Imagine walking into a forest. It’s winter. There’s snow but you’re not cold. It’s silent and still and magical. As you stroll you notice how thoughts come and go, until gradually, as you pay attention to the graceful world, thinking subsides and a gentle feeling arises.
This is a path you’ve walked before. You can picture the former you walking here. And it’s a funny thing: You’ve lurched between wanting and not wanting throughout your life, but in a moment of attention like this, you don’t do either.
You see your breath in the air and ask: “Who are you?” Who but you would know? Why not look into what it’s like being you – first person, singular, present tense? “Would you want to live and die without looking at the one doing that?” asked Douglas Harding.
You see yourself as a kid looking in a mirror. Your mom said, “That’s you!” and you believed her. Again and again you see the person under glass and think, “That’s me!” You think you are as you appear in the mirror, but that’s not how you actually see. When you look out of yourself, you don’t see a head.
You see hands, feet and knees. You see objects. You see trees and rabbit droppings and pine cones. You see far and near, but try as you might, you can’t see the one seeing. Your self is like that. Your self is a concept like a reflection in a mirror.
The ancients spoke of beauty, goodness and truth. Immersed in a world of snow, grass, trees and colour, you put one foot in front of the other and care not for images, politics and economies. You see beauty. You see goodness. You know a simple truth: You’re here and glad of it.
The poet William Blake (1757-1827) wrote, “Every Eye sees differently. As the Eye, Such the Object” (Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, p. 19). Everyone may see the same tree, but experience it differently. Blake said, “a fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). The fool is less aware. He sees, “trees” like a million others. Meaningless. Insignificant. But a wise person lives in gusto and pays attention. A wise person’s tree is more real.
You are the space between. Before a thought comes, there is a thinker. You are the one thinking. You are consciousness itself.
Writer Douglas Harding saw philosopher Ernst Mach’s 1885 self-portrait where he closed his right eye and drew himself. While walking Harding had an insight and wrote, “What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, and odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me.”
Harding looked at himself and realized that he couldn’t see his head. “It took me no time at all to notice this nothing, this hole where a head should have been, was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far beyond them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world” (On Having No Head).
In the 1960s Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band saw a similarity between poet Thomas Traherne (1636-1674) and Douglas Harding. Heron wrote a song about headlessness that begins, “When I was born I had no head. My eye was single and my body was filled with light. And the light that I was, was the light that I saw by. And the light that I saw by, was the light that I was” (song: Douglas Traherne Harding).
In the 1600’s Traherne wrote, “You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars.” Traherne was a philosopher of enjoyment. He wrote, “Your enjoyment of the World is never right till every morning you awake in Heaven” (Centuries of Meditation). Wade (1944) writes of Traherne, “In the middle of the seventeenth century, there walked the muddy lanes of Herefordshire and the cobbled streets of London, a man who had found the secret of happiness… He became the most radiantly, most infectiously happy mortal this earth has known” (p. 2). This is the secret: It is in paying attention without thinking. Don’t be fooled by personality.
You are like the surprised squirrel silently watching you watch him.
If this squirrel were a person, you would feel self-conscious and probably look away, but when you’re headless, you don’t worry. Both you and the face you see, don’t see their own face. It’s just a you looking back at another you.
You are a tightrope walker. The path you walk (in or out of forests) is the rope you’re on. You walk between thought and attention. The trick is to enjoy both. You are the world seeing. You are not a thing. You are not your appearance. You are seeing itself. You are capacity. This year is dedicated to paying attention without distracted thinking. Wherever you go, there you are. You are the world to yourself. You are the one experiencing.
Trust experience and enjoy it.
Wade, G. (1944). Thomas Traherne: A Critical Biography. Princeton University Press/Oxford University Press.