The central way to establish mindfulness in Theravada Buddhism is through the various satipatthana, or ‘focuses of mindfulness’, which comprises focusing attention on one of four types of phenomena: the body, feelings, the mind and mind objects. Contemplation of the body includes the well-known practice of anapanasati, or ‘mindfulness of breathing’, where one keeps attention on the in and out breaths, developing concentration and insight into the nature of the breath. Another long-established type of meditation is zazen, as promoted in Zen Buddhism, which is largely based on ‘just sitting.’ As with mindful breathing, zazen has become a very popular form of meditation in modern times.
An alternative to the above traditional awareness practices, is to turn attention around 180 degrees and look at who or what is experiencing the world right now. This technique, though surely not unknown prior to the twentieth century, was discovered and developed by the British philosopher and writer Douglas Edison Harding. It’s a startling simple and direct way to cultivate mindfulness and insight, and probably for this reason is often overlooked or undervalued.
To have any understanding of this technique does not come from reading about it, however, but arises from actually doing at least one of the experiments promoted by the late Douglas Harding. Here’s one of the simpler experiments:
• Point at the scene in front of you, taking note of the size, colour, shape and opacity of an object you can see. Next, point to another object near to where you are, answering the following questions: how big is it? What colour is it? What shape is it? Can you see through it, or is it opaque?
• Next, point at your own feet, asking and answering the same questions as above, before moving on to focus on your legs. Take a look at your torso, also taking the time to analyse its size, colour, shape and solid nature.
• Now, point your finger at your face – or at least where others see your face. What do you see? How big is it? What colour is it? Does it have a shape? Is it an opaque thing, or the exact opposite? Pointing at where others see my face, I see no such thing. Right here, right now, this finger is directed not at a face or head, but at... no thing whatsoever!
• All the different sized things on display are in stark contrast to what I see here: they appear in the absence of any such thing here. Ditto colours – there are no colours here other than the colors of the objects arising in awareness. The same is true of shape – the ‘no thing’ here has no shape, as only things have shape, and there’s no thing here to have a shape! As to opacity, all the opaque objects that can be seen right now occur in this invisible no thing: its absence is their being. What do you see when you point at your ‘face’?
Hopefully you did the experiment above, rather than just reading the instructions and intellectualizing about them. Douglas Harding’s experiments are entirely based on doing them, otherwise they probably sound like so much gibberish! If you did do the experiment, but didn’t quite ‘get it’, you can always do it again, this time making sure to accept only the facts of this moment rather than what you imagine to be where ‘you’ are. Why do this particular form of mindfulness? Well, over the years, I’ve found it to be a pretty good technique for getting beyond many of the ego-based emotions and hang-ups that can dominate much of human thought. Looking back here and seeing that nobody’s home, when practiced over years, can alleviate much personality-produced angst, as well as the kind of self-consciousness that blighted my own youth. Also, with less of me here to get in the way, there’s a natural openness to all the people that appear in this naked awareness, with nothing between us to separate 'me' from 'them.'
Now, some of the insights that have arisen in this mind in relation to what Douglas called ‘in-seeing’ do differ from some of his conclusions, along with many of his ‘followers’. Being brought up in a strict Christian environment, Douglas later related ‘seeing-who-we-really-are’ to a theistic view of life, describing this experience as seeing (and being) God. As you might expect of a Buddhist, I don’t experience the space here as any kind of deity, as such, but that’s not to say that Douglas’ ideas are completely at odds with my own views. One man’s God might be another man’s Zen, or one woman’s Brahman could well be another lady’s Nirvana. Enlightenment ain't to be found in words!
An important point that I would make as a Buddhist is that ‘the Headless Way’, as this technique is widely known, is not a stand-alone practice. Douglas and his many friends have often seen it as such, referring to religious tradition when it fits in with the ‘headless’ experience, but rejecting conventional spiritual life when it seems to suggest that there’s more to enlightenment/salvation than merely looking ‘home’. Seeing the void at the centre of my self is only part of the Buddhist Way that I practice however, and many insights have arisen over the years that have come from traditional Buddhist teachings and endeavours, rather than from ‘in-seeing’. 'Buddha's finger' pointing home complements Buddhist meditation & other practices so well; at least, that's the experience here.
So, if you got the point of the experiment and saw what Zen Buddhists call “Your Original Face (before you were born)”, why not stick at it for a while and see what insights arise. If you wish for further information on this efficacious mindfulness technique, please click here: The Headless Way.