Douglas Harding (1909-2007) was a British architect who later became a spiritual teacher, author, mystic, and philosopher. He was raised in a highly fundamentalist Christian sect known as the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren, from which he apostatized and was excommunicated when he was 21 years old.
Harding spent the next decade in an intense self-inquiry search, which took him to India. He spent years there, after which he finally made a discovery at the age of 34, in 1943. Below is an account of the way he described his realization:
What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animal-hood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And 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 whatsoever! Certainly not in a head.
It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been, was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything: room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world… Here it was, this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void, and (and this was the real miracle, the wonder and delight) utterly free of “me,” unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence, body and soul. Lighter than air, clearer than glass, altogether released from myself. I was nowhere around… There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden… I had been blind to the one thing that is always present, and without which I am blind indeed to this marvelous substitute-for-a-head, this unbounded clarity, this luminous and absolutely pure void, which nevertheless is—rather than contains—all things. For, however carefully I attend, I fail to find here even so much as a blank screen on which these mountains and sun and sky are projected, or a clear mirror in which they are reflected, or a transparent lens or aperture through which they are viewed, still less a soul or a mind to which they are presented, or viewer (however shadowy) who is distinguishable from the view. Nothing whatever intervenes, not even that baffling and elusive obstacle called “distance”: the huge blue sky, the pink-edged whiteness of the snows, the sparkling green of the grass—how can these be remote, when there’s nothing to be remote from? The headless voice refuses all definition and location: it is not round, or small, or big, or even here as distinct from there.-Douglas Harding, as quoted in Sam Harris, Waking Up
Most of the “First Vision” accounts that I have cataloged thus far have included the salient feature of a bright light. This account also includes the intuition of illumination, but it is a more minor characteristic. Yet there are still many similarities to the “First Vision” pattern that I felt this account should be included.
This account is also unique in that atheist philosopher Sam Harris has called it “an unusually clear description of what it’s like to glimpse the nonduality of consciousness,” and an “experience of self-transcendence… approaching perfect clarity” (Waking Up). He recently recounted the experience on his podcast with Richard Lang, a long-time teacher of Harding’s “headless” tradition.
But how could this experience be like Joseph Smith’s mystical First Vision? Sam Harris would surely disagree that there is any similarity between the experiences of Harding and Smith (who Harris called a “libidinous con man and crackpot” in Waking Up). On first glance the similarities may not be apparent, but if we dig a little deeper I think we find many parallels. Let me count the ways:
- The experience had something to do with the mind. Harding says he “stopped thinking,” and all “mental chatter died down.” Joseph said his “mind was taken away.”
- Changes in the body. Harding describes a limpness or numbness in his body that came over him. Joseph experienced a paralysis of his tongue from a power that overcame him.
- Both expressed the ineffability of the experience, Harding as “words really failed me,” and Joseph as “defy all description,” and “indescribable,” “unspeakable.”
- Being taken beyond the “self.” Harding says he forgot everything personal, and became mindless, even being “headless.” Joseph says his “mind was taken away” from his natural surroundings, and that he came back to himself afterwards. Joseph’s experience of thick darkness and the feeling of the imminent “sudden destruction” of himself I think also points to this self-transcendence or ego death.
- A feeling of innocence, purity, or forgiveness. Harding says he felt “innocent,” “brand new,” “absolutely pure,” newly “born,” and that he had “dropped an intolerable burden,” and was “unstained.” Joseph said he felt “forgiven of all his sins,” and perceived one he called the Christ.
- The transcendence to a heavenly realm, a fullness, a vastness, a superb scene, mysterious, full of wonder and delight, a place of deep understanding.
- The experience of illumination. Harding says he experienced the scene “brightly shining,” “light” [although this seems to be referring to weight], “clearer than glass,” “unbounded clarity,” and “luminous,” being blind but now seeing. Joseph said he experienced a pillar of light (fire) that enveloped and filled him, and that the heavens were opened upon him.
- The experience of a presence. Harding says it was a “total presence” in the void of his absence, the “all,” the totality of all things. Joseph described the presence as being filled with the Spirit, and in Christian terms of God and Christ.
- A feeling of incredible “peace” and “joy.” Harding described it just in those terms, as did Joseph Smith.
- The experience of oneness or nonduality. Harding says he did not feel separate or apart from the scene, but was the scene itself. Nothing was “remote.” Joseph said he felt “filled with the Spirit of God,” thus at-one in God’s Spirit, and also that his soul was “filled with love,” which “Love” is another Christian term for God.
- A voice? Harding noted a “headless voice,” which was indescribable or indefinable, “refus[ing] all definition.” Joseph heard a voice speak to him from one which “def[ied] all description.”
There are other aspects that are not explicitly stated as part of Joseph’s First Vision but that were part of Joseph’s other contemplative experiences:
- There was a change in the perception of space and time. Harding says “past and future dropped away,” and that there was no “distance,” or “intervening” “obstacles,” nothing between viewer and viewed. Joseph said once when he looked into his seer stone that he “discovered that time, place and distance were annihilated; that all intervening obstacles were removed” (1826 Trial of Joseph Smith).
- A radical experience of the now, the present moment. Harding says he felt that only the “Now” existed, a word that he capitalized, giving it divine expression. Early Mormon hymns which may reflect Joseph’s visionary experiences note the same intuition of presentism: “From age to age whate’er took place, was present then before his face, And to the latest years of man, Was plain before him heav’ns plan…” And “There changing time is never known, Nor Sun o’er mountain brow, But God upon his shining throne, Fills one eternal now…“
- A singular eye. Harding also elsewhere described his experience as not looking out of two eyes, but out of a “single eye,” boundless openness. Likewise Joseph Smith described his experience with the seer stone in the same 1826 Trial, “that he possessed one of the attributes of Deity, an All-Seeing-Eye.”
Some might think Harding’s descriptions of being “headless” are quite absurd and contrary to natural reality; we clearly all have heads. But Sam Harris actually defends Harding in his book Waking Up against the criticisms of Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett who called Harding’s descriptions “childish” and “solipsistic.” As Harris noted:
This illustrates a very common phenomenon in scientific and secular circles: We have a contemplative like Harding who, to the eye of anyone familiar with the experience of self-transcendence, has described it in a manner approaching perfect clarity; we also have a scholar like Hofstadter, a celebrated contributor to our modern understanding of the mind, who dismisses him as a child.-Sam Harris, Waking Up
It is clear that Harris has a personal preference for the way Harding described things, using terms which are more commonly found in Eastern traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism (void, emptiness, self-lessness), than the way Joseph Smith described things in his mystical experience. And in doing so Harris may fall victim to the very same phenomenon that he criticized in Hofstadter: We have a contemplative like Joseph Smith who, to the eye of those familiar with the mystical experiences of the Christian West, has described it in a manner approaching perfect clarity; we also have a scholar like Harris, a celebrated contributor to our modern understanding of the mind, who dismisses him as a con man and crackpot.
This post should help clarify that the differences seem to be that of the particularities of culture and interpretive symbol, but they may be pointing to the same underlying experiential realities (or Reality), if we have compassionate eyes to see it.