I recently discovered a wonderful little book with a very unusual title:
"On Having No Head," written by an Englishman named Douglas Harding.
It was pure fresh air to read - one of the most succinct, understandable
expressions of the mystical experience as I have read in my days of
seeking enlightenment. I'm no longer a seeker but a finder and what
I've found is absolutely wonderful. After discovering his extraordinary
book, I became curious as to the whereabouts of Mr. Harding. Was he
still alive or not? (He was born in 1909.) An address in the back of
the book said he gave workshops. I wrote and to my delight he responded
with an enthusiasm that spoke of someone much younger than 91 years
of age. Yes he was (is) still alive and he would love to come to Portland
to do a workshop.
Such was my initial contact with a man who is cited as one of the true
mystics of our century. A song has been written about him, and C.S.
Lewis wrote the introduction to his book, The Hierarchy of Heaven
and Earth, calling it "a work of the highest genius." Now it is
my pleasure and good fortune to announce his first Portland workshop.
Thanks to the gracious sponsorship of the Opening To Life Center, Douglas
and his wife Catherine will present a "Headless Workshop" May 21st-23rd,
1999 here in Portland. If you are interested in attending the workshop
or would like information, you'll find dates, times, costs and registration
information at the end of this article.
(Reprinted from The Headless Way website, www.headless.org)
By Richard Lang
Ramana Maharshi, one of the greatest Indian gurus of the twentieth
century, holding a gooseberry in the palm of his hand, said that seeing
who you really are -- discovering the Self -- is easier and more obvious
than seeing that gooseberry! This is a radical position to take insofar
as some gurus say we must fulfill certain conditions -- purity of mind
and body perhaps -- before we can "attain enlightenment." Jesus said
something similar to Ramana -- that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven we
must become as little children -- in other words, we must be simple
enough to see the obvious.
Headlessness, I believe, is on the side of Ramana and Jesus in this
case -- our true nature is not meanly hidden from us by a cruel God
(or whoever!) -- it is more obvious than seeing your own hand, or anything
you might be holding in your hand! I discovered the obvious -- my true
nature -- more than twenty-five years ago, in a workshop with Douglas
Harding, English philosopher and author. Harding had awoken to who he
really was in India in the 1940's when he was 33. By the time I met
him, in 1970, Harding had begun to develop his "experiments" -- a toolkit
of awareness exercises that are astonishingly effective in awakening
people to their true nature.
It might be too much to claim that they are 100% effective! but they
approach that figure. They are in effect "scientific experiments" which
test out the hypothesis that your true nature is right where you are,
available now (just as you are), edgeless, formless, empty of all things
-- and simultaneously full of all the world, the timeless source of
time, the still source of movement, the bodiless reality at the heart
of body, mind...
Before I say more about these newly developed experiments I would like
to go back a few years and tell how Harding came to his "realization"
- which he claims is so simple and straightforward that anyone can have
it too. You only have to be open and willing enough to look.
Douglas Harding, born in 1909, was brought up in a strict fundamentalist
Christian sect in England. When he was 21 he left, declaring that he
wanted to find out about the world for himself rather than being told
dogmatically what to believe. Beginning his career in architecture,
he also began asking himself one of the oldest questions of humanity
-- Who am I?
His method of inquiry was philosophy (rather than religion). It was
a philosophy that at the time was increasingly influenced by the scientific
ideas of Relativity filtering through from Einstein in the 1930's and
'40's. It became clear to him, as to others at the time, that the nature
of things, including himself, depended on the range of the observer.
For example, this page is a page only at half a meter, more or less.
At a very close range it is fibers, and closer still it is molecules,
atoms, electrons... In other words it has layers, like an onion. You
and I are the same. Within a certain range we are clearly human, but
not on closer inspection. And further away? We appear as a city perhaps,
then a country, then the Earth, the Solar System, the Galaxy...
Harding got this far, but then became stuck. What was at the center
of all these layers? It seemed impossible to peel away the last layer
of the onion. Then one day he saw a picture by the German philosopher
Ernst Mach in a book of philosophy. The drawing illustrated what Mach
could see of his own body as he looked down -- not what he looked like
to others, not what he looked like in the mirror, but his own "first
person" view of himself. Mach's drawing was the trigger that for Harding
peeled away the last layer. He stopped trying to get to the center of
objects "out there" and turned his attention round to himself - and
saw right into the center of his own "onion," his own self.
He describes this realization in his book On Having No Head --
he was in the army in India at the time, during the Second World War.
"What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular:
just for the moment I stopped thinking. Reason and imagination and all
mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. I forgot
my name, my humanness, my thingness, all that could be called me or
mine. Past and future dropped away. 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 trouserlegs 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! 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." (On Having No Head, Arkana.)
Following on from this "realization" Harding wrote a book on philosophy
(The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth) which explored in great depth
the meaning of this discovery. But for eighteen years he failed to share
the experience with anyone -- a long time to be on your own! Then he
succeeded in sharing it -- and gradually it has spread and spread. Part
of the reason for it spreading is the development of the workshop experiments.
These are drawn upon extensively in workshops. Let me say here something
about them. The point of all the experiments is to investigate your
true identity -- who you really are. This is not asking who you are
for others, what your various roles are in the world, what psychological
type you are... The question is what or who are you really at center,
right where you are, for yourself?
Since you alone are there, at your own center, you alone are the sole
and final authority on this place -- your identity. So in a workshop
you are not coming to learn another set of beliefs -- you are coming
to look for yourself at your own deepest identity. The experiments are
based on your present moment experience of yourself -- not on what you
remember or imagine about yourself. The effectiveness of these experiments
arises from their directness and simplicity. I believe they are a major
breakthrough in the work of sharing who we really are in the world.
As a result of their appeal to each person's direct experience, and
of their effectiveness, they serve to undermine any hierarchy of gurus
and students, or middle-layer of priests between "laity" and God.
This method is thoroughly and radically democratic! It would not do
the experiments justice to try and describe them all here -- in fact
there are dozens of them. Each one explores a different aspect of seeing
who you really are. The best thing is to come to a workshop. But you
can try this one -- it is deceptively simple! Point your finger at an
object in front of you -- notice its color and shape. Now point at your
feet -- notice their color and shape. Now point at your torso -- notice
its color and shape. Now point at where others see your face. Any color
or shape here?
You might remember a famous Zen koan that is relevant here: "What does
your Original Face look like -- the face you had before your parents
were born?" In fact only today I read the following in a book on Zen:
Lin Chi once said in a sermon, "In the lump of red flesh there is a
True Man of No Position. He constantly goes in and comes out by the
gate of your face. Those who have not seen him should try to do so."
In the major religious traditions you will find references to the discovery
of "headlessness." Persian poet, shouts, "Behead yourself" and "Become
seeing, seeing, seeing!" Elsewhere he declares: "He that beholds his
own Face -- his light is greater than the light of the creatures. Though
he die, his sight is everlasting, because his sight is the sight of
the Creator." Such pronouncements are not to be believed blindly. The
point is to test them by your experience -- for you are the authority
on you, not Rumi or anyone else. But the testimony of such great seers
is worth taking into account.
The Evolution of Consciousness
Finally, let me place "headlessness" in the context of individual and
collective evolution. When we were all born we were born headless! This
was our own view of ourselves. We had never looked in a mirror, never
seen a photo, and of course didn't understand language. So when you
lay in your cot you saw your legs, your arms, perhaps your mother's
face, the scenery beyond -- but not your own head! You were born wide-open
to the world -- one with the world.
This state of affairs is generally accepted by psychologists, though
not expressed in terms of "headlessness"! Yet! But day by day we became
educated to see ourselves from outside. Parents, teachers, friends reflected
back to us our appearance -- including our faces. We looked in the mirror
and learned to imagine that face we saw over there was "really" on our
shoulders here. In the process we learned to overlook our headlessness.
There came a point when for all intents and purposes we blotted out
our experience of being open. In this condition we now saw ourselves
as others saw us -- as objects in the world. We effectively shrunk from
being "immense" to being limited.
Discovering who you really are is reawakening to your natural and original
immensity. This immensity never went away! We just forgot about it.
Probably we had to. It is vital to learn about who we are as individuals
-- to become self-conscious. Self-consciousness is seeing yourself from
outside, at a distance of a few meters or so. The rediscovery of the
obvious -- of the difference between what you look like to others (a
thing in the world) and what you look like to yourself, at no distance
(no-thing full of the whole world) is the next natural step from self-consciousness.
It does not negate self-consciousness -- it includes it.
This evolutionary journey from pre-self-conscious to self-conscious
to Self-conscious is potentially where the human species as a whole
is travelling. The great spiritual teachers of the past were forerunners
of this evolutionary leap -- mutations in consciousness if you like.
I believe that we are now moving into a time when Self-realization will
be the norm rather than the exception. In fact, it may well be that
the species will not survive unless we make this step. The great thing
is that we now have the communication networks to pass such vital information
around very quickly. The experiments developed by Douglas Harding are
part of this contemporary shift in consciousness.
No doubt this article has raised a good many questions in your mind.
I hope so! A common objection to "headlessness" for example is: Yes,
I can't see my head, but I can touch it." Or, "What happens if you are
blind?" And again, "How does "headlessness" affect personal relationships?"
To explore these questions, the way forward is not simply one of academic
debate. There are a wide range of experiments -- appealing to your experience
-- which investigate these and other questions.
To experiment for yourself, sign up for the Portland workshop with
Douglas and Catherine Harding:
Opening To Life Center
532 SE Ankeny, Portland, Oregon
Free lecture Friday night, May 21st, 7:30 p.m.
Workshop: Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday 2-5 p.m.
Workshop cost: $50 for Saturday only, $75 for Sat. & Sun.
For more information and reservations, call the Hardings' hosts: Doug
and Dana Fulton at 503-557-1139. Tuition assistance is available. To
register, call for availability, then send name, address, phone, dates
attending, and a check payable to Doug Fulton for the workshop fee.
Mail to: Fultons, P.O. Box 637, West Linn, OR 97068. Please book early
as space is limited. Fultons' e-mail: nwmt~teleport.com.