“Let go of emptiness and come back to the brambly forest. Riding backwards on the ox, drunken and singing, who could dislike the misty rain pattering on your bamboo raincoat and hat.” Chan Master Hongzhi.
Recently I came across Susan Blackmore’s Zen and the Art of Consciousness (1). Blackmore, though not a Buddhist, works experientially within the Chan tradition (Chan being a Taoist influenced form of Chinese Buddhism, and the precursor of Japanese Zen). It’s how she does her first-person, subjective lifeworld inquiry into consciousness, which she also studies as a cognitive scientist. The book shows her working through ten questions, starting with: ‘Am I conscious now’?
Question 3 is ‘Who is asking the question? Here she brings in Douglas Harding of the Headless Way* and uses some of his experiments. I worked with these last year. I didn’t maintain an ongoing connection with the Headless family for long, mostly because of Harding’s tilt towards self-identification with/as the One cosmic consciousness, as the means dis-identification from ‘self’ at the human level. I’ve discovered that I can’t align myself with it. I don’t want to be God. Yet the ‘headless’ experience and its value have stayed with me. After completing my first Headless Way* pointing experiment, I reported: “pointing out – ‘curtains, folds, blueness, a crack showing light. Right arm. Flesh, tattoos, patterning. Pointing in: nothing: a relief, really, and a joy.” As that work continued, the joy only grew when the exterior view rushed in to fill the space. I say ‘view’ rather than ‘world’ because the world I perceive is a co-creation of the (presumed) outside world and my own (presumed) senses. A bat would have a completely different experience. Still, there was a sense of ‘everything’ filling my nothing at the centre.
Blackmore’s version is this. She describes meditating and looking towards a flower bed. “I paid open attention to everything I could see and hear, and in the space at the top of my shoulders I found no head, only forget-me-nots. I looked for the self who was looking at the forget-me-nots, and simply became them. It was very simple; very obvious”. Blackmore’s subsequent understanding – “what I see is what I am’ – does not as I read it make ‘I am God’ cosmic consciousness claims. Indeed, she is influenced by the philosopher Dan Dennett, who thinks of ‘consciousness’ itself as not just a reification (turning a process into a substance) but an altogether redundant idea. He’s the opposite kind of monist to Douglas Harding.
Some people like to have a line to follow. I like openness, and the possibility of multiple perspectives. I like the gleeful return to the commonsense world indicated by the 12th century Master Hongzhi above. It’s in Blackmore’s book, as part of feedback from her own Chan teacher at a time when she was in relentless pursuit of the problem of consciousness, and may have needed some rebalancing and lightening up in her role as sentient being. I also like the Interbeing approach mapped out in Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary on the Heart Sutra (2) and more recent works such as his Love Letter to the Earth (3), with ‘We are the Earth’ as its first section and ‘Healing Steps’ as the second.
I will give the last word to a member of the Headless Way community. This is in the form of a poem by Colin Oliver called the Oneness of Things (4), which for me captures the ‘headless’ experience seamlessly, and – as only poets can – finds room for all of the above:
The sun low over the beach:
shining wires of dune grass,
stones and the shadows of stones.
On the shoreline, the rush of foam
mirrored in the wet sand.
In the oneness of things
I am nowhere in sight.
(1) Susan Blackmore Zen and the Art of Consciousness, Oneworld Publications, 2014 (ebook edition)
(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1988
(3) Thich Nhat Hanh Love Letter to the Earth, Berkeley, CA: Parallex Press, 2013
(4) Colin Oliver Nothing but this Moment: selected poems London: Shollond Trust, 2013