My Closed Right Eye

'Self-Portrait' by Ernst Mach

'Self-Portrait' by Ernst Mach

The picture on the front of your order of service is a kind-of ‘self-portrait’ by an Austrian physicist called Ernst Mach. He drew it in 1886. He had the clever idea of drawing the scene before him as he actually perceived it, sitting on his couch and closing his right eye. As such you can see his own body lying before him; you can see the tip of his nose on the right, his brow above, and his bushy moustache below. If you see a photograph of Ernst Mach, he has one of those big Victorian beards. We only see the world through our own eyes. His subjective perception of reality is mediated through that one vantage, that one bushy bearded vantage. Most of the time, when an artist does a self-portrait, they use a mirror, and paint themselves from an imagined vantage of a few feet away. Mach is drawing himself with no mirror, and from a distance of zero, and as such we get this self-portrait with no head.

In the 1930s the young Douglas Harding was working in India. He had trained as an architect in London, but although architecture was his day job he was always far more interested in philosophical questions, in questions of ultimate concern. In Lowestoft he had grown up going to the Plymouth Brethren Church, but in his early 20s, he broke with the church. Like many of us have experienced, he found the notion of that community having all the answers, while all the other communities of the world had it wrong, an absurd state of affairs. He was left with a seeker’s sensibility. While in India all his spare time was devoted to this search for meaning, a desire to understand the nature of the world, and the nature of himself. He thought about his own humanity in these terms: beyond the Universe there is by definition nothing. The Universe is all Space and Time, the grand totality of everything. At this level, humanity is inconceivably insignificant. As we zoom in, we focus in upon one of the one hundred billion galaxies - our galaxy, the Milky Way, consisting of 400 billion stars. Zooming in further, we zoom into one of those stars, the Sun. And locked in the gravitational system of our star are a number of objects. One of those objects is the Earth, and as we zoom down further, we see continents. We see the largest island in what we know as the Atlantic ocean, an island that we know as Britain.

Now even at this level, at the nation state level, it’s difficult to perceive the impact a decision has upon the individual person. To get our heads around the scale in question, governments need to simplify their conception of the human being, thinking of them in terms of their economic worth, or as actors within an economic system, or as beings of which particular attributes we should be trying to maximise, like happiness (whatever that means), or education, or liberty, or social mobility, or whatever else… And it’s rather abstract, because it has to be abstracted. It’s impossible to really know the impact of a decision at the human level until we see it play out at the human level. Decisions throughout the world with wide-ranging implications are made all the time, which appear at the nation state level to be humane, or in our best interest, or morally good even, which when implemented in fact cause devastating harm.

And so we zoom in further. The county of Suffolk. The town of Ipswich. A building we know as the Unitarian Meeting House, and within it a group of people sitting and listening. And standing at the reading desk, one person, with an identity, a personality, a role, a history, and interests, operating within various relational networks, with nice people and difficult people. And I’m playing various games, to appear more agreeable when I’m not very agreeable, to appear more patient when I’m not very patient, and more charitable when I’m not very charitable. And I’m participating as an economic actor within systems I have an uneasy relationship with, causing inadvertently the exploitations of the poor, and of the environment, and the suffering of animals, and in ways I cannot perceive, and I do little to nothing about it.

And we zoom in further, to the extremities of an individual. Our limbs, and within, our organs. Our humanity again begins to blur and become abstracted. The surgeon must remind herself that the leg upon which she operates is part of an individual person. And we zoom in further, and we see the pores in our skin. And even further, and we look at our cells under a microscope, cells containing molecules, molecules made up of atoms, atoms made up of electrons, and on and on it goes until we get to the smallest thing, whatever that is. And between the smallest thing and the next smallest thing, there is nothing. We’re topped and tailed with nothing. At this level, humanity is inconceivably insignificant once again.

Douglas Harding (1909-2007)

Douglas Harding (1909-2007)

Douglas Harding thought about this in terms of layers, rings. Our human identity is a matter of range. Zoom out far enough and humanity is meaningless, zoom in close enough and humanity is meaningless. And so, humanity must be upon one such ring, not too far out, not too close in, at this level, this distance, at the level of you seeing me, and me seeing you. The trouble with this kind of model for Harding was it didn’t get him any closer to understanding who he really was. In some respect it actually moved him further away from knowing himself. It was too objective and too impersonal. This way of framing things may help us to understand objective reality, but it doesn’t help to understand self. We just don’t experience our own subjectivity in this way. He’s in India, and he’s thinking about this stuff, and it starts to become apparent that the world is going to be plunged into a second World War. And Harding feels a sense of urgency. He wanted to know himself before anything happened, before he died, and before it was too late. And so it was then, in the late 1930s that he came across the self-portrait of Ernst Mach, and his whole search for meaning was turned upside down. His whole concentric ring theory crumbled apart.

So, Douglas Harding comes across Ernst Mach’s self-portrait, and realises he’s been thinking about it all wrong. He’s been thinking about the nature of the world, and the nature of humanity, like a huge system; a layer system, going down from the Universe right down to the tiniest particle, with human concerns playing out at some strata in the middle. That was an intellectualised, objective reckoning of things, but that is not how he actually experienced the world. His personal experience was far more subjective, it was a far more headless experience. It arose from the realisation that one’s head is never actually visible when one looks out into the world. And that at the very centre of our world there is therefore no head, and no appearance. There is nothing at all.

A strange kind of nothing, an infinite nothing full of the whole world, and much more. A total presence not even sullied by the attributes of me. A clear interiority. To some this claim of Douglas Harding sounds intuitively true, and to some it sounds bafflingly wrong. How can he say he has no head? Clearly, he does have a head? But we need to realise that he’s making this statement from a first-person present sense. We can obviously look in a mirror and see that we have a head, or touch our face and know that we have a head, or look at others with heads, and assume that we too must have heads like them. All of which on one level is obviously true. The trouble with all these observations though is they’re all secondary to our primary experience of being in the world with no head. We should try to look at our own head from our own first-person perspective. We turn our attention from the world in front of us, from other people, and refocus our attention for a moment upon where we know our own head to be. Harding has a very simple exercise he does, in which he asks people to point at something in front of them, and then to trace with their figure across the floor, and up their own body to the point at which their own physical self disappears, and they’re left pointing into an open space of awareness. This can precipitate a sudden shift in perspective, a sudden absence of thought, a sudden present awareness. I have read that no matter how much you explain this experience, some just don’t have this experience, but to those who do, it can help us become aware of our lack of identity, self, and appearance, as all being secondary to this ‘nothingness’, this present awareness.

This lack of head then is the same as saying a lack of self-ness. We become momentarily awakened to the realisation that we have no self, because we are not who we look like. We are not the way other people see us. We are not the role we play. We’re not who others tell us we are, or any of that other external stuff. There is a more fundamental ‘nothing’ which we are. By seeing the true nature of ourselves in this way it opens us up to being thankful for the fact that we have occurred, which given the subjective experience (of this) is surely the oddest thing of all. This internal awake-ness. This mystery.

Harding would say, I know you can see who I look like, and therefore you think you know who I am, but, I swear to you (that here) I am completely different. This external self you see, every time you see it it’s slightly closer to death with every year (that’s not me). But the internal awake-ness, the eternal present, that is the opposite (that is me). And this goes back to what I was saying earlier - the incessant mistake we make of saying we are this external front, and we want this external front to be affirmed, this identity to be affirmed. But why affirm it? It’s not even who you are. We are the interiority. This internal awake-ness, this mystery, this is who we are. More fundamental than self. In the mirror we see ourselves at six inches away, the self-portrait is painted of ourselves at a couple of feet away, but the real question is not who we are at these distances, but who we are at zero inches. Who we are here, at zero, at the core, and what is that? That is the mystery, that is the kingdom of heaven, that is God.


Lewis Connolly