Yesterday afternoon, the temperature was in the high 20’s, with snow gently falling⎼ a perfect time for a walk. The snow turned the sky a deep gray, and almost everything else, even my own arms, white. And it concentrated what I could see of the world into an intimate, silent tunnel into emptiness.
When I stopped walking and my steps no longer echoed against the road, the loudest sounds in the world were my own thoughts. And in-between those thoughts, or when they fell from my mind like snow, the silence was so deep I could fall into it. The sound of a woodpecker searching for food, the little stream on the side of the road, the trees scratching their skins against other trees, a distant airplane⎼ all such sounds disappeared into silence.
There’s a book by D. E. Harding, an English mystic and philosophical writer, called On Having No Head: Zen and the Re-Discovery of the Obvious. It’s about the author’s experience, and attempt to understand it, when hiking in the Himalayas and he discovered he had no head.
For months beforehand, Harding had been absorbed in the question of “what am I?” And then on one very clear day, standing on a ridge of the highest mountain range in the world, he looked into the misty valley below. And he stopped thinking. He forgot his name, his past, his concerns for the future. Any reference to any other time or place, or desire for any other time or place other than this, here, now, was gone. And in this hole where his head should have been there was everything ⎼ grass, trees, the distant hills, clouds, and snowy mountain peaks. A vast emptiness was vastly filled. If other people had been with him, they too would have been included in, and as, his head.
Harding said it was like being born anew as a whole, integrated world instead of a lonely head. It was a revelation; not dreamlike at all, but a crystal-clear awakening of the obvious. So peaceful. So simple, really. It might seem that carrying a mountain between one’s shoulders would be a heavy weight. But it was so light, even weightless; a terrible burden dropped into the snow.
In my copy of Harding’s book, which I had bought used years ago, was a note written by a previous reader. It was a famous line from the 17th century English poet, Thomas Traherne: “You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars.”
Such moments change lives. I wonder if the garden we humans may feel driven from was this state. This re-birth. Here love resides. And kindness, joy. Is the state described by Harding what underlies all joy? And does the tunnel of gray silence that appeared on the road I had walked yesterday lead to the headless Himalayas? Can all of us get there? Is this something only past humans could do but is nowadays impossible?
Or is this headless reality standing right here right now, wearing these shoes, pants, winter coat, and gloves? I really want to know this. There’s a fright and a joy in writing and wondering about this.
Then I stopped wondering.
Today, in the late afternoon, I took another walk up my very hilly and rural road. The snow from yesterday still covered the ground. On the way home, the sun set; and maybe five or ten minutes later, only a haze of light remained to hold back the night. No moon was visible.
Yet, in the snow, the road, the trees around me, there was a different sort of light. A soft light, of an indeterminate source; almost like one reflected from a house or streetlight. But there were no streetlights and few houses nearby. The light resided only in the space intimately around me, not off in the distance. It defied the coming dark and added detail and clarity to whatever was looked at.
What was that light?
So, maybe, if we give ourselves a break at times throughout the day, whenever it feels right to do so ⎼ like before eating, before speaking with a friend, taking a walk, or a drive. And we take a few deep breaths, to feel our feet on the floor, to listen to what we hear, or look at what we see. What wonders would we notice? Would joy be more of a friend to us? Would we be kinder to ourselves and others?
This Post is republished on Medium.
Photo credit: iStock