This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: July, 2016


Last Sunday evening I returned home from Look for Yourself, “a residential workshop to explore the headless way in every day life and how to explore it” (1).

The workshop was four days long. It brought together some 50 people, with varied levels of experience, who practise the headless way. The note was one of experiment and celebration. The facilitation was excellent.

This was my first experience of working in community in this way, and I am immensely grateful for it. Sharing my experience, and exploring its meaning with others dedicated to the same practice, provides a reference point and resource for my everyday life.

In this tradition, ‘Seeing’, being a ‘Seer’, involves an initial surrender to naivety and seeing through the eye of the infant. Pointing away from myself, I see light, colour, form. Pointing in, where others see my face, I see nothing – and light, colour and form fill the space and sit on my shoulders. I discover myself as clear, awake space – and capacity for the world. Ultimately, I AM the nothing, which contains everything.

Seeing is a valley experience. Although I feel open and inclined to be friendly, I do not experience bliss or euphoria. I do not feel that I know everything or have gained special abilities. Seeing is just what it is, with a certain understanding. It is reliable, repeatable and doesn’t go away.

When I move into Seeing in my morning practice at home, it feels like a sacrament rather than a meditation. I have even evolved a brief liturgy for when I move out of the formal practice – imagining Sophia both as Wisdom and as Love:

Wisdom says I am nothing; Love says I am everything.

In the silent stillness of Seeing, I AM.

In the cosmic web of creation, i become.

It acts as a reminder that I have learned how to open the gates of Heaven gently, from within, understanding my true nature. James no longer has to look for ways of getting them to open from the outside – whether through humble prayer or siege by meditation.

Most of the time i am James, timebound in 3D reality, and i like this, enjoy it indeed: the task and privilege of a human is to live a human life. However Seeing involves being able to distinguish the i of James and the I of Awareness (the little one and the big one as we would say in the workshop). In Seeing, we take the goal as the path. We begin our exploration of the mountain from the top. Part of the work, then, is to refine our understanding of the experience and of an I/i, One/many cosmos (where these identities are distinct but not separate). The rest of the work is to maintain access to the experience and connection with its meaning. We can then learn to live our human lives out of it.

As I see it now, Seeing is our awakening. The headless way offers a minimalist yet subtle teaching, without any prescribed path or normative ethics. It also provides a loose-knit yet strong seeming community. The form of contemplation is the simplest possible – just Seeing: the simplest, yet also the most profound.







This post, the last in a series on practising contemplative inquiry, concerns interpretation. Previous posts covered values and methods.

In my post about values (1) I introduced ‘delicate empiricism’, an idea that goes back to Goethe and which I see as very Sophian. Arthur Zajonc recommends this idea to us by reflecting that “we have precious little information that bears directly on the true nature of reality. Data and theories are bound to experience, so we cannot say what reality is ‘in itself’, but only how it appears to us” (2).  Such a view invites us to “set aside all notions of a real world beyond experience and stay with experience itself. We cultivate an attitude that values phenomena of all types”. We simply give space for experiences to unfold and “resist the tendency to explain them away as merely brain oscillations, or to imagine them as the visitation of angelic presences. Neither view is admitted. We stay with them, allowing them their time and place in our attention”.

When I do exercises from the Headless Way (3), I enter into a state in which I experience myself as ‘clear awake space, and capacity for the world’. I explore this state both as an experience and as a resource. Douglas Harding speaks with certainty that “this Clarity I see here and now (with or without the aid of this in-pointing finger) is that of each of my constituent cells, molecules, atoms, particles, as well as of my planet, star and galaxy and universe, no less than it is Douglas Edward Harding’s. As this Clarity or Void, I embrace this hierarchy throughout time, and I AM the Timeless and Changeless Origin and Centre of all those timeful and changing things. Not just his brain, but every part of him is born and dies. I do neither.” (4)  I do not share the certainty that being ‘clear awake space’ fills a God sized hole that is also my ultimate identity. I know that this is the view of many non-dualist traditions. I entertain the possibility. At times I work ‘as if’ it were true, to get a sense of a life lived from such an understanding, and the difference it makes. Yet I remember that this story is not the state itself. Delicate empiricism finds strength and value in unknowing, gently contradicting any desire for closure, or for refuge in belief.

Sam Harris makes the opposite interpretive error, in my view. Harris is one of the “Four Horsemen of the Non Apocalypse” (5) linked to the emergence of the anti-theistic New Atheism of a decade ago. (The others are Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett.) He rightly says, “there is experience, and then there are the stories we tell”. But he then goes on to assert: “these stories come to us bundled with ancient confusion and perennial lies … altered states of consciousness are empirical facts, and human beings experience them under a wide range of conditions. To understand this and to seek to live a spiritual life without deluding ourselves, we must view these experiences in universal and secular terms” (6). Harris values meditative states both as a practitioner and a neuroscientist. He describes Harding’s account of ‘Headlessness’ very respectfully as that of a “contemplative who, to the eye of anyone familiar with the experience of self-transcendence, has described it in a manner approaching perfect clarity”. But Harris will not entertain Harding’s further step. He dismisses the possibility that “a person can realize their identity with the One Mind that gave birth to the cosmos” as a New Age delusion. He shuts the subject down.

Harding and Harris would both claim the mantle of empiricism in their approach to spiritual inquiry. Both are willing to learn from ancient traditions, whilst seeking to update them with science based understandings and a scientific approach towards spiritual insight. But in each case there seems to be a point where they fail to recognize their own ‘story’ (in Harris’s case an anti-story) and fall all the more heavily into its trance. For me this perfectly illustrates the value of a more tentative, delicate empiricism to contemplative inquiry.





This post is about meditation, and looks at three approaches to meditation supportive of contemplative inquiry. The first is that of the Headless Way, the second is Sophian meditation, and the third is a form of breath awareness meditation.

The Headless Way

 I have been working with the Headless Way – a path devised by the late Douglas Harding (1) – for 3 months, having started at the end of March. I include a ‘headless’ exercise in my morning practice on completion of my chakra work and in my understanding the experience is that of the 7th chakra, an empty awareness holding all the others. It begins with pointing first outwards and then inwards at our own heads, and then coming up with a literal description of what we actually see. On doing this for the first time, I wrote: “Looking out – curtains, folds, blueness; Looking at body – arm, flesh, patterning; Looking in – nothing but space and the ‘external’ impressions that fill it. An odd sense of relief, building to lightness and joy”. Later I talked of “space instead of head, never moving, always now” and how “world and sky rested on shoulders”. This experience, “seeing through the eye of Spirit”, as I called it quite early in the piece, tended not to last long in linear time in the early days, but “I experienced an extended afterglow in which a warmth and radiance of being continued”.

I find that, as Douglas Harding said, “the initial seeing gives the ability to renew it. Since the Absence of things here is as plainly visible and as coolly factual as their presence there, the seeing of this Absence is available any time, at will”. Not dependent on ideas or feelings, it is a contemplative path without the trappings of mysticism, available “at least as much” in the market place as in the meditation hall. Now I am familiar with it, I probably wouldn’t say “seeing through the eye of Spirit”, and some of the glow has gone. But regular practice has given me a reliable method of establishing a habit of conscious 1st personhood as “No-thingness here”. The work now is to maintain this perspective whilst giving full honour to my embodied every day self – the life of the other six chakras.

Breath meditation

 I still have a role for breath based meditation, and I like the version I alluded to in a January 2016 (2) post reviewing Russel Williams’ Not I, Not Other Than I (3). Here are his instructions, followed by my comments:

“Feel down here, a little bit above the navel you’ll find the right place. Centre yourself there, in feeling. Observe your breathing, in the sense of the expansion and contraction of the outer part of the body, as if it were a balloon …” From here we are guided to notice the calming and peaceful effects of this “gentle movement, this comfortable gentle movement … absence of agitation, peacefulness … a kind of heartfelt warmth of feeling … it feels homely, as though you belong there … And as though it were a light”.  We then move outwards from the “balloon” to include the whole physical body and then go beyond it. “It reaches out in all directions … and begins to feel at home with all its surroundings, whether it be animate or inanimate … of the same nature” …. And so on into silence for a few minutes. At the end of the meditation the practitioner is asked to draw back into the “very centre”, making sure it is “still peaceful and warm” before returning to normal consciousness.

“What I learned from this was the flavour of ‘sense-feeling’, a specifically located warmth, a sense of quiet movement, qualities of gentleness and peace. Nurturing is another favourite Williams word. These qualities fill the body-mind and move beyond it, filling emptiness, engendering loving-kindness. In a group meditation, Williams reports that they can create a deep rapport and subtle meeting place between participants. The aim is to develop “such gentle perception that you could compare it to a finger, soft and warm, touching a snow flake, but so delicate that the flake doesn’t melt”. From there, we can begin to see into the nature of things, becoming aware of a different reality, expanding into it until we become “boundless”. This is achieved not by any great effort, but by simply letting go.”

Whereas Headless Way seeing is best done standing up, this meditation is for sitting or reclining. However, in the reclining position, especially on a bed, I am liable to go to sleep. The quality of sleep is deep and refreshing, and I like it. But the posture is undoubtedly problematic for the more earnest and goal-oriented meditator. For me, the Headless approach is linked more strongly to inquiry, so the relaxation offered here is absolutely fine.

Sophian Meditation

I gave an example of Sophia meditation in my Re-dedication post in May (4). I wrote: “I open my heart to the wisdom of Sophia and gaze at my icon”, then going into reflective mode about recent contemplative work in the Druid community. On completing this period of reflection, I went deeper, saying: “I close my eyes and slip into Sophia’s Innerworld nemeton, which takes the form of a walled garden”.

I do this mediation sitting, and despite closing my eyes I do not find myself going to sleep. The basic setting doesn’t vary much. It is a familiar and well-worked Innerworld space. “At the centre is a fountain surrounded by four rose beds separated by run-offs. Two of the beds hold white roses, and two hold red. There are seats around the fountain, big enough for two people, on all four sides. The rest of the garden is more of an orchard with many kinds of fruit tree, including some trained up the garden walls. These walls are brick, and have an eighteenth century feel.  The orchard isn’t over-manicured. It might indeed be described as slightly unkempt, though not with any sense of neglect.”

Specific characteristics vary a lot, and much of the communication available to me here is through the variances in setting, or how Sophia presents herself, rather than through actual dialogue.  When I visit this garden, the Sophia of the icon may sit opposite or beside me. But she may also take different forms – a dove, a rose, a tree, the fountain itself. She may be another bird or creature that turns up in the space. She may be sunlight in a drop of water. I may also experience her as all of it, so that goddess and nemeton are one. She is always a friend and guide. In my re-dedication piece, I went on the describe the specific circumstances of the day:

“This time she is in her icon form, though the dove is in a tree and the chalice by her side as she sits opposite me, in the late May dawn, east facing west. I go into my headless state and know that the same is true of her. But the context (the Innerworld, in this garden, with Sophia) changes the state, making it more intimate, relational and local. I like it. In my heart, I have more care about the particularities, indeed vagaries, of the writing than the pristine emptiness of the paper that holds them, though both perspectives matter and they do belong together. If form is nothing but emptiness, and emptiness nothing but form, then what we always have is paper being written on, and it is the story writing itself that mostly draws a storying monkey like me.

“As this thought, within my living dream of the garden, passes through, Sophia comes to sit beside me. We are simply companionable, watching the fountain, as the clear fresh water bubbles up. It is from an inexhaustible spring. In this archetypal garden setting, Sophia renews an eternal pledge – that wisdom’s commitment is to extend and transmute knowledge, and not to repress it. And in this moment the garden, the fountain and Sophia begin to fade …”

Next Post

The final post in this series will be about questions of interpretation in contemplative inquiry.

 (1)  Http://


(3) Russel Williams Not I, not other than I: the life and spiritual teachings of Russel Williams Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: O Books, 2015 (Edited by Steve Taylor)