When I was 11, my dad explained to me the theory of the English philosopher Douglas Harding, “having no head”. We were on holiday in Japan, and on a walk one day through coniferous forest, we turned to philosophy. In 1961, Harding wrote of his realisation as he trekked through the Himalayas:
What I found was khaki trouser legs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in – absolutely nothing whatever! […] This hole where a head should have been…was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything… I had lost a head and gained a world.
Harding’s “headlessness” is an idea rooted in Chinese Mahayana Buddhism. More commonly known as Zen Buddhism, it is a disciplined, ascetic lifestyle thought to reveal the “true nature” of existence. Emancipation from our thoughts is believed to enable us to be kind to all living things. This emancipation does not come simply from adopting doctrine, but from meditation.
Late last year, I booked myself on to a meditation retreat at Throssel Hole Abbey, Northumberland – a decision that was, ironically, almost entirely thoughtless. The Abbey is home to the UK sect of the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives. Their doctrine is based on “serene reflection” or “zazen”: meditation with no anchor.
I arrived at dusk on a Friday evening in early February. It was freezing. I had been told that there was no signal or wi-fi at the Abbey so, clocking three 4G bars as I unpacked, I pretended I hadn’t and switched off my phone. A tour concluded in the common room. There were 20 or so people sitting around the edge of it. It was itchingly quiet. No one was wearing shoes.
The monks explained that while this was not a silent retreat, “unnecessary conversation” was discouraged. This included highly ritualised mealtimes. Before you serve yourself food, you bow to it. Afterwards you bow, pass the bowl, turn the spoon, then bow again. I felt a desire to laugh, then unease. Everybody looked serious. The monks were expressionless. The problem is me, I thought. There is nothing funny about bowing to a tub of margarine.
We sat for meditation in the ceremony hall, the same place we slept (a curtain dividing men and women was erected at night). Its walls were lined with identical wooden cupboards: we were each given one for our possessions, and to sleep and meditate in front of. You kept your eyes open, maintaining a “soft gaze” 45 degrees down. Below my cupboard there was a plug socket, so I stared at the plug socket.
There were moments when my unease was replaced with unbridled joy. Like when a woman tried to open her pot of Vaseline discreetly and it made a prolonged screech in the echoing hall. Or when, at lunch, a man held up his plate of unfinished food and loudly asked, “Does anyone want this?” (He was met with silence.) At one point, Vaseline Woman decided she would rather lie down – something usually reserved for people who physically cannot sit for long periods – and the monks (serious, berobed) propped up her body, clad in Instagram-friendly loungewear and fluffy socks, with cushions. That was much better, she said.
As for me, I was so thrilled to have been assigned a task that I launched myself into meditating with comic competitiveness, staring 45 degrees downwards and congratulating myself for not scratching itches. Once I realised this, it became less enjoyable. We only sat for half an hour at most – but those half-hours started to feel like days. I felt claustrophobic, like my skin was crawling. I kneeled on my meditation bench, stared at my plug socket and acknowledged the same frantic thought occurring over and over: why am I here?
At a certain point on Saturday afternoon I started plotting my escape. I wasn’t serious about the plan: deep down I knew I would endure five to ten more plug-staring sessions, three more silent meals, and one more day of creeping anxiety. My one act of rebellion was to sneak to my cupboard, turn on my phone and triple-check the time of my train the next day.
The plentiful 4G brought news. Storm Ciara was on its way. All trains between Newcastle and London the following day were cancelled. There were no bus replacements. Tickets were valid on Saturday – today – before 6pm. And so with uncharacteristic decisiveness I got a taxi to the station and, a pathetic 24 hours after I’d arrived, I was tucked into a plush red seat on a four-hour train back to London with two men from the retreat. We drank cold cans of Stella and ate greasy paninis from the cafe. Dylan, a Canadian living in Berlin, and Hans, a German living in London, compared the merits of German cities. Dylan told us about the fish and chips on Vancouver Island. Hans told us about German Brexit views. We talked endlessly about the retreat. While I had been lucky with my assignment on “working meditation” (stacking branches in the crisp winter sunshine), Dylan had been in the kitchen for two hours, going through kilograms of dried mung beans, one by one, looking for stones. The beer and sheer peculiarity of the situation made us laugh until we cried.
I realised that nothingness felt more appealing to me when it was itself an object to obtain – something to sit among everything else in my head. When I actually inhabited it, it was more frightening. I also saw how the monastery’s remoteness facilitated the practice. It is easier to think of nothing when there is nothing around you. It is easier not to be consumed by your feelings when you escape what causes them.
Those overwhelmed by excess isolate from it. Afraid of nothingness, I fled back to excess. I found that one of the goals of zazen – relinquishing suffering – was not something I was committed to; that I find the clatter of everyday problems comforting. A question asked in zazen is: “If we are not our thoughts and feelings, what are we?” Perhaps I’m not ready to answer that. At least for now, I am content to keep my head.
This article appears in the 06 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain