Richard Lang trained as a psychotherapist at the Minster Centre in London. He incorporates this training with Tai Chi and meditation practice arising out of 20 years training. In this article Richard’s approach to the concept of identity poses a challenge and addition to the idea of a firmly ego bound identity seen as a goal in many psychotherapeutic journeys. His theme is sympathetic with Ken Wilber’s concept of a variety of levels of boundary which we can successively move through in our development. See Ken Wilber’s “No Boundary”.
In part, therapy is about uncovering what is unconscious, thereby releasing us from the control of unhelpful patterns. One of the aims is to live less fearfully, more creatively, lovingly, responsibly, truthfully. It is a never- ending endeavour, at least until we die.
Inevitably there are many ways to uncover our “blocks” and “work” with them. In this article I would like to introduce an approach put forward by the author Douglas Harding (On Having No Head). Though it follows in the footsteps of one of the oldest spiritual traditions, what Aldous Huxley called the Perennial Philosophy, it is almost shockingly original and contemporary. It has the deepest connection with objective scientific observation, but is a subjective experience. It involves noticing the difference between how you appear to others and what you are for yourself. This observation is deceptively simple, here is an indication of it:
From where you are you can see my face. I can’t. I see “nothing”. You can see two eyes but I look out of a single “hole”, an edgeless space. In this “Space” is presented the world. So from outside I am a person in the world, but from my point of view I am Capacity for the world. The world is in me. There is all the difference between the two.
How does my individual appearance connect with my central Nothingness? If you approached my face it would change in appearance. As you got close it would become a blur or, with the right instruments, you would see cells, molecules, atoms…..Move away and you would see a whole person, then perhaps a house, city, country, planet, star…..These are all appearances of the Empty Space at the centre, which is who I really am. They are regionally placed levels of my/our body/mind. Any way you look at yourself you are the centre and the whole every level in between. Lightly said!
The important thing is making a shift, personally in one’s life, from identifying with the outside appearance to being the Centre and the Whole. This involves faithful attention to truth. More about that in a moment. First I would like to show how this perspective helps us understand our own individual growth from babyhood to adulthood, and how our normal view of ourselves is the greatest block to our own freedom and health.
Four Stages of Evolution
There are four main stages in our individual evolution. First, the new-born baby is for itself faceless, naturally full of all the world. It is others who see it as a “baby”, separate and small. For itself it has not yet developed that self-consciousness. The second stage is the child, who is becoming increasingly aware of its face – the view of itself from outside – and with that its unique identity in the world, but at the same time still very much in touch with being “space”. This is the blessed condition of freedom before the “prison doors” close. The third stage is the normal condition of adulthood where we are fully conscious of our face and the identity that goes with it . We have left behind being “spacious” and see ourselves primarily from the outside. The appearance in the mirror and what others perceive is you. This identity is limited, separate, mortal, stressful. Most adults stop at this stage and die believing that this is all they are. From being everything they have been shrunk to almost nothing. The fourth stage indicated in this article is seeing the difference between appearance and reality. My appearance, at whatever range, is limited. My reality here at my centre is unlimited and timeless. It is Capacity for everything. Stage four is similar to stage one, yet profoundly different, for now I know that for others I am a person. Or a planet , or country , or cells….And I feel this, sometimes identifying with my family or country or planet as much as, sometimes more than, with my individual human self. All the levels of my body that science has uncovered and which all depend on one another, and all the levels of my mind which psychology has explored, are here brought together in a single and simple map. At the Centre is the Substratum of all matter and energy. Subjective No-thingness, which is the same as the deepest Unconscious, now brought into the light of awareness and revealed as our common Identity, the source of every level of mind and body. You are that .
Obviously becoming aware of the Centre, of who you really are, is shifting to a place of freedom. In stage three we are in effect taking the face that others see, that we see in the mirror, and placing it on the central Void. We believe that we are essentially that. Positively, it consolidates a sense of individuality, of personal identity. It is becoming human. Some people hardly manage this and are “spaced out”, feeling transparent, uncontained. Sometimes they need institutional care. They have not really entered stage three. But to stop at stage three is to be stuck on one outside view of yourself. You are overlooking your central Identity. In fact by putting that tiny little face, that person, at the Centre you block up the source of all creativity and freedom. No wonder you feel small, poor, frightened, angry, depressed. Somewhere you know that in leaving behind stage one you have lost so much, and greed for example, is really a reaction to that loss. Going on to stage four is th e regaining of that lost condition, with all its spaciousness, riches, spontaneity, creativity, freedom. It is ceasing to repress and deny who you really are.
Being Face to No-Face
Consider this perspective in terms of relationship. The baby is faceless – mother’s face is its own, but unconsciously so. Moving through childhood to adulthood we learn that we have a face. We are face to face with others. This is the almost universal model of relationship on this planet. From this outside viewpoint we are separate from one another. But to know only this is hell, a recipe for divisions and confrontation with others, the environment, ourselves. Stage four, whilst fully admitting stage three, is the consciousness that we are face to no-face with one another. I have your face and you have mine. I am Capacity for you. To live this truth is to overcome separation, dissolving the most fundamental block in our lives. It is to enter on a life of diversity-in-unity with others, a life of real freedom and joy. In the midst of all my struggling, with others, with myself, I discover that instead of tiny me at the centre, separate and alone, Love is there, unlimited, overflowing, open, steady, forever! This is who we all are.
We as a species are by and large unconscious of the face to no-face perspective. What rules and drives us is the face to face model of identity. Sometimes it drives us to war. In becoming conscious that this is simply the outside view, and that our real identity is very different, we are blowing the whistle on what has become a very limiting manoeuvre, however important it is as a stage to go through. Continuing evolution, I would suggest, means placing our faces and our humanity where they belong – out there in one another, not here at the Centre. This leaves the Centre unobstructed, unblocked, and full of the world. This is real healing. It is loving. It is opening the doors on a new world. Already you can see that this is practical. And it is possible to start being aware of who you really are right from this moment. It simply means being consciously faceless, space for others, the planet, individual concerns, whatever. But simple though this is, it is extremely demanding. It means reversing a lifetime’s habit of identifying with your appearance. In a brief article like this I can only say that it works. It is not too difficult. We sometimes call this awareness “two-way attention”. If I am looking at you, or at any thing in the world, or even thoughts and feelings, my attention is also directed back into the unconditioned Space in which these things are happening. Face to No-face, sound to Silence, movement to Stillness, mind to No- Mind. As you practice, it grows on you till it comes home in the most profound ways that you have never been other than the Centre.
The Fear of Disappearing
Another point, about death. Perhaps our deepest fear is of disappearing. When you see into your True Nature you see that your face and everything else about you is absent at the Centre. You disappear. If therapy involves confronting our fears, here is therapy in action. Perhaps some people resist “losing their head” because it has more than a smell of death. Nothing survives. The paradox is that the Emptiness at the Centre is supremely awake and alive, and rich beyond our wildest dreams. Images and myths of death and rebirth, of a spring of eternal youth, or wells from which you can endlessly draw things perhaps reflect this mysterious Fountainhead and Resource, hidden in the very heart of ourselves.
So I would maintain that awareness of the Central Void is a perfect and necessary complement to therapy, to awareness of what is emerging out of that Void, out of the Unconscious. And it undermines our basic habit and game, in fact delusion, of only seeing ourselves as separate objects in the world. I am not suggesting it is an alternative to therapy, but an ally. It is a natural development in humanity’s journey towards greater awareness, creativity, freedom, joy. What deeper step for a therapist to take, for example, than to see that as well as being a friend and mirror to her client, she also is her client, sharing the same indescribable Awareness. And if the client is aware of his Spaciousness, he enters into and goes through whatever is “coming up” in (and from) that Spaciousness without being a victim of it. He is looking into his mind and behaviour from No-mind, which is Freedom.“On Having No Head” DE Harding, Arkana 1987 “Perennial Philosophy”, Aldous Huxley, Chatto and Windus, “No Boundary”, Ken Wilber.