The Headless Way
A method of self-enquiry
pioneered by Douglas Harding
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The Headless Way Out of Stage Fright 

(see video)

Sam Blight

I first encountered headlessness in 2005 with the capable help of Richard Lang. In my youth I remember reading an excerpt from Douglas Harding's beautiful "On Having No Head" in an anthology of articles about self-reference. I noticed at the time that what he said about my human trunk terminating upwards into infinite space filled with the universe was actually true, but as I was chasing the next "high" at the time rather than being particularly interested in the truth of my Being, the significance of what I had noticed was largely lost on me. It just seemed to be too ordinary and obvious and I was looking for something exotic, hard to reach and probably Indian.

On Richard's first visit with us here in Western Australia I was initially skeptical about the sheer simplicity of the approach he was advocating until, that is, I performed the first of the Harding Experiments in a group situation. This time the light went on and has pretty much stayed on since with varying degrees of engagement and intensity. My recognition of its significance was this time probably facilitated by the preceding (many) years of groping about for the "switch" with the help of whatever substances, meditation techniques, gurus and spiritual teachers seemed promising. This phase was not without tremendous revelations of course, for which I remain eternally grateful and I wouldn't change a thing with respect to it. It's just that whatever expanded consciousness I seemed to discover seemed fleeting and required varying degrees of effort and self manipulation, albeit at times of a very subtle nature. The bottom line was that these no doubt real exalted states never seemed to be readily accessible when I actually could have used them most -- say, during an argument with my wife or a trying situation at work.

The simple and instantaneous recovery and practice of the First Person view on the other hand, continues to be a wonderful, transformative adventure, affecting all aspects of my "everyday" life in surprising and unexpected ways. It is noticed perhaps most dramatically though, and from a practical standpoint in the field of public performance. I'm a passionate amateur (more or less) guitarist and occasionally perform to large crowds. Historically this has involved a high degree of anxiety accompanied by a range of physiological symptoms less than conducive to producing the best possible performance, including feelings of breathlessness, stiffness, sweating and dizziness. As a guitarist, the most distressing sensation was of having had my fingers replaced temporarily by what felt like sausages. I'm sure similar symptoms are familiar to most performers both professional and amateur and I'm aware that stage fright has ended more than one promising concert career. Thespians too are prone to this curse, most famously in recent years British actor Stephen Fry who ran off into hiding during the run of a play in which he had a major role, so dire did the effects of stage fright become for him personally.

Over time I developed strategies for coping with the problem as most performers no doubt do, but it always lurked in the wings and greatly reduced the pleasure I took in performing to large audiences. A few months after losing my head (or rather noticing that it had never actually been there), I accepted an invitation to provide the supporting act for my professional musician friend Kavisha Mazzella who was giving a charity concert. At the time I had a fair bit of new material I'd written and was keen to try it out on a live audience so my enthusiasm outweighed the terrors I could expect to encounter at showtime.

It wasn't until I was standing in the wings on the big night, being introduced by the show's compare that I was astonished to notice a complete absence of stage fright. Nor, even more surprisingly, did this realization proceed to trigger it. Instead I became aware that the naturally heightened energy in the situation was helping me to notice the Void from which I was operating. As I walked onto stage (or more properly, as I walked the stage into me) the usual dread and anxiety was replaced by a joyous curiosity about what it was going to be like to perform on stage as the First Person. I sat down, plugged in the instrument and began to play as effortlessly and with as much enjoyment and precision as if I'd been alone in my living room at home, if not more. Somehow the arms and hands emerging from the Void in the foreground knew just what to do and got on with it, free of any interference from an anxious self. If anything, the attention of the large crowd drew out the best playing I'd ever managed. The relaxed joy I was feeling seemed to be infectious too and within a few bars I could feel that the audience was on side and having a good time. At the end of the first tune there was enthusiastic applause. My usual slightly nervous and stilted stage manner was replaced by an easy acceptance of the crowd and amusing things to say emerged spontaneously to enliven the breaks between pieces. All the while I experienced the audience, individually and severally as being held safely and lovingly within me. Quite a revelation really.

And nor was it a one-off. In other potentially "stage frightening" situations since then, the Seeing of Who I really am has continued to bestow immunity from my erstwhile internal freeze-up. The only thing more terrifying perhaps than a live performance (which is after all mercifully fleeting) is a recording session in which the shortcomings of the performance are cruelly preserved for posterity. The recording of my most recent album proceeded in stark contrast to that of the previous ones. The latter required endless "takes" conducted in a tense and demanding atmosphere, leaving me drained and more or less disheartened at the results. While technically of a reasonably high standard, they nevertheless seemed to me, despite (or perhaps because of) the heavy cost in effort and anxiety, not to really capture the essence of what I was attempting to express.

In contrast, the recording of the most recent collection of pieces was a much more relaxed affair which started as a day devoted to exploring the best way to record the instrument, with a view to getting three or four tracks "in the can" if we were lucky. Instead take after take went smoothly and expressively as I allowed the Void to do the heavy lifting. We got the entire album of fourteen pieces in a single day's recording and for the first time I've been pretty happy with the result. The recording engineer found it particularly amazing and is still dining out on the experience.

It's come to me since that all anxiety is in a sense "performance anxiety". For a third person a poor performance in any situation can be expected to lead to a kind of diminishment or death of self. Performers even talk about "dying" on stage. It's as if our entirely proper instinct for physical self preservation comes inappropriately and devastatingly into play when we mistake what we look like as a third person for what we really are. Remembering the First Person seems to put things to rights instantly and without recourse to any other internal or external antics.

Samples of Sam's playing are downloadable at http://www.samblightmusic.com


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