
the exhortations to scientific rigour that the word implies, though
they are based on the consensus of the first person, unlike conventional
science which is based on the consensus of the third person.
Now the "hard" part begins, which is the repetition of this headless seeing-into Nothingness till the seeing becomes quite natural and nothing special at all; till, whatever one is doing, it's clear that nobody's here doing it. In other words, till one's whole life is structured round the double-barbed arrow of attention, simultaneously pointing in at the Void and out at what fills it. Such is the essential meditation of this Way. It is meditation for the market-pace, in fact for every circumstance and mood, but it may usefully be supplemented by regular periods of more formal meditation for example, a daily sitting in a quiet place enjoying exactly the same seeing, either alone or (better) with friends.
Here, in fact, is a meditation which doesn't threaten to divide our day into two incompatible parts a time of withdrawal and quiet recollection, and a time of self-forgetful immersion in the world's turmoil. On the contrary, the whole day comes to have the same feel, a steady quality throughout. Whatever we have to do or take or suffer can thus be turned to our immediate advantage: it provides just the right opportunity to notice Who is involved. (To be precise, absolutely involved yet absolutely uninvolved.) In short, of all forms of meditation this is among the least contrived and obtrusive, and (given time to mature) the most natural and practical. And amusing too: it's as if one's featureless Original Face wore a smile like that of the disappearing Cheshire Cat! 
I have suggested that, in contrast to Whitman, Harding is offering via negativa, that is a focus on the Void as opposed to the Whole of its contents. I believe that the emphasis on headlessness, the Space, the Void or whatever we call it is inevitable in teaching because of our unfamiliarity with it; as Harding comments somewhere the Upanishads pointed out some three thousand years ago that our senses point out to the world and it takes an effort to direct them back at the Perceiver. However, Harding does not wish us to wallow in our superb nothingness either. In Head Off Stress he advocates an identification with both the nothing and the everything as the cure for the modern affliction of stress:
Two escape routes lie open to you. The first is to become so small, so empty, so exclusive that there's nothing to you, nothing to be got at, nothing to act upon or react. The second is the opposite of this. It is to become so big, so full, so inclusive that there remains nothing outside you to get at you, nothing to pressurize you or to influence you at all, nothing left for you to react to.
Let's put it differently. Particular things are stressed. If you were no thing you would be stress-free. Conversely, if you were all things you would, again, be stress-free. And if, by great good luck, you were both if you were at once no thing and all things why then you would be doubly stress-free, free beyond all doubt. This way, you would avoid being one of those unlucky intermediate things things which are neither empty enough nor full enough to be free from stress. You would avoid falling between the two stools of total emptiness and total fullness, by sitting firmly on both stools at the same time. As nothing and everything you would be sitting pretty. You would be safe as well as comfortable. You would have arrived at our goal. You would already be established in the promised Land of No Stress, no matter how long it took you to feel at home and to get acclimatized.
Well, I say you are sitting pretty, you are as lucky as that! 
clearly shows Harding's balanced view that both the manifest and the
unmanifest have to be embraced; Whitman has no terminology for the unmanifest,
so it looks like he sits on only one of Harding's stools. Nevertheless,
Harding's work is primarily via negativa, and so complements
Whitman (it also provides for an analysis of modern man's alienation
which Whitman could observe but not comment on). We could also consider
that the impulse or intuition towards one or other of these stools is
shown in misguided forms, for example the person who seeks enormous
wealth or power is attempting to become everything, while the vagabond,
tramp, or beggar attempts to become nothing. Other factors play a part
in these extremes of course, but it should be recognised that something
deeper is going on with the millionaire and vagabond than just good
fortune or bad fortune.
This is what is signified by the words Ana'L Haqq, "I am God". People imagine that this is a presumptuous claim, whereas it is really a presumptuous claim to say "Ana'L Abd", " I am the slave of God"; and Ana'l Haqq, "I am God", is the expression of great humility. The man who says Ana'L Abd, "I am the slave of God" affirms two existences, his own and God's, but he who says Ana'L Haqq, "I am God", says "I am naught, He is all; there is nothing but God". Rumi finds this "the extreme of humility and self-abasement". 
is also a frightening idea because of the 'alone' part of its Latin
root, present in the modern meaning of the word as an implied refusal
to recognise others. In Harding's work this appears as an asymmetry:
at the near end of the bag there is something (a nothing actually) quite
different from what is seen at the far end of the bag - a reassuringly
familiar face, even if it is of a stranger. Douglas finds that he is
'gone'; the universe is just 'built' this way, but also finds love in
it. It is love of course that removes the sting of this uniqueness and
loss of similarity with one's fellows: as one begins to identify with
the 'space' for all things and see one's fellows as content of the space
love restores to them their familiarity, or better makes them for the
first time truly loveable. Edgar Cacey said that we meet only ourselves:
how can one fail to love these manifestations of our true self?
return to Whitman and his Leaves of Grass. Where Leaves
matches the Gita is in the expansiveness of it; Krishna's long
recitation of the phenomenon of the natural world and his underpinning
of them, find its counterpart in Whitman's inclusivity. Whitman simply
keeps stating that he is this and he is that: just to bring something
into his orbit is for Whitman to become it. There are similarities
with the Tao Te Ching, as Carpenter pointed out; which
is a quiet thing that also insinuates itself into your soul, quite unlike
the drama and passion of the Gita. Both Lao Tzu and Whitman strike
me as speaking of life after enlightenment, rather than the path
to it, as in most Hindu and Buddhist texts. But Leaves is as
different from the Gita as it is from the Tao; it has
little history (in the West at least) of being read intentionally as
a religious text. With the Gita we have to work hard to subtract
out the religious and the cultural, but with Leaves Whitman does
not inadvertently obscure his message with the religious language of
his time; instead he deliberately obscures it through poetical device.
Once we know this Leaves can be read, as we have done, as a text
in Pure Consciousness Mysticism. We still are left with one cultural
influence on his work: Leaves is indisputably American, representing
probably all that is best in the truly American impulse: expansive,
generous, brash. It nods in respect to its European roots, but moves
on, in contrast to Nietzsche, for example, who attempts to shoulder
the crushing burden of Europe's decay.
 Harding, D.E. On Having No Head - Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious, London: Arkana, 1986, p. 1; also in Hofstadter, Douglas, and Dennett, Daniel (Eds.) The Mind's I, Penguin Books, Middlesex, England, 1981, pp. 23 - 24.
 Sangharakshita (Dennis Lingwood), The Taste of Freedom, Glasgow: Windhorse Publications, 1990, p. 9
 Harding, D.E. On Having No Head - Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious, London: Arkana, 1986, p. 43
 Harding, D.E. The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth, Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1979
 Harding, D.E. On Having No Head - Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious, London: Arkana, 1986, p. 50
 Harding, D.E. Head Off Stress - Beyond the Bottom Line, London: Arkana, 1990, p. 6
 Nambiar, O.K. Maha Yogi: Walt Whitman - New Light on Yoga, Bangalore: Jeevan Publications, 1978, p. 248
mike king >> writings >> Krishna, Whitman, Nietzsche, Sartre