Not In Prison
In the spring of 2003 I received an article from a man who has been in prison for more than twenty years. J. Amberchele had read an essay by a friend of mine, the philosopher and spiritual teacher Douglas Harding and, carrying out Harding’s instructions, had seen Who he really was. (Harding, now 96, is the author of many books, including his now classic account of his own spiritual awakening, “On Having No Head”, first published in 1961.)
Harding’s instructions are uniquely clear and effective. In fact I would say that anyone who sincerely does Harding’s ‘experiments’ - as he calls his awareness exercises – will see Who they really are. (Now there’s a promise worth testing!)
Here is an extract from Amberchele’s article:
“The exercises are incredibly simple and altogether radical. The fact that they are both simple and radical is how I know they are right, although when I first encountered them in Harding’s books I had to laugh, they were so wacky. But then I caught on, I “got it”, as they say, I knew they were pointing in the right direction while the rest of the world was not.”
Amberchele shared these experiments with some of his fellow prisoners. He describes his experience after this workshop or ‘meeting’:
“…I returned to my cellhouse watching the sidewalks and the fences and the buildings slide by, while I remained motionless, as I have always been. I have only to point my finger to remember to look at what I am looking out of, and need only the image of a face to know that the end of confrontation is Here. And I realized something else leaving that meeting: that everything sliding past was none other than Who I am; I was, incredibly, walking through Myself, in awe of every step.”
I sent this article out through our newsletter and received several responses from people touched by this man’s story. Here is one of them:
“I have to say that this article delights me and at the same time moves me to tears. It’s probably the most precious witness to the availability and power of simple Seeing that has come into my hands, and so beautifully written… straight from the Heart and straight to the Heart.”
When I read Amberchele’s article I also was deeply touched. It was obvious this man had got the point clearly and deeply. Not only had he got the point, he was sharing it with others in the tough environment of a prison. And yet he had never participated in a workshop and had never met anyone else who was also conscious of their headlessness. In addition the article was well-written, bringing the reader right into that prison, right into that workshop, and right into the author’s own mind and heart. When I had finished reading I put it down. “That was a stunning article!” I thought. But then I doubted the depth and clarity of what I had just read. “Was it really so amazing?” So I picked it up and read it again to see. Perhaps I had got the wrong impression. But no, I hadn’t. It really was an extraordinary piece of writing.
I was scheduled to give workshops on headlessness near Amberchele’s part of the world later in the year and the idea occurred to me of visiting him in prison.
Swift on the heels of this thought came another: “You must be mad Richard – to think of going to this strange prison in another country to visit a man you don’t know. Just let the idea go.”
But in the next moment I remembered a passage by Jean Pierre de Caussade, the eighteenth century French Jesuit whose collection of letters and essays – “Abandonment to Divine Providence” – is one of my treasured books. Douglas Harding first introduced me to Caussade back in the early 1970’s and we have often spoken of him over the years. I was remembering a paragraph where Caussade encourages the reader to take seriously certain special thoughts that come into one’s mind from time to time - to trust them, and to act on them. Well, here seemed to be such a thought. I felt I was called to follow it through.
There was also another consideration in my mind. I am someone who loves adventure – well, some of the time! (Other times I am altogether cowardly!) And here was an invitation to adventure if ever there was one! Would I take up the challenge, or back out?
I got hold of the phone number of Amberchele’s ‘correctional facility’ from directory enquiries and, with some trepidation, called. After speaking to various people I eventually got through to the right officer and gave him my passport number and other details - for security purposes. During the conversation I learned I could only visit at weekends and so, changing my schedule as I spoke, I arranged a date and time to visit Amberchele.
At the end of August I flew in to the nearest city, hired a car, drove three hours through an unfamiliar landscape and arrived at the prison reception centre just after lunch. I was instructed to take everything I had in my pockets back to my car. All I could carry with me was a plastic card obtained from the reception desk for buying drinks in the prison, a document authorising me to visit the prisoner, and a metal disk I had exchanged for my car keys. I waited a short while and was then taken by bus, along with several other visitors, to one of the prison blocks. After signing in at the desk there I made my way through two sliding doors – the first locking behind me before the second opened – and found myself in what was called the ‘cafeteria’. Here were dozens of small tables where prisoners – all male and all dressed in blue – were sitting with their families and friends. There were soft drinks machines along one wall. I walked over to a table where two female prison officers sat watching the scene and identified myself. They directed me to a numbered table where I sat down to wait whilst J. Amberchele was called from his cell. (This is his pen name, not his actual name.)
I waited perhaps a quarter of an hour. It was a strange scene there in that room – strange at least for me. Prisoners were sitting with their wives, girl friends, mothers and fathers, children. They were chatting, drinking sodas, playing cards. Yet as I looked around I couldn’t help but imagine some of the feelings that must be going on under the surface. There were perhaps thirty or more prisoners present with their visitors. At the far end of the room was a metal door which, I worked out, led to the rest of the prison. Every so often a prisoner would come through this door into the cafeteria and I would wonder if he were J. Amberchele. Several times it wasn’t, the men paying me no attention but walking over to other visitors at other tables. Once or twice, I have to say, I was relieved it wasn’t Amberchele, sensing deep differences in outlook between us. But who knows? These were superficial first impressions. I realised I was judging and tried to relax, preparing myself to be with whoever came and sat down with me. Another man then came in, spoke to the two prison officers, looked in the direction of my table, and walked over to me. It was ‘J’.
Immediately I felt warm towards him. He was a man of about sixty, grey haired with a gentle, open face. I stood up, shook hands, and sat down with him at the small square table.
We exchanged some small talk to begin with but soon enough got on to what really interested us both – Who we really are.
We barely stopped talking during the hour and a half I was there.
At one point we walked over to the drinks machines and brought back a couple of fruit juices.
“Ah, that tastes good!” he exclaimed as he placed the bottle back on the table. It turned out the inmates only get milk or coffee in prison, so this drink was a special treat for him.
I asked how long he would be in prison.
“Probably for the rest of my life.”
Yet throughout our meeting I detected not one hint of self-pity in him. In fact, quite the reverse - a quiet joy and peace.
During our time together I noticed tears welling up in J’s eyes two or three times. Yes, he was touched by my presence there in that room – by the fact I had taken the trouble to travel many miles to visit him.
“Were you coming to this part of the country anyway?”
“No. I came specially to see you.”
When I had read his article it had been as if God – who is most intimately myself yet wholly other and beyond me – it was as if God mysteriously called to me from there in that prison. I felt I was called by another who was yet myself, and I wanted to meet that part of myself there in him. I was curious to see who he was. And I wanted to talk with him about what I guessed was as precious for him as it is for me.
I also know how wonderful it is to have friends who value this direct way Home – ‘Harding’s Way’ as J. called it in his article. And I wanted not only to have another Seeing friend myself, but for him to have a Seeing friend too - in me. Seeing friendships are deeper than words can say. You are consciously sharing indivisible being. This is wonderful and astonishing. You are two, yet you are one. What a mystery. Then when you are apart you can still see – and be - the being of the ‘other’ – right where you are.
And friends can so often inspire and teach us – when we are willing to look and listen. I guess that’s one reason why God created ‘others’ – to explore in as many ways as possible the incredible miracle of Being. And when there are ‘others’ – who are yet at the same time ‘OneSelf’ - then love becomes possible in a way that would not be possible if there had remained forever only one.
But J. was moved not just by the fact I had taken the trouble to visit him, but also by the beauty and infinite depth of what we were sharing.
And he was also astonished, as I am too, by how easy it is to see one’s ‘no-face’. “It’s so simple!” he exclaimed. “But I guess it just had to be this simple!”
I find it wonderful to have a language that describes seeing Who one really is in direct physical terms. Sitting there together we spoke easily about being ‘face to no-face’, of looking out of our ‘single eye’, of being ‘capacity’ for the prison, of being still whilst places and people arrive and disappear in one’s stillness. And we agreed that it’s astonishing to be able to physically point with one’s finger at Who one really is. Who would have thought one could point directly at God!
We also delighted together in the mystery and impossibility of Being creating itself. And we fell speechless – momentarily! – as we recognised that the self-origination of the Source is one’s own present achievement here and now. Creating oneself out of less than nothing, with no idea of how one does it! Without any possible preparation or intention! And this scene in the prison cafeteria – well, it was the precious overflow of one’s divine being! How creative one is!
From the point of view of everyone else in that cafeteria, we were two men talking together. And yet each of us was consciously being God, consciously containing the cafeteria and all the ‘other’ people in it. We were discovering we were the Source of it all. And from this indivisible Source we were exploring and enjoying two unique views out into that room and into the world.
J. mentioned that he didn’t normally write. His article ‘Harding’s Way’ had emerged spontaneously when he sat down one day and put pen to paper. And yet, from this unpremeditated act had followed contact with me. I had then sent out his article to many people – more than a thousand – and had placed it at the top of the list of articles on our website – open to the whole online community. Through this unfolding of events he has touched many people – people near and far whom he is quite unaware of. And now, following on from all this, I was sitting there before him. We never know what will happen, do we! We are not personally in charge.
Or perhaps, as the late Indian sage Anandamayi Ma said, “All things are well managed from Here.”
Well managed indeed! Without the Management itself having any clue at all as to how it manages it!
At half past four an announcement came over the loudspeakers – it was time for visitors to leave. After some final words J. and I stood up and shook hands. And then we hugged one another.
I joined the other visitors leaving. We crowded into the small room between the sliding doors. Through a window we could see the prisoners now left alone in the cafeteria, sitting there waiting before they were allowed to leave – not however through the door we had passed through but through that metal door at the other end of the room. It was a heart-wrenching scene, for their wives and families, and for myself. And then I caught sight of J. Though he was sitting amongst the other prisoners he was alone, quietly looking down. I’m sure he was seeing Who he really was.
I was too.
I think we were both feeling moved by our meeting.
And then I was walking out of the prison, climbing into the bus with the other visitors, picking up my car keys at the reception centre, driving away from the prison…
I was free to leave.
Yet we were both conscious of the freedom of our true identity.
After visiting J. I travelled on to other cities and other countries, continuing to give workshops on Seeing Who You Really Are – as I had been doing during the month before I visited J. From time to time I shared with friends and workshop participants the story of reading J’s article and my subsequent meeting with him. J. had inspired me, and I let people know. What a tough life he had had – and is still having. And yet there he is, seeing Who he really is. Who would have guessed he would have come through to This after the ups and downs of his life? Come through to this Freedom and Glory! Come through to seeing he is not in prison – prison is in him!
I don’t think J. could have imagined finding this freedom before he found it. But who can? How can one ever imagine This? It’s impossible to anticipate this boundlessness – possible only to see It, here and now. Even now I guess it feels incredible to him. Yet I’m in the same boat – seeing Who I am feels incredible to me.
The story of J. is inspiring others too. I know he has touched the heart of Douglas Harding. Douglas, at 94, at the summer gathering in England this year, read out the whole of J’s article – so moved was he by what he had found there. When at the end of the summer I returned to England from my travels, I telephoned Douglas. He urgently wanted to know about my meeting with J. Others too have been enquiring. When I tell them about J. and the value he places on Seeing, they are touched with amazement and admiration.
Shortly after I arrived home in London from my travels around the world I received a letter from J. Here are the first two paragraphs:
First, let me say what a great pleasure it was meeting you! Your visit grounded me in the practice of Seeing. I know that I am Alone in this, but all the same it’s nice not being alone – and there you were, sitting across from me and glowing with Seeing! How wonderful!
Since your visit, I’ve shared the pointing experiment with another friend, and he immediately “got” it. I’m not sure what he’ll do with it, but it certainly startled him. More like knocked his socks off! I keep thinking about what you said about God waking up.”
In his book The Trial Of The Man Who Said He Was God, Douglas Harding wrote about a fictional character imprisoned whilst facing the charge of blasphemy. In those days – in the novel – blasphemy was a capital offence. To all his accusers the accused appears of course as just a man – a man falsely claiming he is God. But the accused points out that when he attends to what he is for himself – as First Person Singular Present Tense - he is not a man. He is God. Amongst many witnesses called to testify against him is his jailer who confirms to the prosecuting counsel that he has seen the accused ‘in prison’. If the accused were really God, as he claims he is, then - the jailer agrees - no-one would be able to contain Him within the four walls of his cell. For God is boundless. Obviously – as third person – the prisoner is indeed imprisoned within his cell. But in his defence the prisoner shows the court a drawing to prove that as Who he really is – First Person Singular Present Tense – he is not in that prison cell: the prison cell is in Him. As you see in the drawing, the Prisoner is not contained within his cell - the nearest wall is missing. The Spacious, Transparent, Boundless One at this end of the prison cell is not in the prison. Uncontainable, he has escaped – before he has even been imprisoned. This One – and this One alone – is absolutely and unconditionally free.
My friend in prison is enjoying this unconditional Freedom.
I hope so.
Point at your ‘no-face’ and you will see this Freedom. Go on attending to this Freedom and blessing upon blessing will pour down on you - from the One you really are. For ever and ever. Unconditionally.
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