How to Recognise Pure Awareness
Douglas Harding and the Headless Way
I am aware of the room, these words, my bodily sensations, feelings, thoughts. These are objects of awareness. But what is this awareness? Awareness is one of the greatest mysteries we face. Why should it exist at all?
I will refer to the experience of ‘awareness itself’ as a pure awareness experience. Most people, aside from those familiar with spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, have never heard of pure awareness, let alone believe that there is such a phenomenon. They think that consciousness is just the qualities of experience such as seeing the pinkness of the water lily and smelling its sweet fragrance. According to many meditative traditions this is to miss the essence of consciousness. It is to focus on the contents of awareness, while overlooking awareness itself. There is a growing interest amongst philosophers and scientists in pure awareness experiences reported by contemplatives. A recent example is a study by Alex Gamma and Thomas Metzinger which surveyed the characteristics of pure awareness experiences in 1,400 meditators.1
The recognition of pure awareness is particularly important in Tibetan Buddhism as it is Buddha Nature itself. As it is described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead:
This brilliant emptiness is the radiant essence of your own awareness. It is beyond substance, beyond characteristics, beyond colour… The instant of your own presence is empty, yet it is not a nihilistic emptiness, but unimpeded radiance, brilliant and vibrant… Your own awareness, a vast luminous expanse, clarity inseparable from emptiness, is also the Buddha of unchanging light, beyond birth and death. Just to perceive this is enough. If you recognize this brilliant essence of your own awareness as Buddha Nature, then gazing into it is to abide in the state of enlightenment.2
This awareness is empty like all phenomena because it lacks its own inherent existence. It is not merely nothing, however, because it is luminous, which is another way of saying that it is awake and alive. This awareness lacks colour and all other qualities. It is colourless, shapeless, feelingless and silent. It is described as pure and transparent — a clear light. It is as vast and boundless as the open sky.3 Francesca Fremantle refers to it as ‘luminous emptiness’.4
Given the importance of pure awareness in Buddhism, the question is — how does one recognise it? Generally, it is thought to become manifest in deep meditative states, when all thoughts, and in fact all objects of awareness, have completely ceased arising. All that remains is a self-luminous awareness. However, how this realisation of pure awareness is meant to have practical benefits off of the meditation cushion is uncertain. There may be some psychological benefits that carry over into everyday life, but surely recognising it in the midst of everyday activities would be even more beneficial. Furthermore, the notion that pure awareness is the essence of consciousness, suggests that it must be implicit in every experience of the world, so there seems to be no reason why it could not be recognised in everyday experience.
A unique approach for recognising pure awareness in everyday circumstances was pioneered by the philosopher and mystic Douglas Harding. He is most well known in spiritual circles for his classic On Having No Head which presented his unconventional approach to self-inquiry.5 The Headless Way is a contemporary spiritual practice based upon Harding’s methods. The key to this method is noticing that you cannot see your head. Instead of a head, I seem to be looking out of a vast unbounded gap. The goal of the ‘headless meditation’ is to bring your attention back again and again to this void — this spot that is empty in some sense, yet also full of the scene.
The significance of the ‘headless’ experience for Harding can be understood in the context of his broader philosophy. Harding was brought up in a strict fundamentalist Christian sect, the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren, in which literature was banned except for the Bible, Brethren writings, and the minimum of school books. Neither could he go to the cinema or theatre. He broke away from the Brethren at the age of 21.
Harding trained as an architect and worked in India in the 1930’s and 40’s. But his heart wasn’t in architecture, rather his burning question was: What am I? He was influenced by relativity and he realised that what he was for others depended upon the distance from which he was observed. From a few feet away he appeared human. But as the observer retreated, he appeared as a city, a continent, a planet, a star, a galaxy. As they approached, he appeared as a human, cells, molecules, and with further apparatus as atoms, particles, and finally virtually nothing. What he really wanted to know was what was at the centre of these layers of appearance. What was he at zero distance?
Finally, one day during his research he came across a self-portrait by Ernst Mach drawn from the first-person perspective. In the picture, there was no head. Harding suddenly realised that from his point of view he wasn’t looking out of a head. At zero distance he was ‘nothing’. The mysterious centre of things (their fundamental nature) wasn’t somewhere out there, rather he was already at it — he was looking out of it. However, this wasn’t a mere nothing because it was awake and contained everything.
Douglas Harding’s philosophical work, which he wrote from outside of the academy, is not well known in academia.6 Though Harding’s approach is clearly ‘phenomenological’ in a broad sense of this term, unlike the highly abstract and technical work of Husserl, Harding’s work instead focuses on concrete first-person experience. His approach is perhaps most similar to the form of experimental phenomenology found in Gestalt psychology, which uses apparatus within experience (such as drawings) to demonstrate Gestalt effects. Harding also developed apparatus to explore experience, but his focus was to use them to assist in attending to the spot one is looking from.
I will guide the reader through a couple of Harding’s first-person experiments and try to show how they enable one to recognise ‘awareness itself’, as it is described in contemplative traditions. Please note that you actually have to do the experiments, not just read about them, otherwise this article will not make any sense.
Before proceeding, I will try to clear up a couple of possible misconceptions. The exercises are not about imagining that you don’t have a head, but rather noticing what you are looking out of in your direct experience, when common sense assumptions are set aside. It is also certainly not the claim that ‘you’ the person does not have a head. Others see your head from where they are and you also see it in a mirror. Importantly, neither is the point to deny your third-person identity, like in some spiritual practices, or to try to get rid of the sense of self. Your personhood is a valuable part of your identity and allows you to function in the world. This being said, your personal identity is not your central reality (right where you are), at least this is the claim we will be testing.
The Pointing Experiment
The first experiment uses a pointing finger to direct your attention.
Look at your finger and notice its colours, shape, textures, wrinkles. Now with this thing, by pointing, direct your attention to a far wall. Notice the colours of the wall. Now point to the floor. Notice the patterns, colours and textures. Now point to your foot. Once again you are pointing at a shaped and coloured thing. Point at your leg. Another thing with shape and colour. Then your torso. It has a shape and colour, perhaps movement from your breathing. Now point at where you are looking from. From your present experience is your finger pointing at an object, a thing? Does there seem to be a head or face here? Any eyes? Any colour, shape, movement? Is there anything here at all or is it just an open space? Is it true to say that this space contains everything on show — your finger, hand, arm, body and the room? Does it also contain ‘facial’ sensations and floating ‘nose’ blurs? Is there anything visually outside of this Gap, or is it as open and boundless as the sky? Rather than a mere emptiness, isn’t it also awake to itself and the scene? Could you call this an unbounded transparent awareness?
The Mirror Experiment
For this experiment you will need a mirror. Look into the mirror and take notice of your current experience. Going by what’s given now (not by what you believe, remember or imagine) how many faces do you see? Are you face-to-face or is the setup face-to-no-face? Notice that the face in the mirror is small and some distance away, not on your shoulders. It is also facing the wrong way. Study the face. Notice the details of its eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks. It is a coloured, shaped thing with wrinkles and other imperfections. As a thing, it excludes other things. It is constantly changing, and is a little older each time you see it. Now bring your attention to where you are looking from — what it is like to be you at zero distance? Are there any eyes here? Mouth? Cheeks? Colours? Wrinkles? Imperfections? Movement? Is your side opaque like that face or is it transparent? Is there anything here to exclude things? Is there any change here? Are there any personally identifying characteristics where you are looking from? Any gender? Any age? Any species? Would you call where you are looking from a dead void or is it alive with awareness? Could you describe this as a ‘luminous emptiness’? Is there any dividing line or boundary between this aware-gap and the face? Don’t you disappear in favour of that face, and indeed all faces, not to mention the given world?
These experiments are modern meditation techniques. The goal is to turn attention 180 degrees from the objects of awareness to who or what is experiencing these things. Although the method is novel, the results are consistent with contemplative traditions such as Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and the Advaita Vedanta, which all describe your ‘true nature’ as colourless, shapeless, soundless and changeless.
Although awareness is distinguishable from the world, in fact opposite from it in every way, this does not make it separable from the world. Being distinguishable in experience is not the same as a metaphysical duality. Relative opposites like black and white exclude each other. This transparent-silence, on the other hand, by lacking all qualities in itself is absolutely united with the world. Paradoxically, in some sense, the awareness is the world. Is this how it seems to you? To take a concrete example, when conversing with a friend, their face is mine. My own face never gets in the way. They also have my face. We trade faces in conversation. In a sense, everything is a mirror held up to me. Although it has been called ‘luminous emptiness’, couldn’t we equally say that the given world itself is self-luminous?
The claim for testing is that the ‘nonduality’ of self and world, rather than being a concept we have to try to understand or take on faith from a spiritual teacher, describes one’s everyday, pristine perceptual experience. All we need to do is to look to see if there is a head blocking up the centre of our world. The vast literature on ‘nonduality’, while of course useful, consists of a great deal of mythology and conceptual baggage, and hence can represent yet another and even more subtle distraction from noticing one’s direct perceptual experience.
The Headless Way is a direct and de-mythologised approach to self-inquiry. In most spiritual traditions, teachers and sacred texts are treated as authorities.7 Douglas Harding, by contrast, perhaps partly as a reaction to his own highly restricted upbringing, never tired of saying ‘dare to be your own authority!’ Rather than taking the claims of spiritual teachers and religious texts on faith (or the claims of common sense for that matter), test them by their own experience. Just as importantly, for Harding, spiritual claims need to be consistent with reason and science if they are to be taken seriously. The Headless Way can hence be considered to be a form of empirical or rational spirituality.
The spiritual literature, not to mention numerous websites and blogs, also invite us to get caught up in theories and concepts about ‘nonduality’, and even worse to argue about them. This is like electing to study a restaurant’s menu, and to debate about the way it is written, instead of enjoying the meal. Noticing that your face does not get in the way of the world is a simple non-intellectual practice for noticing the setup of the lived perceptual world. Of course, this isn’t to say we shouldn’t philosophise about the experience. I’m certainly guilty of doing this. We can do both. Rather the point is, as Ken Wilber is fond of saying, to not mistake the map for the territory.8
This awareness is apparently unlike any objective phenomena investigated by traditional science. Third-person science observes things from the outside. Since it only looks outwards, it overlooks what is actually observing. Douglas Harding’s first-person science, with the aid of apparatus such as pointing fingers, tubes and mirrors, shows how to look inwards to recognise awareness itself — at least, that is the claim for testing. First-person methods are still highly controversial within science and philosophy, yet surely a rigorous first-person investigation of consciousness is needed to provide a complete empirical picture of the world and most importantly to provide insight into what we are.
Significantly, the recognition of pure awareness does not seem to depend upon having experience in traditional meditation techniques. The results, at least in my experience, are intriguingly similar to what contemplatives and mystics describe as Emptiness, no-self, True Self and Buddha Nature, amongst many other terms. Yet rather than being an esoteric or mystical experience, the recognition of pure awareness is entirely ordinary and natural. It is at once a mystery and yet what you know most intimately because it is what you are in this very moment.9
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Brentyn J. Ramm is a Humboldt postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology and Psychotherapy at Witten/Herdecke University in Germany. His research focuses on using first-person experimental methods to investigate conscious experience (experimental phenomenology). He completed his PhD in philosophy at the Australian National University in 2016. His honours in philosophy was at the University of Queensland. Before this he completed a PhD in cognitive psychology at the University of Queensland in 2006.
Brentyn J. Ramm on Daily Philosophy:
Gamma, A. & Metzinger, T. (2021) The Minimal Phenomenal Experience questionnaire (MPE-92M): Towards a phenomenological profile of “pure awareness” experiences in meditators. Plos one, 16 (7), e0253694. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0253694 ↩︎
Padmasambhava & Lingpa, K. (2013) The Tibetian Book of the Dead, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, p. 14-15 ↩︎
Rinpoche, S. (1999) The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Daryaganj, New Delhi: Rupa & Co, p. 49. ↩︎
Fremantle, F. (2001) Luminous Emptiness: A Guide to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Boston: Shambhala Publications. ↩︎
Harding, D. E. (1986) On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ↩︎
Harding’s main philosophical work, written in the 1930s and 1940s, is his magnum opus: Harding, D. E. (2011) The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth: A New Diagram of Man in the Universe, London: The Shollond Trust. ↩︎
Kramer, J. & Alstad,, D. (2012). The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power. North Atlantic Books ↩︎
I am not aware of Harding ever citing Ken Wilber’s work on nonduality, although Wilber (2016, p. 108-109) has recently recommended the ‘headless’ approach for recognising the nonduality of subject and object. Wilber, K. (2016) Integral Meditation Mindfulness as a Way to Grow Up, Wake Up, and Show Up in Your Life. Shambhala. ↩︎
For a more in-depth discussion on the topic of pure awareness, see my article: Ramm, B. J. (2019) Pure awareness experience. Inquiry, DOI: 10.1080/0020174X.2019.1592704. ↩︎