In the previous article, I described Harding’s discovery that he, in his first-person, singular, present-tense experience, did not have a head. He insists that anyone who gives it an honest, unbiased look, will find the same thing.
Obviously it’s a preposterous claim, and it raises some questions. Here are the most common sticking points.
What is the point of this?
The point is to experience your true nature instead of just experiencing your thoughts about your true nature.
We tend to see ourselves as what our thoughts tell us we are: separate, finite bodies, tiny compared to the world we inhabit.
Nearly all of your ideas about who you are have been derived from views of you at a distance, either from other people’s accounts, or from mirrors and cameras.
From a distance of a few meters, you do appear to be a finite thing in the midst of other finite things. From zero distance, your appearance is very different, but we tend to disregard what we see ourselves to be, in favor of what we’ve learned ourselves to be from non-first-hand sources. This collection of learnings is called the ego, and most people will never suspect that it isn’t who they are. All of it is second-hand, past-tense, misleading information about who you are, observed from angles that cannot possibly see what you see.
All the major spiritual teachings inevitably point to nonduality — that there is no real separation between you and the universe around you. Many people suspect this is true, believe it is true, or want it to be true, yet it remains only an interesting concept for most.
What the Headless Way (or “headlessness”) allows you to do is to see nonduality plainly. You can physically see the seamlessness between you and the universe that contains you. This has huge implications for our relationships with others, the ego’s negative effects on our lives, human evolution and a lot more.
I don’t get it.
That’s ok. Nobody will get it just by reading what I write here. In most of my articles, I explain a concept that is hopefully useful for the people who understand it and apply it to their lives. Normally the article is all anyone needs (I hope) to understand the concept.
This series is different from the rest of my articles. What I’m describing isn’t a concept, it’s an experience that you either have or don’t have. Once you have it (and I stress again that it is neither difficult nor exclusive), many of the peripherally-related concepts will suddenly make sense. But nobody will make sense of this just by reading my posts (or books by Douglas Harding for that matter.)
This series of posts is only meant to intrigue people enough to do Harding’s self-inquiry experiments for themselves. Reaching an understanding of headlessness through thought alone is impossible, and isn’t the point anyway.
The experiments are all available here, on the excellent website about Harding’s work, called The Headless Way.
But I know I have a head.
I know I have a head too, but that does not mean I see one from where I am, or that I could possibly conclude that I have a head like others do if I am honestly working from present evidence only. What I do see is an enormous space, without bounds, containing everything — including the rest of my body — which is centered on top of my shoulders. It is clarity itself.
I’m not you, so I don’t know what you see when you look at yourself, but I suspect that you will not see a head either, unless you are confusing your thoughts and memories with your sensory perceptions.
It’s not relevant that you know you have a head. Oddly, knowing you have a head doesn’t actually contradict your experience of not having a head, and once you experience it you will understand why that is.
Remember, your apparent form changes as the distance from the observer changes. At nanometers you appear to be molecules. At two meters you appear to be a headed human. At zero distance you appear to be headless. It makes no sense to pick one of these forms and say it is the truth and the others are wrong.
But two things are certain: 1) you can only ever experience yourself first-hand, from zero distance, and 2) since nobody else can experience you from a first-hand perspective, you should value your own direct observations above what outside observers tell you you are.
The headless part is only the beginning. Don’t get hung up on the debate about whether you have a head or not. Once you’ve seen what you are looking out of, there is no debate. It’s not a battle of beliefs — there’s no uncertainty here.
But I can feel my face and my head, and I can see my nose.
This is where we cross the line between observations and conclusions without realizing it. It seems that our non-visual senses — particularly touch — reveal that we do indeed have a head even if we can’t see it.
Experienced meditators know the value of observing a sensation without giving it a name. The body is constantly broadcasting little aches, throbs, gurgles, flushes and tingles, and with a bit of conscious attention it is possible to observe only what they feel like, without linking them to mental images — without picturing them, without trying to figure out what body part is hurting and why. When you do that, you recognize them only as sensations that arise in your awareness, perhaps change a little bit moment to moment, then eventually wink out.
The feeling of your hand touching your face is not itself a thing, it’s a sensation, and sensations are all we ever experience. They become “things” when we interpret and label them. Deal only with the raw materials of perception: sensations. Sensations are your actual observations, while things are conclusions about what those sensations are. With me?
When you move your hand closer to the clear space you are looking out of, at a certain distance the hand will begin to blur, and then at some point you’ll feel tactile sensations. With your eyes open, it is very difficult not to picture your own face (with your hand stuck to it) even though you cannot see your face. If you close your eyes and just observe the sensations by themselves, you will notice that you cannot pin down the boundaries of the involved body parts. You can’t tell where one ends and the other begins, they are just sensations floating somewhere in spacious awareness. Nor can you even tell that the sensations there are those of a hand contacting a face. Only your thoughts will tell you that.
If you try this, you’ll notice that there are undoubtedly a lot of sensations happening, but they do not amount to a head (or a hand for that matter) unless you ignore your direct observations in favor of your existing beliefs: “I already know what’s happening here. My hand is touching my head.”
Defer to your observations; do not let your memories and imagination tell you what those observations are. To live by what you see rather than what you think about what you see, is lucidity itself. Do this as if for the first time. Do this as if you know nothing.
All of the typical objections are addressed in Harding’s easy-to-do experiments.
“Probably there is only one way of converting the skeptic who still says I have a head here, and that is to invite him to come here and take a look for himself. But he must be an honest reporter, describing what he observes and nothing else.” ~ D. Harding
Why are you trying to convince me I have no head?
I’m not. I don’t believe I could do that.
To convince somebody is to change their thoughts about something. I’m not interested in doing that, at least not here. You can’t see who you really are just by thinking.
Headlessness will always be confusing and suspicious if you are trying to comprehend it with thought, because it isn’t a concept. It’s a physical method of seeing yourself. Thoughts will only get in the way, by misinterpreting your observations to match your beliefs.
There is no hope of comprehension without doing at least one of Harding’s experiments. I stumbled upon the “Pointing Here” experiment, and I knew I had found something powerful. I did some of the other experiments on that page, and life was never the same.
After that I watched the eight video experiments which helped me make sense of what I had seen, and clear up some of the apparent contradictions.
As I’ve said, nobody will get this by reading what I’ve written here. You will only see it if you actually do the experiments.
What are the benefits of headlessness?
Most of the benefits of living from headlessness aren’t easy to articulate. It’s an experience that’s yours entirely, so it’s difficult for anyone else to say how it will affect you. But here are a few benefits you can expect:
- You get to experience nonduality first-hand, so you no longer need to believe in it, or deny it. This comes with a flood of insights about compassion, emptiness, interdependence and evolution.
- It is a simple and easy way of disidentifying with the ego, because you can distinguish easily between emptiness and the world of content that fills it. If it’s content, it’s not you.
- It gives you a completely different perspective from which to solve problems in your life. Encountering familiar problems is almost fun, because you have a much less reactive standpoint from which to deal with them. What was once troublesome might strike you as hilarious.
- Suddenly a lot of cryptic passages and quotes about “emptiness”, “inner space,” unity and nonduality will make a lot more sense. Ancient wisdom won’t seem so ancient. It will give you a starting point from which to interpret a lot of religious or philosophical ideas that once seemed completely out to lunch. The words of Confucius, Lao Tsu, Jesus, the Buddha, and Zen masters will probably take on a clearer meaning to you, particularly if you are not religious.
- Perhaps the most immediately useful effect is that it keeps you in the moment better than any other method I’ve tried. Your attention defaults to your senses, rather than the usual default to thoughts. You will be better able to observe each moment freely, and be less preoccupied with what’s in it for you or not in it for you. This means much less stress and fear. Gratitude comes more naturally and almost nothing seems to be of absolute importance. It is a perpetual, moving state of Dying on Purpose.
I have to say I’m baffled with the virtually non-existent response to the last post. My many regular commenters, the ones I would think would be most interested in nonduality, are conspicuously silent. I think this is the most important and most useful topic I’ve ever written about, but from the tiny amount of feedback I received I can only guess that I’ve presented this idea very poorly, and I’m probably turning people away from it by confusing things and inciting skepticism.
No amount of explanation will suffice anyway. Like any of the other angles from which spiritual teachings can be approached, thinking and explanation will not take you all the way, they can only lead you to personal experiences that show it to you. I was hoping I would be able to lead at least a few people to see (not understand, but see) what I’m talking about. Maybe I have, but nobody’s quite said so.
My mistake was trying to describe this experience before presenting the experiments. The best way is to see your own headlessness, and then make sense of it, not the other way around. I fell into the biggest spiritual pitfall of all — trying to convey “the Peace that passeth all understanding” with words and thoughts.
I was going to go on to talk about the implications of headlessness for the ego, and how it relates to God and religious ideas, but without feedback I have no idea how this is going over among you readers, and I may just be confusing people. I would like to know what you’re all making of this. Is it interesting? Confusing? Troublesome? Boring? Irrelevant?
Unless I get a lot of requests to continue on in this vein, for now I’ll give it a rest and talk about other things. So if something about headlessness intrigues you, do the experiments, and explore www.headless.org. Those who are interested will figure this out rather easily, with a little initiative.
Feel free to ask me any questions, through the comments or the contact page.
Photo by lordcolus
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