Douglas Harding’s new sense-perception based approach to spiritual awakening or ‘enlightenment’, although relatively little known in the mainstream, has been studied, shared and lived, by a small but steadily increasing number of people around the world, over the past seventy years.
Harding was born in 1909, in Lowestoft, on the east coast of England. His parents belonged to the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren, a fundamentalist Christian sect notorious for its ultra-Puritanism and intolerance of other denominations and, of course, all other religions.
At 21, while studying architecture at University College, London, Harding apostatized from the Brethren much to his parent’s horror. To justify this step, he sent to the elders of the Brethren a thesis explaining that he saw the great religions as complementary rather competing, and as having, at their common core, the Beatific Vision.
From age 21, Harding was remarkably successful in leading a double life. Without knowing quite how he did it, he managed to earn a respectable living as an architect in private practice, while devoting most of his time and energy to “the discovery of What and Who he really is”, to piecing together an elaborate but credible cosmology-cum-epistemology, and increasing to work out its application to everyday life.
In fact, Harding’s crowning achievement has been to devise a toolkit of exercises or experiments for getting behind words and concepts to direct seeing into our True Nature. In all the great spiritual traditions, the true mystics — the Seers — have, hitherto, been limited to words or silence in their attempts to share their vision. No wonder they rarely succeeded.
But now at last, thanks to his toolkit, the essential vision is entirely shareable, indeed obvious and natural. It’s also revolutionary, and therefore resisted in traditional circles — decreasingly, it seems.
The first book that Harding wrote was his magnum opus, The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth: A New Diagram of Man in The Universe. He wrote this book, of 650 huge pages, over eight years to 1950. His main purpose in writing this book was to answer his two questions: ‘What am I?’ and ‘What do I amount to in the universe?’ A shorter edition and a number of other books followed from time to time throughout his long life.
It’s been widely acknowledged that the greatest aspect of Harding’s spiritual teaching work has been his devising of thirty or so sense-based workshop ‘experiments’. These ‘awareness exercises’ are designed to enable people to see or recognize Who they really are beyond outward appearances. In the 35 years prior to his death in 2007, Harding travelled to more than 20 countries across 5 continents, offering ‘Look for Yourself’, or ‘Seeing Who We Really Are’ workshops, based around these experiments.
One of the simplest and most effective of Harding’s exercises can be done just by sitting down opposite a friend. Point to your friend’s feet, then yours; to his torso, then yours; to his head, then back to where others see yours. What, on present evidence, is your finger pointing at? (Warning: it’s no good just reading about this, you have actually to carry out the experiment for yourself.)
What you see by carrying this exercise in basic attention, is what it is to be 1st-Person Singular — the noumenous No-thing that is nevertheless keenly aware of Itself as the Container or Ground of the whole display. This seeing is believing. Altogether unmystical (in the popular sense), it is a precise, total, and all-or-nothing experience admitting of no degrees — so long as it lasts.
Now your task is to go on seeing your Absence/Presence in all situations, till the seeing becomes quite natural and continuous. This is neither to lose yourself in your Emptiness nor in what fills it, but simultaneously to view the thing you are looking out at and the No-thing you are looking out of. There will be found to be no times when this two-way-attention is out of place or can safely be dispensed with.
The initial seeing into your Nature is simplicity itself: once noticed, Nothing is so obvious! But it is operative only in so far as it is practised. The results — freedom from greed and hate and fear and delusion — are assured only while the One they belong to isn’t overlooked.
I’ll let Harding himself conclude this all too brief overview. In his Religions of the World: A handbook for the open-minded. he writes:
“Arrived at his goal, the truly Awakened one is, in fact, not Christian in any ordinary sense. He has broken loose from his parent tradition and become universal, above all distinctions whatever. But on his way there he has had a hard time of it. It’s no easy task to reconcile his direct vision with his inherited faith.
His intuition of the One, his dawning identification with the One, his clear sight of that One as the Light or Emptiness within, his resulting freedom from all desire and emotion and even love for man or God, his inability to meditate in the prescribed fashion (visualising, for instance, the Passion of Christ), or to pray, or to think good thoughts, or even to think at all — these sure evidences of his Enlightenment must at first seem to him grave spiritual defects.
To his spiritual counsellors or former co-religionists they may seem downright sinful. All the same, it is his direct experience, his original contact with the Real — ignored by the majority, condemned by the orthodox — which is the heart of this religion, as of all other religions. It is what makes Christianity true.
Because she gets to the Root, becomes that nourishing Root, she becomes also the whole tree with all its leaves and fruits. Ultimately, the (Radical), Mystic or Realised Christian has no preferences, no personal opinions. She doesn’t pick and choose among the innumerable sects and doctrines of Christianity.
Because she rests in their common Source, she is free of it all, and it is all very good indeed.”
~ For more info on Douglas Harding and current activities of the Headless Way, check out: www.headless.org. You can also try out many of Harding’s ‘experiments’ from links on the home page. This is an extensive resource and highly recommended. Ed.