March 16, 2023
What is The Headless Way? What are we like before we accept the names, roles, and narratives given to us by other people? What does it mean for consciousness to be "boundless" or "infinite"? What are the benefits of adopting a "headless" perspective? How can we visit (and feel relatively confident that we've visited) this perspective? Where is this perspective situated relative to the larger constellation of meditation and mindfulness concepts from other traditions?
Richard Lang has been teaching The Headless Way for over fifty years having met Douglas Harding, the author of On Having No Head, in 1970. Richard also worked for many years as a psychotherapist as well as teaching tai chi and dance. The Headless Way is a method of waking up to your True Self which is spacious, still, and free. Being conscious of your True Self enables you as an individual to be more creative, loving and effective in the world. Contact Richard at email@example.com or learn more at his website, headless.org.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Richard Lang about The Headless Way, the philosophy of perception, and being aware of your true nature.
SPENCER: Richard, welcome.
RICHARD: Thank you, Spencer. Great to be here.
SPENCER: So I've had a few different meditation teachers on the podcast, and they each bring with them a different perspective. And I'm really interested in the perspective you have on this, which I think is going to be quite different from those we've seen before. So I'd love to start with you telling us a little bit about what you think about meditation.
RICHARD: Well, the way I think about it is, attention to not only what I am looking at or listening to, but also to who is listening, who is looking, and who I am. The normal idea is that I am somebody meditating, but when I actually take a look, I find I'm just space for what is happening. So for me, meditation is two-way, not only to what I'm hearing, feeling, seeing, but also to the space in which that is happening.
SPENCER: And how would you say this differs from conventional mindfulness?
RICHARD: Well, I am not an authority on mindfulness, so I think I would run into difficulties at making too much of a comment about that. I think that being aware of your breathing (for example) can really be calming. You can find a great deal of relaxation and peace in that kind of thing, and I enjoy that myself. Now, I suppose you might just do that to calm down, fair enough. But what I'm on about — The Headless Way — is awakening to who you really are. And so, that's a different question. Primarily for me the question is, “Who am I? What am I?” And I find I'm not what I look like.
SPENCER: So you mentioned The Headless Way. Do you want to give us just a quick intro of what is The Headless Way?
RICHARD: Headless Way is becoming aware that you're not what you look like. So from a distance of several feet, I appear as Richard. But if you came up to me, you'd lose me. You'd get patches of skin cells, molecules, almost nothing. Well, I am right at the center here and I'm looking out and I don't see my face. Now, that's incredibly obvious. And no one has ever seen their own face above their body. And right now, I'm aware that is true for me now. And I'm awake to being this clear, open, boundless space that is full of the world, full of your voice, and full of feelings. So I invite the listener just to be aware that they don't see their own head now. You've never seen your own head above your body. And I say that this is hugely significant. What it's like to be you is not the same as what you look like in the mirror.
SPENCER: Let me see if I'm interpreting this properly. When I think about what you're saying, I see it as we think of ourselves, our model of ourselves, is as a person with a head, and so on. And we look in the mirror, that's what we see. But if we actually experience our own sensations, internal experiences, and sensory input directly, that's not actually what the experience is. The experience is something like we have this center of awareness where we're processing everything. And our face is just this idea that we have, but it's not actually in our perception at a given moment. Am I on the right track or what did I get wrong there?
RICHARD: Well, you are. Because I think this is incredibly obvious. And I would say, it is essentially a nonverbal experience. Noticing you can't see your face. There isn't a debate about it. And no one can tell you whether that's true or not, you have to look for yourself. But I say, I can't see my own face now. I see a part of my nose, but it disappears into nothing. And there are sensations here, but they don't add up to the surface that separates me from the world. Instead of my head, I see the world. And I would say that I believe this is true for everyone. And when you're a baby, you are pre-verbal, what are you for yourself? Well, you've not yet learned about what you look like. And when you look in the mirror that's not you yet. And growing up is learning, in imagination, to travel about six feet away from yourself; turn around and see yourself through the eyes of others with a head. And then to put that on like you put a mask on. You take that image from the mirror and you imagine it where you are, and you imagine yourself behind this surface face-to-face with others. And in adulthood, we have completely taken that on board, and you have to in order to understand who you are in society. But what I'm saying is, alright, you've got that. You understand who you are in society. But now look for yourself. And notice that you are not at all like that for yourself. And it's as if you've got two sides to yourself. One is what you offer others, in the mirror, in the photograph, and you understand that. You respond as that. But the other is a secret inner thing where you're boundless and space for the whole world including the stars.
SPENCER: So let me try to use a metaphor here to see if I'm really understanding you. So imagine you're looking at a photograph. And there are trees, there are mountains, there's a lake. That's a conceptualization of what's in the picture, right? We're turning the color sensory experience into this conceptualization of trees and the lake. But another way to perceive that picture is to actually just look at the raw sensory input, just to see the colors entering your experience. And so I take what you're doing here, as that kind of exercise, but instead of doing it for a photograph — where you try to go from the conceptualization to the raw sensory input — you're trying to do it to your own experience. You're trying to go from your sense of who you are and what you look like, to the raw sensory experience of what's actually happening in your own mind.
RICHARD: Well, yes. I think you've put that well, Spencer. And in The Headless Way, we have developed what we call experiments. They're called experiments, because they are for testing a hypothesis. And the hypothesis is, “You are not what you look like. You're not at the center, at zero distance, the same as what you appear to be at six feet or six miles; It doesn't matter.” And one of the experiments is to notice how many eyes you're looking out on. I mean, it sounds mad until you actually take that seriously and say, “Well, maybe I've just been overlooking something here.” When I look, I'm not looking at many eyes, or I call it a one-opening, a one- or a single-eyes, boundless openness. And when I look at the field of view — and I don't have to stop thinking by the way to notice it — I notice the field of view. If the listeners just look, the field of view fades out all the way around. It is sort of oval. And I see nothing above it, nothing below it, nothing around it. It's floating in consciousness. Now, that's not what I was told it was like, you see. And then I noticed that not only is the field of view floating in this boundless awareness, but all my thoughts are and my feelings and sounds, it's all going on in this boundless awareness. And I am convinced that everyone is in the same wonderful condition that if I was in the same room as you, Spencer, then I would see your face and I would see your boundary within the room. But I would be noticing that it's face-to-no-face, I don't see Richard's face at the same time. And I imagine it's the same for you that you don't see Spencer's face. You're looking out of this boundless space, which has no one's name on it, no nationality, no age. This is where we come together. Our views are different but the place we're looking from, there's nothing to differentiate us, which is wonderful.
SPENCER: This reminds me of the idea of the blind spot and our vision, where there's a certain part of our visual field that we can't actually see. But the very strange thing about it is that we're not really aware that we can't see it, because our brain kind of fills in the gap. And it's so fascinating to think that it'd be easy to go your whole life never realizing that you have a blind spot in your vision, even though it's somehow there all the time. And this shows the difference between what's there physically — like, yes, you have two eyes — and what your internal experience is like. Well, your true experience is not having two eyes. If you could never look at yourself, if you can never touch yourself, you may not realize your two eyes. If you just focus on your internal experience, you just be like, “Well, I just have this vision or but it doesn't feel like there's two different eyes seeing things.”
RICHARD: Well, yes. But one thing I've been noticing recently is when I'm in a room (and I'm in a room now), I can see the far wall. I can see the wall on the left and then it fades out in the fourth wall on the right and it fades out. I can see the ceiling and it fades out and the floor of my body. Now I don't see the fourth wall. If you were in front of me, you would say, “Well, there's a wall behind you.” I say, “Well, there is one from there, but for me, there's only three walls, and the room opens out. It's like a great big mouth, the ceiling opens up and then disappears into my consciousness here, and the walls widen out, right to the edge there and disappear.” I think we need a new language for this. The third person language is that we grow up using which acknowledges who you are for others. The normal language is very interesting and is based on empathy because I speak about myself from your point of view. I speak as if I am the one that you see. But when I awaken to my own point of view, it's very different. So I need a new language. For the sake of everyone else, I say I'm face-to-face. But from my point of view, I'm face-there and no-face-here, or I'm not in the room, the room is in me. And this is just freedom really, and freedom, love, lack of separation, without denying the reality of yourself as a person. When I speak about being Richard, I can't see Richard. What I'm doing is I'm placing myself in your shoes. And speaking for the one that you see (which is we're all exercising empathy), we're putting ourselves in everyone else's shoes, and seeing ourselves through their eyes and forgetting about our own point of view.
SPENCER: Right. We're so wrapped up in the story of what things are, that we are not directly perceiving what's actually occurring in our own sensory experience.
RICHARD: Exactly. And once you get the idea, it's incredibly simple. And you have never ever seen your own face. Of course, you've seen it in the mirror, and you can imagine it, but you've never actually seen it. And some people, they would say, “Well, so what?” or, “I've never thought about that and I'm not interested.” Well, so be it. But there are others like me, who say, “Well, that is amazing. I've never noticed that.” And that changes everything. And it fits in with what all the great spiritual mystics talk about: your true nature is like open space, you're not separate. Well, of course, from the point of view of others, you are separate. And you act and talk as if you're separate. But then from your own point of view, you're not. Now, if you take that seriously, that's gonna change your life.
SPENCER: Okay, so let's talk about the meaning of that. Say someone does this exercise, they have this insight, they can see their face, but then they say, “Okay, so what? All right, that's just how I experienced the direct sensory input. But what do I do with that?”
RICHARD: Well, if someone says that to me — I mean, I can tell you what it means to me — but I would say, “Well, what do you think it means? Just pause for a moment in your busy life and just be aware that what we're talking about is that you can't see your face. You've never seen your face. You've never seen the fourth wall, you're not the same as what others see you at all. Now, pause for a moment and just reflect, what do you think that might mean? How might that be important?” What would your response, Spencer, be, if I said to you, “Well, what do you think?”
SPENCER: Well, I'm not convinced that what I'm going to say would be what you would say about it. But what it makes me think about is that all experience is essentially a simulation created from our brain. We can never witness something directly. You can never see an apple. All you can see is the simulation your brain creates when photons of light of different frequencies hit your retina and get converted to electrical signals. So in some sense, we're experiencing a simulation created by our brain that, I think, is roughly reflective of external reality. But the external reality doesn't look like anything. The only way that something can look like anything is in the simulation of our brain, right? Redness doesn't exist in the Apple; redness is part of the simulation our brain creates, when certain photons hit our retina and get converted into electrical signals. So that's what it makes me think about.
RICHARD: [laughs] Well, there you go. Everyone has a different reaction. I would say that the apple I'm looking at is a real apple, and there's nothing in the way and it's not in my brain. I don't have a brain here. And I understand the external view and the way science thinks about it, but the man who developed this, Douglas Harding — his popular book is On Having No Head and I think he talks about this in that book, but he's written other books. — And he did a lot of working out how this makes sense in terms of perception. So I think there are some things that are a bit confusing about your story. Because if you say that what you're experiencing is in your brain, that means that... I mean, when I look at my hand, you're saying, “Well, that hand is in your brain.” Well, how do I know then that this hand that I see is anything like the so-called real hand out there because even the idea of the real hand is in my brain? So Douglas Harding did a lot of work on this. And I think philosophy of perception needs to read that. But anyway, that's your view. I would say, “When I noticed, I can't see my face, I have been told that there's a surface here that I can't see. And I'm behind it, and the world is out there. And when I look, I find no surface.” The listener can do this. You just look at any object in front of you. And I say, “Well, there's the object. The place I'm looking from, there's nothing here, it's just open. So there's no distance, that object is right here in my awareness.” We can describe this in different ways. But I would say this. When I'm with a person, I know from the outside that we're face-to-face, we're separate. I understand that. We've got boundaries, we're different. And that is important. Obviously, we can't forget that. But then I pay attention, secretly. And I notice his face to no-face. And that person's face is given right here in my awareness. This is not primarily thinking. It's seeing. It's a kind of a nonverbal experience. It is very intimate. When I'm listening to your voice, Spencer, and I hear my voice, I understand that's your voice, you're in Manhattan. And this is Richard's voice, my voice, I'm in London. But from my point of view, both voices are here in my consciousness, in the silence. So the third person language, if I can put it like that is, that's Spencer's voice and this is Richard's voice. The first person language is, “Well, actually, they're both my voices coming out of this one silence.” Now, that is a very different way of relating to so called others; they are yourself.
SPENCER: I guess I'm wondering, does this get interpreted in a metaphysical lens? Like do you think that all experience is somehow created by yourself? Or how metaphysically are you interpreting that because I think we probably differ in our metaphysics?
RICHARD: Well, it's important to say, I think that this experience is nonverbal. I would say you can't get it wrong. I mean, you can't see your head instead, you see the world is probably the simplest way of putting it. Now I say, that's the basic experience. Now, how we think about it will be different. And sometimes I think metaphysically about it. But I say that, if someone doesn't think metaphysically about it, no matter if this is the joy of having friends who are interested in this, because they have a different language and a different way of thinking about it. So on occasions, I would say, “Well, I have no face when I look at you. Your face is mine. I am you.” But I'm aware that others wouldn't describe it like that. But I mean, I would be very astonished if they actually saw two faces. So, however we talk about it, I believe the experience is basically the same. But I would say, yes, everything comes out of this space, everything goes back into it. I am still in, and the scenery moves through me when I'm driving. I am space for my friends and my enemies. I am not in the world; the world is in me. So I think we need a language that articulates the first person point of view.
SPENCER: Yeah, I guess what I would say is that the world is in you, from your experience, but then the world is in me from my experience. And you know, for Bob, the world is in Bob. And so, I guess that's where I come back to kind of the simulation piece where it's each of us, the way I see it metaphysically, is that our brains are creating simulations. We each have our own simulation. So for each of us, everything that we experience is our own simulation. That's the only way it could be. Because, like an apple doesn't look like anything. But the apple does have photons bouncing off of it. And those photons can be interpreted as an experience of red. Whereas I think that maybe you're putting your experience more central than is occurring in my metaphysics. I'm not certain,
RICHARD: I don't know. I fully accept everyone's view out from this space is different. I've said that everyone has something happening in this space in consciousness. And there's always something going on. But your view of the world is different from mine. But I say that the place you're looking from, at least the place I'm looking from, has no color or shape, or age or name. One of the experiments which is worth doing — and I think it's good that we don't have visual video here, because then you won't feel embarrassed — but if you point back with your index finger at where others see your face, right now (and I suggest the listener do this), it's pointing, directing your attention. Where are your fingers pointing now? In your own experience, is it pointing at a face, a surface, or a head, with a wall behind it? Or is it just a finger? And if I was to try and describe what it's pointing out, I'd say, “Well, I don't see anything here. It is a wide open space.” Now, I would say that that must be the same for everyone. I mean, no one sees anything right at the center, where they're pointing. But the view out, your finger's different from mine. Your language is different from mine. Your feelings are different from mine. And so, at center, where there's nothing to see, or you could say there's no thing to see, that is your true nature. That's who you really are. That corresponds in everyone, that our view out is different. And I say vive la différence.
SPENCER: What that exercise gets really interesting to me is, so I point at my face and then I had that experience of, “Oh, yeah, I can't see my face, all I can see is this sort of center of awareness, where I'm processing things.” And then I start...
RICHARD: What is the center of awareness where you're processing things? What do you mean by that?
SPENCER: Yeah, well, just, I'm just trying to describe my direct experience, it's hard to put words on it. But basically, it just feels like this blob of color coming in, this sort of place where all the sense is being processed. And then it gets really interesting for me to then think about, “Oh wait, but then visual input is just one input. I also have audio being processed, I have touch being processed, and temperature being processed.” And it's all kind of being processed, sort of at this center point of attention. And that's really what experience is like when I pay close attention is all the sensory input of all types are all being processed in this center of attention. And then there's also my thoughts, which are sort of a different thing, that also are being processed in the center of attention.
RICHARD: Well, yes. So I mean, if we close our eyes now, (and again, the listener can do this experiment). And of course, you'd know how big you are, you know what shape you are, and all that, you know you're in a room. But let's just go by what you experience. And a way of encouraging you to drop memory and drop your assumptions is just imagine you're a baby and you've just been born. See, even if you're in the womb, there's no no vision, you've got your eyes closed. See now how big you are. You have no idea. I can't see you as well. Go to the experience you call your left hand. But you haven't learned that sound yet. You haven't got language, you haven't got images. So it's just sensations in, I would say, in awareness. And the sound of this voice? Well, where is it happening? How big are you? What shape are you? How old are you? I find I can't tell. And yet, it doesn't stop me from functioning. And I'm quite happy with it. We're quite happy not to have an age. It's very freeing, you see. So obviously a lot more than just vision, whatever sensors we refer to, I would say it ends up at the same glorious emptiness.
SPENCER: I like that thought experiment of being a baby. Because it's sort of our state prior to having models, prior to having stories about what things are. There's just all the sense input of all different kinds, and it's all undifferentiated. And then as we grow up, we start making sense of things. We start saying, “Oh, that's my mom, and that's my dad, and that's the chair.” But that all comes later, right? Initially, it's just all coming into attention.
RICHARD: Yes. Putting aside all you've learned as far as you can, how wide are you? If you haven't learned the model yet, you just got your view as wide as east is from west. Well, this has always been true. It's your innermost nature. From the outside, you're small, but from the inside, you're big. Now, don't overlook being big. It's very freeing, very relaxing. On present evidence, Spencer and the listener, if you're a baby, let's even imagine you're still in the womb just to really enjoy ourselves here. Now, is there a dividing line between inside and outside? Is my voice outside you or inside you? Or, is it meaningless?
SPENCER: Right. I think that's where metaphysics starts coming into it. I fully agree with you that the experience we have is always sort of at the center place, it's all it can ever be. And then we're putting all these models onto it, and all these interpretations onto it. But then that raises this question, “Okay. But what's really real? Is that just a perception, or is that the way things actually are?” So, yeah, curious to hear your thoughts on that.
RICHARD: Well, a good question, I think. I've never seen myself. I walk into a room, I don't walk into a room, the room appears in me, everybody reflects back to me, Richard and the mirror, and I join in in the game, and I reflect other people's identity back to them, and I take it on. And growing up is joining that feedback system and acting as if you're the one that everyone tells you that you are. Now, I would say that you can't be 100% sure of that. Everyone might be robots. It might be Westworld. I would say I'm 99% sure, and I act as if it's true. And I act as if I am Richard, and I act as if you are conscious and you're over there in Manhattan. But can I be 100% sure? No, I can't. So I say, “What can I be sure of?” Well, all of that is what I accept without being 100%. So, what can I be sure of? Well, I would say what I can be sure of, is that I am. And now I can't prove that. But it's self-evident. I am. See. And this is the thing that is overlooked. We're so busy bothering about who we are in the world, which we have to. We overlook this basic reality that ‘you are'. And I said, “Well, okay, well, what am I?” Well, I can't be sure I'm Richard. I act as if I am. What can I be sure of? Well, I am if I was to put in words I am this space full of all these sounds and sensations and all that whole game going on. I am the space. Now this is becoming aware of something that I say I can be absolutely sure of; it's a kind of stable rock in the middle of everything that is a bit uncertain. And this is so reassuring, energizing, inspiring. It is a creative source. So I say, it doesn't mean that then you have to neglect or deny the reality of the game of being Richard or Spencer or the world. You can't. But it is a wonderful game, a very serious and often tragic game. But when I become aware of this unchanging reality, that is my own being, which doesn't have a name on, which I can't define really, but I am it. That enables me to play the game better. It is an inner security, stability. It's humorous and loving. All of that.
SPENCER: Yeah, I agree with you that that is the thing, or one of the things, we can be most confident in. The thing we're directly witnessing. I'm wondering how you think this relates to Rene Descartes' famous statement, “I think, therefore I am.” Do you think he was referring to this? Or was he thinking of something else with that phrase?
RICHARD: Well, I don't really know. And people, I think, have different opinions about it. But I think that to give him the benefit of the doubt, I would say that he was on to basically the same thing. Now it went off down a certain route, but I think that given the benefit of the doubt, he probably was. The thing that I find so therapeutic and revolutionary is, when you're a baby, I would say, because you're not yet aware of what you look like, you haven't got language yet, you've got feelings, and I suppose images. I don't know, if you suppose you haven't got thoughts. But anyway, let's imagine that kind of thoughts or feelings. Those are not in your head separate from the world. They're part of the view out. They're part of the content. You don't yet distinguish between outside and inside. You're not imagining yourself behind the face with your thoughts and feelings on your side of your face inside you, and the rest of the world outside you. And in fact, this is well recognized. There's a test that they do to determine whether or not you understand that you're separate yet. And growing up is understanding that there's a barrier that you can't see, a surface behind which your thoughts are and your feelings. So, very good. Because if my thoughts are private (behind the face), that means you must have thoughts behind your face that I can't experience. And so this is the growth of awareness of self and other. All right, we've got that going. I accept that you are a separate consciousness over there in America, with your own thoughts and feelings. And I'm over here with my thoughts and feelings in England. Alright, got that. Now, when I attend to my own experience, my thoughts and feelings are not in a box. The listener or you Spencer, (I've got my eyes closed now). Imagine a mountain. Is that inside you or outside you? Open your eyes and imagine a box on the desk or something. Before you've learned to separate inside and outside, that box is as real (not quite as real, but in the sense as real) as the lamp that's out there. They learn to label that imaginary box as ‘imaginary' and therefore ‘inside' and the lamp ‘outside'. Now when I wake up to my true nature, I see, okay, I've got that distinction. But actually, it's all in me. There's no inside and out. The lamp I see and my thoughts about the lamp are all happening here in the center of consciousness, the processing center (as you call it), are all happening here, including the label ‘inside' and ‘outside'. Now this is very freeing, because now, I suspect Descartes thought that his thoughts were in his head, separate from the world. Well, they're not.
SPENCER: Right. I guess if you think about the lamp that you see, versus the box that you imagine on your desk, one thing you could say that might differentiate them is that one of them corresponds to stuff in the world out there, and one doesn't. Like there's a bunch of atoms that correspond to the lamp, there's not a bunch of atoms that correspond to the box. I'm wondering how you think about that distinction?
RICHARD: Yes, I understand that. But from my point of view, they're just relative. One is a little bit more real than the other. From the scientific point of view, I understand the difference. But let's say where's the dividing line between the lamp and your thoughts about the lamp? Now you say, “Well, my thoughts are in my head.” Well, when I see there's no head here, where are my thoughts? Where's the lamp? You see, I find no dividing line. And this reunites me with the world. I still understand the distinction from another point of view, but from my point of view, my thoughts now about the lamp or about anything, sort of out there with the lamp. There's no dividing line. My body sensations, from my point of view, how big are they? What shape am I? I have no way of separating myself from the universe. This is healing, joyful, astonishing, intimate, is what we did, actually, because just as the baby has not yet learned about the barrier between inside and outside, and then you learn it, and you become so familiar with it, that that's all you think of as the truth. This is the same with humanity. We're at a stage in our development, where we are face to face with each other. And we absolutely believe we're separate from animals and the environment and therefore, we just treat animals, other people and the environment as not us. And there's a tendency just to use it, because it's not us. So, this experience I'm talking about is a balancing to that saying, “It fits in with what many people are thinking about these days, there's no dividing line, the world is your body. You're not separate from other people.”
SPENCER: So I'm wondering, how often do you try to maintain this state? Are you trying to kind of have this sense of awareness at all times? Do you aspire to that? Or is it something that you just kind of used as a tool periodically?
RICHARD: Well, I've been doing this for 50 years. It's just my normal state of mind.
SPENCER: So like, right now, for example, and at any given moment, if someone were to pin you and say, “What's your experience right now?” You're just naturally in that state all the time?
RICHARD: Well, yes. But I would qualify it by saying that I don't always think about it. But whenever I check it out, it's true. So, I think, to begin with, (speaking for myself) one puts quite a lot of energy into stabilizing it, becoming aware of it. But after a while, you realize that it's always there. And it's living you as much as you're living it. And I think it just becomes normal. When you're a baby, you don't know your name. You don't know your nationality. But you are. You don't have to think about it. When you grow up, you learn your name, you learn who you are as a person. I suspect that this takes months, if not years, to kind of stabilize. As an infant, you're born open, and you have to learn that you're closed, that you're a person. And it takes effort, you've got to use your voice, you've got to speak up for yourself, you've got to talk to others, you've got to name them. Now, by the time you're an adult, you've got that going. You don't wake up every morning and say, “I'm Richard, I'm Richard, I'm Richard.” I don't. Or, “I'm in England, I'm in England, I'm in England.” It's just taken for granted. But of course, if someone asks you, “Yeah, I'm Richard, I'm Richard...” You might have to call it to mind. Now it's the same when you become aware of your true nature, being space for the world. To begin with, you forget about it a lot, I suppose. But if you value it, it grows in you. And especially if you have friends that you share it with. So that after a while you don't have to keep telling yourself you're a space of the world. You are. [laughs] You are. I am. I am space for the world now. Part of my job — because I go around sharing this, that's what I'm doing here — is to say to people, “Look, it is absolutely available and simple. Look for your head, can you see your head? No? What you see inside the world, right? You got it. And you can't lose it, you can't do it wrong. And it will grow in you, if you value it, it will grow. Like you became aware of yourself as a person. But take advantage of all the friends around, if you want, to hang out with others who are enjoying it, because it's infectious.” So yes, I spend my life communicating about it. So it's, it's on the front burner.
SPENCER: I want to differentiate between two different things here. One is that whenever you check, you find that, “Oh, yes, indeed. I can't see my face. I'm just a sort of vessel world, this experience is happening.” But that's different than always having that feeling, always looking out at the world in that way. Right? So this distinction of like, is it just there when you check? Or is it there in the background all the time? And for me, it's there when I check. I have that experience you're describing, but it's not in the background. Like it feels like, a few seconds later, after I've checked, I've kind of lost awareness. And I'm back in the sort of story of it all. So I'm wondering, for you to transition from, “Oh, yes, it is there when you check,” to being sort of there in the background all the time?
RICHARD: Well, it is paradoxical. And one says one thing, and one has to say the opposite. But in my experience — I came across this when I was 17, and I'm 69 now, so that's more than 50 years ago — and when I came across it through a workshop with Douglas Harding, he said to everyone in the workshop, “Look, if you find this valuable, come and visit.” So I went and visited. It was not a course, it was friends. When I visited the first weekend with my brother and (in fact) my mother as well, there's probably a dozen people that I used to go every other weekend almost. And I decided this was important, and I wanted to be aware of this. And Douglas said, “Well, if you want to, you will. But you probably gotta put some energy into it. You've got to set things up to remind you of this.” And he said, “One of the things that really will help you, Richard, is if you have friends who are valuing this, because if you have friends that you enjoy golf with, and you go and talk about golf and play golf and go dancing, it's what you're enjoying at the time. Well, if you've got friends that are enjoying being aware of their true nature, hang out with them.” And so, what happened for me was that I made many, many friends through Douglas and through friends of Douglas, with people from all over the world who were valuing The Headless Way. And when I look back, I realized, to a certain degree, a part of the society I was growing up in was the normal one, where everyone told me I was Richard. But I was in a mini society where people also knew and saw and valued that I was space for the world. And this was normalizing. And this was infectious. And you got to (as we are doing) talk about things like how do you keep it going, how do you remember it, what happens if this or that? And it is very helpful to have friends to talk about it, and to find out what their experience is. And, of course, I got involved with sharing it. You see, if you want something to grow in your life, then it makes a difference if you actually communicate about it. If you talk about it. If you tell people. If you're just quiet and don't say anything, it just stays with you. But as soon as you start to communicate about something, it externalizes it, and it comes back to you in a different way. And it becomes more real in a funny kind of way. And I have found that having friends that I share this with and also running workshops, I benefit hugely because it is on the front burner for me. And I am discovering things about it all the time. So, I think everyone's experience is a bit different. But we have zoom meetings each week, which are free. And there's a growing community, there are people who regularly attend who are making friends with others, friends who value this, but obviously we'll see it from a slightly different angle. So it's very inspiring, nourishing.
SPENCER: I'm trying to imagine what a listener might be thinking right now. And I could see some of them saying, “Well, but what's the point? Why would I want to get into this state?” And so maybe you could talk a little bit more about what you see as the benefits to people for finding the state? And maybe also, what is it like in this state? What are the qualities of being in the state?
RICHARD: Yes. I think that being aware of your true nature appeals to some people and not to others. And for some people, it's the answer to a question they're not asking. And I don't know what makes someone get curious themselves in not just what they're doing, in their job and their family and their love life and their money and health, which is all absolutely, vitally important. But also this question, “Who am I?” “What am I?” And I think some people are drawn to that, and some are not. And this is a way of awakening to who you really are. And if you say, “Well, why would I want to be aware of who I really am?” I say, well, you might not be, you might not want to. Really, what got me interested was when I was about 10, I heard a sermon by a headmaster. And he told a story about, from the Venerable Bede who was a holy man and historian in the north of England in about the ninth century or something. And he told a story about the Venerable Bede about this big hole where the king was (or a lord), and there's a big fire in it, and everyone was drinking and in through the window, a sparrow flew around, and then flew out another window into the dark winter night. And for the Venerable Bede, this was an image of the fleetingness of life. But for me, the question that just really grabbed me was, “Where did that Sparrow come from? And where did it go?” That is the question, “Where does anything come from?” Here we are, alive, but what is it to be alive? I mean, it's a great miracle. You can't explain it. So to me, underneath all of this, this recognition that, “My god, I am. I am.” Just let me pause for a moment and appreciate the fact that no matter how much money I've got or whatever is happening in my life, I am. And then I say, “Well, who am I? Who am I?” Now, I would say there are many ways home to finding who you are, who you really are. So you're not just Richard, which is all part of that, but who you are in the very center of your being. And the great mystics say that you are the one, you're god, you're spirit, Buddha nature. And that if you awaken to this, it turns everything upside down, and insula in a very good way. It's as if you're asleep, if you're not aware of this. One of the things that I say it does for you is it settles a basic question of who you are. And then what comes from this is a sort of inner confidence; it's not confidence in Richard. It's just, “Ah, it is like coming home.” And in the midst of the vagaries of life, which you can't control, you have this inner feeling of being at home, and being safe. And even though you'll die, your true nature won't. Well, I can't prove that. But so, I would say that it is a kind of joy. Douglas had a beautiful phrase for it. He said it's the joy that knows no variation and casts no shadow. That is awakening up to your true nature. And it being available, you can always become aware. You've got to cultivate it, you've got to keep it. You won't feel that (I don't suppose) in the first moment; but you might. But one of the joys of it is it's always there. So you relax. And the rest of my life, I think is a deepening relaxation, and a deepening recognition that this mystery that one is, is just a marvel, and is so creative, and powerful, and on your side. So, I think there are lots of other more kind of daily benefits, like intimacy with the world and intimacy with others and not being cut off and not being in the world, the world being in you. So there's countless benefits from this. But I think I wouldn't advise chasing the benefits. I would say, come home to this mystery, and then find out what it gives you. This is a great adventure.
SPENCER: My colleague, Jeremy Stevenson, and I worked on developing a non dual mindfulness scale. I wanted to run this by you and see if these different aspects on our scale, how they connect to the state that you're describing, and see if it has these different properties.
SPENCER: The first property that we try to measure on the scale is the shift in your identity. So, you you feel identified with awareness, rather than feeling a separate sense of self. So would you say that that describes the state?
RICHARD: Not really. It's half of it. I would say there is a continual back and forth between the need — identifying with Richard and being identified with awareness — and I move back and forth. So I think this is healthy, and is the way it is anyway. So the soul identification, if you like, with who you are as a person, you realize that's not the only story. It's a bit like a seesaw; there's another end to it, or two polls with a battery, really. So don't overlook the near end, which is who you really are, but don't overlook the far end, which is who you think you are. Does that make sense?
SPENCER: Absolutely, yeah. So the second trait we look at on the scale is what we call ‘absence of small self-identity'. So, this is the sense of the separation between you and the world dropping away.
RICHARD: No, it doesn't. And I think this is a very confusing thing for people because at least I find I can't get rid of that feeling of separation. And if I think that I'm supposed to, then I'll end up always feeling I'm doing it wrong. And I speak for myself here that I tried to get rid of it, but I couldn't. And then I accepted it as part of my experience. And now, I value it immensely. But as I say, that is balanced by my awareness of who I really am. And they fit hand in glove, they go together as not a matter for me of trying to suppress, get rid of, deny, transcend my sense of being Richard. No, that is vital, important, that is my ticket into society, very precious. But, it's not all that I am. It's not my central identity, but it's very important.
SPENCER: The third factor on the scale is that it's always and already available. So you can recognize that it will be in ordinary states of consciousness.
RICHARD: Well, yes. But there's the hallmark of The Headless Way, as you test everything out. So if you say, “Well, it's always available.” So, I'd say, “Well, point back now at the place you're looking out of, where others see your head. And do you see your head?” I say, “There you are, you're testing it.” You say, “Is it available now?” “Yes, it is.” “So in the present moment, that's the moment to test whether or not it's always available?” I say, “Yes, it is.”
SPENCER: So the next factor on our scale is that it has a sense of profound well-being. So in the moment, when you're recognizing it, you have well-being associated with that, or you have freedom of suffering.
RICHARD: Yes and no. I think that the basic experience, in one sense, is kind of neutral. We point back, and can't see anything, so there's no content. It's kind of neutral. And there's a great advantage to that, because it's not a high. That's why it's always available. If it was some kind of high state, it wouldn't be all always available. Certainly not to me, anyway. But because it's no thing, empty of all qualities. Well, self-evidently, it's available. But the thing about it is that it's not just empty, it's also full. And right now for me, it's full of our conversation and the world. So it is built open to the world. Now I say this is just profoundly positive, welcoming. I've just been reading up on Zen Buddhism, and they have these koans and people. It's rather obscure in places. But on several occasions, when someone has asked the master, “What is the truth of Zen?” The master just opens his arms. And I say, “Well, that's it.” Seeing who you are, seeing you're open, you're receptive, everything is in you. Now, this is the joy that cast no shadow. This is being infinitely rich. So I would say, yes, on the one hand, it's neutral. It's not a high, it's the same, and is all. On the other hand, it's just so rich, and so wise, and is built open for the whole world, and everything is in you. So it is the joy that cast no shadow. And no, there's no variation. Yes. In Indian spirituality, Satchitananda, being consciousness, bliss. It's not the kind of bliss that you experience and then can't function. It's a kind of basic recognition that all is well, and everything is in you, and there's no separation. At the same time, as you're trying to catch the bus, you're that. There's one more thing, there was a rabbi, and he had a piece of paper in each pocket. And on each pocket, a piece of paper in his left pocket, a message is written on it. And there's a different message on the right. The message in his left pocket was, “For me, the world was created.” That's who you really are. “For me, the world was created.” Wonderful, you see. But the message in the other pocket was, “I am dust and ashes.” I am a person. And both are true.
SPENCER: But you can suffer while you're having this realization?
RICHARD: The world is a painful place, yes. Things don't go according to plan. Yes, I say yes. One of the experiments we do, and it's quite good if you've got (I suppose) your eyes open (well, it doesn't matter). You hold out your arm, and you look at your hand. And so, I see my hand and my arm and then my shoulder and then it disappears into the great void here. And I feel my hand. Now, I make my hand into a fist and it gets tense. Now, does the space at the near end of my arm get tense? No. So, just its face there to no face here, is tension or stress or pain there, to no stress, no pain, no tension here, so you relax your hand. So it's the two-way thing. The view out is full of pain and suffering and is difficult. The view in is free of all that. Wonderfully, there's no dividing line. But you can distinguish between these two sides of yourself. And I think the idea that you won't suffer when you see who you really are, (anyway, I speak for myself), there's plenty of suffering around, but there is no suffering at the center. And that helps me cope better with both my own suffering and the suffering of others around me.
SPENCER: So this is a terminology question. But would you describe what you teach as a non-dual technique?
RICHARD: I don't know. Because ‘non-dual', I just don't find it a pretty, beautiful phrase, really. I find it rather technical. And also, in the phrase, it doesn't acknowledge the dual. And the dual is important. The non-dual makes it sound as if that's all there is. And there is the dual. There's your sense of separateness as well as your recognition of, there's no separation. It's just a personal thing. I understand it. And I don't use it myself for that reason.
SPENCER: So one thing I find interesting having asked you these questions about some of the properties of the state is, it seems to me that what you're describing is a different state than Sam Harris is describing when he's talking about non-duality, and also a different state than what Loch Kelly is describing when he's talking about non-duality. So I'm wondering, how do you think about what you're talking about relative to the work that they do, because I know that you've kind of seen some of their work as well?
RICHARD: Well, I think, and I believe, and I'm profoundly convinced that the experience is the same and they are all the basic experience of who you really are. But we think about it differently. So of course, Sam is going to talk about it differently, and Loch Kelly, and all the rest. And we sing our own song. And I think that when one understands that the basic experience is the same, you celebrate the differences. But do you remain true to your own point of view, and you hope that it is helpful? I find as I go on in my life, that hopefully I am able to listen and receive from people who obviously — whether it's a well known teacher or just a friend — that I take seriously the fact that they're coming from the same emptiness as I am, but their expression is different. And vive la différence, as I've said before. So, this is a wonderful thing. When you wake up to who you really are, you realize, when you think about it, that everybody is the same at center. And you can see that, that has radical implications for how you relate to so-called others. They are not just other, they are also yourself. And Douglas Harding wrote, his first popular book was called, “On Having No Head.” It starts with the experience — it's a very good, well-known chapter — that starts something like, “The best day of my life, my real birthday, so to speak, was when I discovered I had no head.” [laughs] What a way to start a book. Anyway, he describes that, then the next chapter probably is implications, what does it mean? He said, “Well, two things occurred to me. First of all, since I had no head, no face here, I could never confront anyone face to face, it's always face to no-face. I could never confront anyone, I did not confront anyone, I do not. I look at someone, it's face to no-face.” So that is challenging to the way you relate to others. But then he said, “The second thing that came to me was, since I am built open for the world like this, I must accept that everyone else is in the same condition, that they are spaces for the world.” And then he said, “And therefore, I must think the world of them, because they are the world.” So, when you wake up to who you really are, you realize whether people know it or not that they are the one as well. And this is ‘Namaste'. This is, “I recognize that the one in me is the one in you.” And this is the basis of profound respect. How can you respect anyone more than recognizing who they really are, as well as who they appear to be? Well, their appearances isn't appearance of the one. And so, I think that this is something that hopefully will live long and healthy lives, so we have time to relax into and take it seriously: this awakening to not only who you are, but who everyone is. This is not just a technique for getting on with people. It's true. I say, it's true.
SPENCER: Going back to the question of how your method relates to Sam Harris and Loch Kelly, just for a moment. I'm confident that they can get into the state that you're describing. But I am not convinced that the state they're teaching people to get into is the same state that you're describing, if that makes sense. And the reason that I don't think that they're teaching the same technique is because I think the technique they're teaching, they claim, has these other attributes like you can't suffer when you're in that state, and the sense of separation between you and the world drops away, and so on. And so it feels to me like there's some other state they're trying to teach people to get into. And do you think that that's not true?
RICHARD: Well, I think that if I had a conversation with them, I think we would understand each other. And I did have a conversation with Sam. And I think we understood each other. And so, I accept that where they're coming from is the same as where I'm coming from. Because that's where we're all coming from. It's a nonverbal, pre verbal, direct experience. Now, when you start to talk about it, you have to obviously use language. And it can sound as though... if you say, “Well, there's no separation with the world.” I totally agree with that. But just logically, that ‘center, no separation' can include the feeling of being separate. [laughs] Shall I say, not? So, I think that we're coming from the same place, and people are different, and they emphasize different things. And if it's helpful to others, all power to them. And I don't even say state. What I'm talking about is not a state. A state, to me, has got content. It comes and goes. But I'm talking about the space in which states of mind come and go. It's a word for something that is not a thing. Now that is the same in us all. Then how we talk about it, is so conditioned by our experiences and what's been valuable to us. So, I sing my own song, and hopefully it's a value to people. But anyway, it's just true. [laughs]
SPENCER: How do you think about the relationship between what you're teaching and concentration practices, where people might learn to focus on their breath and learn to kind of pinpoint their concentration and maintain it for a long time? Do you view it as just sort of a completely different thing, and it's not relevant? Or do you think that somehow, it's relevant or helpful with regard to your practice?
RICHARD: Well, we did the pointing experiment, which is pointing back at you, the looker, and seeing there's nothing here. But you can point out at things. So you point in and you point out, and I point out at things, and there's colors and shapes. And I can direct my attention out to sounds or feelings or thoughts. And I can also drive my attention in, to the space in which all those things happen. Now, we're all paying attention to whatever's going on in our consciousness, aren't we? Are you paying attention to the sound of my voice now, or if you're feeling hungry, or suddenly you've got a memory of something you should do, or whatever? I say that's pointing out, and that you've got to concentrate on things. And if you pay attention to your breathing, and go into that kind of thing, you'll get benefits from it, you'll get calmer, you'll relax. Or if you focus on something, you will learn from it. So all of that is the view out. The view in is in to no content. So there isn't an opposition between them. But I say don't overlook the view in. Don't just be concerned with the content, whether it's your breathing or whether it's your taxes, or whether it's your friend talking. Don't just tend to that. Include the space in which it is happening. I'm aware now of the space in which this conversation is happening. So, they go together. But I think it's easy to overlook the space. My job is to say, “Don't overlook the space.” It's to, well primarily, enjoy it myself, be aware of myself, but to communicate about the great benefit of — I think that it'll help you — I find if I'm lying in bed and can't get sleep, I become aware of my breathing and my body sensations. And I attend to the fact that they have no edge, that I don't have a shape, that the sensations are kind of floating in this nothing, this space. So it's as if the image I have is, I went a couple of times to the Dead Sea in Israel, and you float in it. You can't sink. You don't have to paddle to stay above water. You just relax, relax, relax. Well lying in bed, you've got these sensations and then it's as if you're floating on the great void and you can't sink. And I'm aware of my sensations now happening in the great void. Did I feel gravity? I feel weight. But underneath that is just vast space. And it helps me relax. It is interesting. It helps me. Yes, deeper and deeper relaxation from that. So it helps you with all these things. After I met Douglas Harding when I was 17, I spent a lot of time with him, I traveled with him, I ran workshops, I read everything he'd written, run workshops myself at university and afterwards. And then by eight years after I'd met him, I got interested in Buddhism and meditation Vipassana, and I just needed to do something. I didn't leave Headlessness. I just wanted to find out what Vipassana was. So I did a retreat, and I went to live at this meditation center. And they asked me to train. I trained for a year and then I led 10-Day retreats for three years, one after the other. Now, what I found was that I really enjoyed being quiet and still, and what was beneficial for me was I was not looking for my true nature. I was aware of my true nature. I was at home. So, I was just enjoying being at home. Whereas I could see in some other people that they didn't know about home, and they were looking for it, and they couldn't find it. And so it was an endless struggle. So, I say, The Headless Way helps you with meditation, because it shows you where home is. It's vast openness. Okay, now you're at home, enjoy that. So meditation is not looking for who you are, or for whatever that is; it's being there and enjoying it. That's quite different.
SPENCER: Before we wrap up, what would you say to someone who's listening who just still doesn't feel like they get the state that you're talking about? Can you give any other pointers of sort of how to experience or how to get there for people that are still a little bit baffled?
RICHARD: Well, I would say there's a ton of stuff on our YouTube channel. And on our website, headless.org. And there are lots of free zoom meetings. There's lots of books by Douglas and others. If you go to our website, you'll see. This podcast, I mean, there's an immense amount of free information and opportunities there. And so if you are genuinely interested, “I got it,” “Somehow I haven't got it.” I think that you'll find a lot of encouragement and help from meeting others primarily, but also just from watching videos, interviews with people. So I would encourage you, if you feel drawn, if you feel interested, if you just want to find out a bit more, go to those resources, really.
SPENCER: Great, Richard. Thank you so much for coming on. It's just really interesting.
RICHARD: Thank you for inviting me, Spencer. And you see, I can't see you. We haven't got the video on and I have no idea what you look like, but I know who you really are. [both laugh]
SPENCER: Just the center of attention, right? [laughs]
RICHARD: Yeah, exactly. Well, thank you very much for inviting me, a pleasure to meet you.
JOSH: A listener asks, "Do you fear death?"
SPENCER: I don't really fear being dead because I don't think that it feels like anything to be dead. But I do fear dying. I definitely don't want to die in a way that involves a lot of suffering extended over a long period; I'd much rather die instantaneously, obviously. Well, I guess maybe not everyone feels that way. Either instantaneously or in a way that doesn't involve much suffering. So I think that that's something to be afraid of. I also think aging has a lot of negatives to it, and so I do fear that to some extent. I used to think about death a lot more. I would say I'd think about it almost every day. And for some reason, that has stopped, and I think I'm glad that's stopped; I think that was too much. I think that the right amount to think about death to get maximal value out of it is not zero, but it's also not every day. So now I would say maybe I think about death once a week, and I'd say that feels about right. It feels useful but not oppressive.
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