Headlessness FAQ

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This is the fourth article in a series about Douglas Harding’s method of self-inquiry, called headlessness. The others are here: [Post one] [Post two] [Post three]

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.

Do the experiments here.

Feel free to ask me any questions, through the comments or the contact page.

R

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{ 65 Comments }

Avi August 23, 2010 at 12:42 am

“I can only guess that I’ve presented this idea very poorly” No! It’s a strange concept, but very intriguing, and I’m slowly starting to understand it. I’m strongly reminded of this post: http://www.raptitude.com/2009/03/how-to-keep-life-fresh-for-free/ (which is my favorite Raptitude article)
And I’m also reminded of this one http://www.raptitude.com/2009/05/you-are-the-greatest-story-ever-told/

Jaky Astik August 23, 2010 at 12:58 am

LoL, it was an all fun read. I want to live headless nowowwww!

Dave August 23, 2010 at 3:15 am

Thanks for introducing me to this! I think it’s an excellent technique to boot out the ego and get right into the present moment. I also think it gives me an insight into my children’s wavelength, which is always fun.

Maybe the lack of feedback is a combination of holiday season, and this being a concept that, as you say, needs to be experienced rather than read.

My suggestion is to continue on your own path with your own unique voice (regardless of feedback/and without a head ;)

Be who you are & say what you feel
Because those who mind don’t matter
And those who matter don’t mind
- Dr Seuss

David August 23, 2010 at 6:55 am

Will do Dave, thanks.

David August 23, 2010 at 8:43 pm

Yes, you hit on something important. This is how children see the world. It’s like taking on a voluntary naivete about what you see. This reinstates direct experience as the thing we trust most, rather than our accumulated opinions, which usurped experience as the authority on who you are and what the world is like, at some point during childhood.

Astrid August 23, 2010 at 3:54 am

‘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.’

Maybe people are silent because it is something that needs to be practised and possibly because so many of your posts have been so beautifully packaged that in a way you do some of the work for us? These posts require a lot more from us and that’s wonderful but also scary. It took a while for all that you have written on this to sink in for me. I discussed it with my husband he wholeheartedly agreed you had put into words something he had felt his whole adult life. To me it’s the final piece of the puzzle.

‘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.’

A friend of mine who is a reformed alcoholic lives by this. He talks to anyone and everyone in the street and there is no ego there, just compassion and an understanding that we are all connected and feeling the same feelings. He is also one of the very few people I know who lives in the moment and chooses never to explain his spirituality to anyone. It is what it is to him and he is grateful, he does not bring any ‘normal’ human behaviour into it by trying to control or define such feelings.

David August 23, 2010 at 8:45 pm

I guess I expected more people saying they didn’t understand any of this, rather than just radio silence. But it isn’t always easy to say you don’t get something. These posts do ask more of the reader than anything I’ve ever written about. I just figured that little response means little interest, but apparently I was wrong ;)

I’m glad you’ve found something meaningful in this.

Tim August 23, 2010 at 4:01 am

It’s very difficult for me to escape my own thoughts, especially negative ones, and when I step back and see the pain for what it is, I don’t mind it as much.

Headlessness is great. It’s great just like every other philosophy is great to me: it makes me want to test it and feel it out for myself.

But I can’t help but think, feel, and know that I’ll be back on my own track soon enough; headlessness assimilated, partially forgotten, put in the essential background of my mind, and on I go.

David August 23, 2010 at 7:06 am

But I can’t help but think, feel, and know that I’ll be back on my own track soon enough; headlessness assimilated, partially forgotten, put in the essential background of my mind, and on I go.

Harding talks about this phenomenon in On Having No Head. At any given moment, you are either operating from headlessness, or not. There is no middle ground, so if it is partially forgotten, it is forgotten. Luckily it is easy to slip into, and life gives you lots of reminders.

Gemma August 23, 2010 at 4:31 am

I think these ideas take some time to sink in. I read the previous article while on holiday and it’s only today, now that I’m back, that I can consider the true meaning of it.

The way you’ve stressed what this revelation means for empathy, compassion and escaping from the ego helps me to confront what has always been a frightening thought for me. Often throughout my life I’ve noticed my own “headlessness” and then been petrified with considerations about my own mortality. At those times it’s a great relief to sink back into the ego, but by stressing the importance of what headlessness means you’re making what I’ve previously found terrifying into a positive thing.

This is my first time commenting though I’ve read Raptitude for a long time. I’d say if you’re passionate about this then just keep writing about it! I’d like to know what else you’ve got to say on the subject. I enjoy everything you write and I’m sure many other non-commenters do too so don’t worry!

David August 23, 2010 at 7:02 am

Like Astrid said too, it is kind of scary. For the ego, it’s annihilation. When you notice your face just isn’t present, suddenly you know that face you’re familiar with can’t be you.

Normally I just let the feedback happen or not happen, but in this case I really needed to know how people are receiving this. I realize it could sound like complete nonsense to people who haven’t experimented with it. Most of my readers never comment, and that’s totally fine, but without comments I can only guess at what they make of what I write.

Sonia August 23, 2010 at 8:07 am

A dear friend introduced me to your blog and i try to follow it regularly. The concept of nonduality exists in the Hinduism as well. Your explanations break it down better for me than what i have read or been taught since i was child. This is isn’t easy and you have explained in the best possible way. It takes time to soak it in, to practice it and many times one has to read the blog again. But the feeling of freedom it could provide is something one may not achieve in a lifetime. I loved exploring “headless.org”. Please do not think you have conveyed this poorly.

David August 23, 2010 at 5:34 pm

It does take some time to sink in and I think I’m underestimating the time it took me to really absorb the implications of headlessness. Writing about it is a tall order because it’s so easy to accidentally mislead people by talking about it. Harding himself is brilliant with the language, and he talks about it with an ease I may never have.

Drew Tkac August 23, 2010 at 8:41 am

It is my mind that likes to communicate, ruminate, cogitate, pontificate, talk about the concepts of life, beyond life and the meaning of life. This has nothing to do with any of that and does not stimulate my mind.

You have done an excellent job!

David August 23, 2010 at 5:31 pm

That’s what it’s all about really. Just about everything we engage in is mind-stimulating, and sometimes it seems like there isn’t anything else outside of thinking. Headlessness is the best way I’ve found to engage the world without getting bogged down in thinking.

Izzen August 23, 2010 at 9:04 am

While I’m new specifically to Douglas Harding and his “headlessness”, it’s an idea I’ve come across, too. As a kid I could never stop working out my own philosophies, trying to take things in and make sense of them. I know everybody does, but I became pretty obsessed, trying to logically figure out what Time was, what sensations and thoughts actually did, what difference scale made (almost none).

Thanks for leading me to Harding, though, as what he had to say about the inner emptiness, silence and stillness, and how sensations are merely playing on the screen it provides, helps a lot right now, for some reason. It’s that next step that I needed at this point in my life. Though my sense of “space” still gets in the way of some of the “headlessness” experiments, I can now see what it is I’m on the precipice of, at least.

If you could point me to a salient crossing point between Harding and Buddhist philosophies, I’d be very grateful. But I understand that the rest of your readers are varied in religious practices and I’m probably in the minority again. Plus, I might as well do the soul-searching work myself, right?

Keep writing, but keep mixing it up, too. I know it’s a lot of work, especially for such polished pieces, but what about two posts a day? Or two blogs again? If you really want to explore this further with interested readers, along with keeping the ones that aren’t interested in it specifically, extra work seems like the only option…

David August 23, 2010 at 7:32 pm

Harding’s first book is called On Having No Head, and in it he relates it to Zen Buddhism. For years he wasn’t able to make sense of his discovery, but once he discovered Zen he couldn’t help notice that they seemed to be describing the same principles he had discovered. If you are interested in a Buddhist perspective of headlessness, there is none better.

At this time I don’t want to post more often than I already do. I have a full time job and a reasonably busy social life, and two posts a week is enough for me.

Murali August 23, 2010 at 9:40 am

David,

Please, please don’t stop writing about this. This is wonderful. Your excellent clarity in writing makes it a joy to read your blog, so even though we can read about DH on headless.org, the way you present it is very enlightening. So, please, keep up the writing.

Murali

David August 23, 2010 at 7:32 pm

Will do Murali!

Sampath August 23, 2010 at 9:41 am

Hello David. I see the point now, remember my question earlier? Yes there is a difference between thoughts and sensations which are direct experiences.
You are doing great David, pl go on. Apart from feedback from others, writing could be a great way of clarifying to yourself. Those who don’t get it now may come back later.
Your writing about headlessness is also as creative and you should put your ideas down on black and white as they occur. The thought of ‘others’ getting it or not shouldn’t mean anything for you.
Sampath

David August 23, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Good advice Sampath. I do want everyone to discover this, but I know I can’t expect everyone to be interested, or to get the same things out of it that I have. Writing about it does help clarify my thoughts, and I’ve expressed that benefit of writing before.

Ken August 23, 2010 at 10:29 am

Please keep writing on this topic. To be honest it’s a lot to digest and… I suppose experience would be the better word. I’m working through the experiments and I’ll let everyone know how it goes.

Keep writing on this! I think your regular readers have come to deeply respect your opinions (I know I have) and since you’ve stated how important this particular series is, we are placing extra emphasis on fully grasping what you’re giving us rather then just reading and providing the regular commentary or discussion. I think it’s a good sign!

David August 23, 2010 at 8:07 pm

Yes, it is a lot to digest. I have been playing with headlessness for about two years now, I’ve read three books about it and virtually everything on the web about it, so I sometimes forget how new this is to everyone. Have fun playing with this.

Murali August 23, 2010 at 10:48 am

I wanted to follow up on my previous comment.

Coincidentally, or maybe not, I have been reading and trying to follow J. Krishnamurthi’s teachings. It is amazing how much overlap his teachings have with Harding’s. What I like is that they complement each other. J.K. asks you to examine your thoughts, and Harding wants you to experiment. There are sheer moments of joy in having a perspective that relieves you of otherwise burdensome situations.

David, thank you.

Murali

David August 23, 2010 at 8:08 pm

I picked up a Krishnamurti reader at the book exchange and I’ll be jumping into it soon. I’m looking forward to it. I have noticed that the more I read about different philosophies and spiritual teachings, the bigger that overlap appears to be. It’s pretty clear to me that all these teachings are pointing to the same thing.

Brenda (betaphi) August 23, 2010 at 11:13 am

Here’s my response to all three posts. I kinda, sorta, almost get it but not quite, not really, even after cutting the bottom out of a lunch bag and sticking my head in it. Cripes, David.

I’ve been following a couple of nonduality blogs for a while now, thinking I’ll eventually ‘get it’ and I don’t. There seems to be an incantatory quality to much of the writing on nonduality that puts me off. I don’t particularly enjoy being mystified and mesmerized. I can’t help holding suspect any writing that refuses to reveal itself clearly to me. I prefer richer content, plus I LIKE story.

Drew nailed what this genre is mostly about, which is: NOT stimulating the mind. I see headlessness as a useful tool if thoughts are driving you crazy but I don’t see it as a path I want to take. Regardless, I appreciate the opportunity to take part in any effort to better understand nonduality. It certainly seems to be the rage these days. Maybe you can do a better job at it than most writers who seem to be content with obfuscation. Trying to give voice to that still, quiet pool of consciousness almost seems moot. Consciousness doesn’t need a voice or an explanation or anything. It’s perfect already. Mind can be a mess, though, and I sense in all your posts an effort to help readers better deal with the many stupid, silly problems of the mind.

Being ‘out of your mind’ isn’t necessarily a good thing though. Sometimes I read the comments on a nonduality blog and I want to scream, Wait a minute, nothing’s been said here that makes any sense and yet you’re all nodding and agreeing like you’re members in some kind of elitist club that most of us mere mortals will never be privy to. Do you know what I mean? I would never say that there but I feel safe saying it here because I don’t think you’re trying to create a place where only the really really smart cool people can go. Nonduality definitely needs some straightening out, and if anyone can do it you probably can. Just try to avoid that repetitive sing-song incantatory thing nondualists do. It drives me crazy! ;)

David August 23, 2010 at 8:37 pm

Ah, great comment Brenda. I’m glad you wrote this.

I know exactly what you mean when you talk about elitist clubs and this tendency to talk in mystical terms. I don’t like it either, and I tossed out everything religion and spirituality had to say for many years just because they refused to speak in plain language.

First though, I have to say I hesitate to categorize all of this headlessness stuff as “nondualism” because that isn’t all it’s about. In fact I don’t remember Harding using that word in reference to headlessness (or at least he doesn’t very often.) But it has been one of the more useful words in describing why anyone would want to explore this. This is a perfect example of the dangerous territory we enter when we try and illuminate every corner of this conundrum with explicit language.

It is remarkably difficult to write in conceptual terms about something that is not conceptual. The “straightening out” you are looking for might not be possible, if by that you mean you want to see it in plain, unambiguous verbal terms.

I know it’s a cliche, but the one thing all these spiritual teachings (and I hate the phrase “spiritual teachings” but I have no better words for it) is that they cannot be explained in the conventional way. Conceptual thought cannot communicate them just like you can’t communicate what a sunset looks like to someone who’s never seen one.

And I know, I know, that that sunset analogy is a perfect example of both the “poeticizing” and the “really smart people club” phenomena you are describing. It is just so bloody hard to talk about this stuff without a) sounding elitist, and b) talking in parables and vagaries.

Words are just so troublesome when it comes to describing things that can’t be described. There is a reason so much Zen material is so confoundingly vague: they know how dangerous it is to try and lay everything bare with concepts. Once you identify something as a concept, the concept stands in for it in your mind, and you lose it, thinking all the while that you understand it. The rational mind has limits, and we encounter those limits again and again whenever we talk about the discoveries of Buddha, Jesus, and other “really cool smart people.”

I am doing my best to present this all in concrete terms, but I’m sure you understand what I mean when I say I can’t describe headlessness or nonduality in the same way I can describe, say, the habits of bower birds or what the Broken Window Theory is.

Luckily headlessness is a particularly concrete way to see nonduality in practice (not that that’s all it is) but that doesn’t mean I can rope it in with words. It has to be a matter of personal investigation, like any other spiritual teaching. Man I wish there was a better phrase than “spiritual teaching.” This particular realm of human knowledge is a writer’s nightmare, and I’ve taken it on at my own peril.

Rosa August 23, 2010 at 12:48 pm

David,

You have to keep writing about it. It’s a little confusing and new, but it does make sense and I think that, like you said, it’s something people need to experience in order to really get it. I am very intrigued, and I think it’s also a way to stop being afraid of death, right?

Lisis August 23, 2010 at 1:23 pm

Hey, D… you’ve gotta keep writing about it for two reasons:

1. It matters to you (this in itself is sufficient).

2. It might be life-changing for others (and you may never get to know whose life you’ve changed, or in what ways.)

I’m guilty as charged… I am one of the “regulars” who has been conspicuously silent on these posts and it isn’t because I’m digesting ground-breaking insights, or because the material is so meaningful to you that I have to weigh my responses carefully. The reason I’ve been silent is because anything I’ve almost posted as a reply basically amounts to, “I agree.” So, rather than “Submit”, I’ve abstained.

Though I was unfamiliar with Harding or Headlessness until you brought them up, the message you are conveying has already been planted in my soul. I felt like any comments along the lines of “I totally get this” or “Yup, just like I thought” might come across as trying to be the teacher’s pet. I figured the discussion was best left to those who are new to the concept, or who disagree with it. The unexpected silence might just mean a heartfelt agreement.

“There are times when silence has the loudest voice.” (Brownlow)

David August 23, 2010 at 9:42 pm

I didn’t mean to single anyone out as non-responders, I just didn’t know what to make of the unexpected lack of response. It felt like I was speaking to an empty room.

Not that I ever thought you weren’t there ;)

Juan August 23, 2010 at 2:06 pm

I for one that must thank you for the discovery. In fact stumbled (up-on :-)) your site recently and the headlessness thing and Douglas Harding has been a real gift and a surprise. Many readings and attempts to meditate summarized in a so simple and elegant exercise. Really a revelation potentially beyond concepts and theories. And a great tool to easily switch to a conscious, silent state, at least momentarily.

Nobodee August 23, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Hello, this is my first time contributing and first I have to say, I love your writing, it is so clear and to the point.

The problem I find is, what is the point? The way I see it explained is as an experience to be had. But upon doing a number of the experiments, I find the closest thing I’ve had to a “eureka” moment is almost one of dissappointment. Is it really as simple as, Your appearance/face is not who you are, only what you look like. But it is who you are behind that face, or, to use a cliche, “on the inside”, that really defines who You are?

And another point, if the ego is the accumulation of all the ideas/opinions/views other people have instilled in you, wouldn’t the ideas, opinions and views formulated in your own mind be just another version of the ego? I mean, the way other people view you isn’t always incorrect..and the way you view yourself isn’t always correct.

With the headlessness, you are almost reverting back to a time with no mirrors or cameras and imagining yourself as you WOULD see yourself in that time….just body below and world beyond. Is this correct? And if so, it is just pretend. You can pretend that you dont have a head or face but you do, so is the point to ignore the FACT that you have a face and head and live as though you dont?? (I do see some benefit to this, however, I don’t think I could live my life constantly denying myself something I know to be true.)

And with the ego, you can pretend that other people’s views of you are wrong or don’t matter, but they came from somewhere…and there is usually some truth to them..

I hope I don’t come across as being too terribly stupid…as I am somewhat new to all of this. I am eagerly awaiting a response. :)

David August 23, 2010 at 9:40 pm

“What is the point?” is a question Harding goes into in some depth in On Having No Head, and I’ll try to summarize his thoughts on it in a future post.

I wouldn’t look for a “eureka” moment. When Oprah Winfrey was doing her series with Eckhart Tolle, she and the audience members kept using the phrase “Aha Moment” and it worried me that they were starting to expect stunning revelations as if those moments were the point. They almost commodified them in a sense, as in “Did you have your Aha Moment yet?” or “I had three Aha Moments last night!”

For some it will be plain as day, and it will present no apparent meaning or purpose, but that doesn’t mean they won’t find significance in it later on. For others, they will not be able to escape their mind’s tendency to evaluate what they’re seeing, as “this is kind of useless” or “what’s the big deal?” This is a side-effect of expectations, of the kind of involuntary mental interpretation we are hoping to suspend for a moment.

With the headlessness, you are almost reverting back to a time with no mirrors or cameras and imagining yourself as you WOULD see yourself in that time….just body below and world beyond. Is this correct? And if so, it is just pretend. You can pretend that you dont have a head or face but you do, so is the point to ignore the FACT that you have a face and head and live as though you dont?? (I do see some benefit to this, however, I don’t think I could live my life constantly denying myself something I know to be true.)

It isn’t a matter of imagination at all. It’s just acknowledging what you see and what you don’t see. Look around the room right now. Do you see your head?

When you talk about the “fact” that you have a face or a head, you have to remember that facts only take the form of thoughts. It may be a fact that there is a moon, but I’m indoors and I can’t see it, so the Moon, for me, at this moment, just isn’t here, except as a memory. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a good reason for this memory, or that there is no moon, but from this angle there is no moon.

It isn’t denial, because you are voluntarily going on present evidence only, which means we are suspending imagination and memory, and directing your attention to what you are looking out of. Your mind, your collection of facts, will tell you you’re looking out of your face, your eyeballs. But your direct experience is that you are looking out of a clear space. That’s what you actually see. Unless your anatomy is extremely bizarre, you don’t see your face or your eyeballs when you look at something. To have that direct experience of looking out of a clear, unobstructed space — without letting your thoughts and memories tell you what your are supposed to be looking out of — is to experience headlessness.

Please don’t interpret confusion as meaning you’re stupid or muddled or anything like that. I would hate for this to turn in to an “I get it and you don’t” club. Almost everyone here is new to this, and different people will take different things from it.

Nobodee August 23, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Incredible explanation. I do believe I had that experience while doing the experiments! I was looking around my room and felt almost as though I wasn’t physically there…and was just observing.

I think this is incredible…the concept itself is(dare I say..) basic, but the actual act of feeling that constantly must be extremely difficult..but it also must be equally as beneficial. (I think I may think too much to embrace this..or maybe I am still expecting too much, or maybe I will find more significance in it later on as you suggested[I am a mere 18]). Thank you for sharing this idea on your site, and for responding to my questions. Now I am going to look up the proper use of brackets ;)

Later days!

-Nobodee

David August 24, 2010 at 8:55 pm

The feeling that you are not there is probably one of the best signs. The thing that is really missing is the ego. It has such weight and such a distorting presence that the moment seems so much simpler and more static when it’s not there.

Lindsay August 23, 2010 at 2:27 pm

Hi David,

I plan to conduct the experiments and then come back and comment. It’s not that I’m not interested – I am. I even watched that whole 12 minute video you posted in one of the first articles about all of this (something I almost never do).

The truth is, for me at least, that it is all quite confusing. Not because of anything you wrote, but the pointing experiment I did go through I thought, “What’s the big deal here and what am I missing?”.

At any rate, I plan to conduct all of the experiments and come back and discuss. I think it’s a topic you should keep covering, for what it’s worth.

Lindsay

David August 23, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Hi Lindsay!

There is a part of the pointing experiment that is easy to miss, and it depends on which version you get your instructions from (the text version or the video version.) I’ll address it in the next post.

Ethan August 23, 2010 at 2:57 pm

Hello David,

I was introduced to your blog a few months ago, and ever since then I’ve been hooked. I really enjoy your posts, and a lot of the things you talk about are thoughts I’ve already had, but your clarity helps me solidify them better. So, first and foremost, I guess I want to thank you for all your hard work in putting Raptitude together, keep it up!

Now, about Douglass Harding…

I’ve read each of your posts on him and his headlessness, and even went to the site to check out the experiments to maybe experience it myself. After doing the ones that I could do alone (I honestly don’t think any of my friends would be interested in doing, well, any of them unfortunately) it seemed rather obvious, why I have no head.

The problem for me is that this wasn’t really a mind-blowing revelation for me. Is Harding’s method meant to provide a sort of form of meditation? I’m wondering if I’m just having trouble turning my ego off or if what I experience is simply what I’m supposed to experience.

As for the idea of non-dualism, I don’t know if my philosophy is in line with it. I think in a way it is, but it’s complicated. I’m more or less pantheistic in my views, that essentially all of existence is my ‘god’ – though I use that term loosely because of its anthropomorphic connotations, and my version rests on the idea of the dual nature of ‘god’ or ‘existence’. The duality is there in that for every dichotomy (such as good vs evil, material vs immaterial, etc) ‘god’ or ‘existence’ would have range over both, and not be exclusive to one or another. That’s why I think that perhaps non-dualism, that all is one, is only half of the picture since one is also many. Maybe the concept of all being one is under appreciated, especially in Western society, but it certainly is a wonderful thing to feel that way about the world.

In any case, I’m beginning to ramble. Please keep sharing your thoughts on Douglass Harding! I’m sure it’s not the easiest thing to explain, but I still think you’re doing a great job as usual. Looking forward to the next post!

Peace~

David August 23, 2010 at 9:18 pm

That’s one of the things Harding talks about in On Having No Head — once you see this, what do you do with it? What good is it? It’s so ordinary and obvious. It isn’t necessarily going to be mind-blowing, but its implications can be once you grasp them. This is a sort of paradox, which Harding goes into in depth in his writing.

Mits August 23, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Headless is fantastic; for once you realize that you are free but I suspect it is doorway onto greater and greater things.

And I don’t equate headlessness with Truth, God, Absolute, Realization. Harding’s experiments may instill the Great Doubt that haunts the body. With the Great Doubt comes the great search and with great honesty may come the undeniable presence of truth.

Confused August 23, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Very confused here. I’ve done some of the experiments and was left feeling, well…nothing.

I did however enjoy the very first video you posted on Harding. Perhaps you can post a follow up video of him speaking? I found his manner of speech easier to digest than that of Richard in the experiment videos.

I’m also very interested in how you (or Harding) plan to relate this to God and religion.

And I agree with Izzen that you should perhaps follow up posts on headlessness with other topics or start a separate blog similar to DGK. Sorry but too much headlessness here on Raptitude just seems out of place.

David August 23, 2010 at 9:05 pm

If you enjoyed the video, you may enjoy Harding’s books. There just aren’t a lot of videos of him floating around. I will link to some others in an upcoming post. He has a real gift with language, and they are entertaining as well as enlightening. I have to say that I probably would also be confused if all I knew about headlessness was what I’ve written here. It wasn’t until I read On Having No Head that I had enough of a conceptual grasp of headlessness that I could even attempt to describe it.

I have mixed feelings about writing about one topic for a number of posts in a row, and I was going to end it here so that people who aren’t interested in it don’t feel neglected, but because of the overwhelming response in the comments and emails today I will continue on this topic for another post or two. No way am I starting another blog!

Mits August 23, 2010 at 4:42 pm

If your curious, okay well after the experiments you realize that you are empty space for the world. And not a being limited to a finite body that has an expiration date at some distant point in the future. You are infintely more, but when I think about and try to express it words seem to fail.

How do I express this? Once the exercise is complete, it clicks. You realize that the empty space is Infinite, Timeless, God, The Absolute. Hence your orignal ‘True’ nature is none other than God.

For a long time I’ve been meaning to write a post on the late Douglas Harding and a few others. Well you beat me to it and you did a great job.

Emily August 23, 2010 at 5:01 pm

Hi, I’m someone who always reads your posts yet never comments (except this once). I just wanted to say that I am very, very glad you are writing about this topic, and I’ll throw in my vote for you to continue writing about headlessness in the direction you were going. I, for one, am interested to keep reading. I don’t think you should stop writing or divert these posts to another blog–I like what you’re doing right here.

Zack August 23, 2010 at 6:17 pm

I love your posts on Headlessness. Keep it up.

Trish August 23, 2010 at 6:37 pm

Ok, I’ve read the 3 posts, am trying to digest them. Did the experiments; learned, well rather it was more like a window opening and new fresh stuff blew in (or blew out??) … Anyways, learning and enjoying. Don’t stop now!

Jeremy Ramsay August 24, 2010 at 5:24 am

That was a great series of posts David and I’m pleased to see Douglas’ experiments shared like this. Seeing is easy, keeping it up is the hard thing, and sharing is a good way to do that. For those that want to explore this further, I highly recommend 3 podcasts that Catherine Harding (Douglas’ wife) did for the Urban Guru Café. In one of them, she does the ‘Closed Eye Experiment’, which is my personal favourite (and one that does not, of course, exclude blind people). You can get them here: http://urbangurucafe.com/2008/11/19/22-catherine-harding-in-the-tradition-of-on-having-no-head/

Rick August 24, 2010 at 7:19 am

David, the few minutes I’ve spent reading this information and trying the exercises has done more to help me experience and understand nondualism than countless hours that I have spent in meditation. This has made a BIG impression on me. Thank you so much for sharing this with us!

David August 24, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Awesome! I’m glad you’re getting something from this. It makes everything instantly more immediate, clearer.

Rachel August 24, 2010 at 6:19 pm

“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.”

I don’t understand your logic with 2. Why is this a certainty? Why does your point of view’s uniqueness make it more important, especially when (I think most people would say) we often see ourselves inaccurately?

David August 24, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Because it is the only first-hand knowledge you can have. I was would rank first-hand knowledge over second-hand as a general rule. When people say we see ourselves inaccurately, I don’t think they mean it in the literal sense, as in how we see ourselves visually. I always interpret it to mean how we regard ourselves in our minds, how we measure ourselves up.

Aaron August 24, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Hey David, what an amazing blog. I’ve read Harding’s book and been interested in Zen for a few years. Reading through your experimentation with meditation and caffeine/alcohol, I laughed because I realized so many of the same things about myself. I struggle with the same exact thing. I vow to meditate more and to drink coffee/caffeine less, exercise more etc. I know that I am more aware, rational, healthier, intelligent, compassionate and all the rest when I am clean and doing regular meditation, but I always tend to lapse for some reason or another.

One thing I noticed when I would try doing daily 1 hour meditations was that I would get somewhat depressed. This sounds counterintuitive because initially you feel more calm and peaceful. My mind would get so clear and so sensitive that things which normally didn’t bother me much about myself, life situation and the world became abrasive.

What is so ironic about enlightenment/kensho/headlessness is that it seems to demonstrate that the “self” is a neurological construct that can be shut off without the destruction of conscious awareness. Certain consciousness researchers like Susan Blackmore take that as evidence for the implausibility of anything like a “soul”. I find that argument pretty persuasive myself, unfortunately. I haven’t read through everything you’ve written what you think about all that.

I think that Eckhart Tolle has done a good job of packaging Zen for mass consumption in America. Problem is that many people don’t understand that kensho/enlightenment/headlessness is a real and valid thing, and not some speculative babble or like a drug high.

David August 25, 2010 at 7:00 pm

Thanks Aaron. Glad you found me.

I know what you mean when you say you’ve felt depressed during meditation. Meditation can be arduous. Sometimes it puts us face to face with the truth about ourselves, and it might not be what we want to see.

From the Buddhist view there is no self, or soul, it’s just thoughts floating around that we latch onto. We are emptiness, with no content. That makes sense to me, but other traditions disagree. I know Hinduism and Christianity do. I’m not sure what I think about it myself, I have to read more about all those philosophies.

Here’s a great article about westernized Buddhism somebody tweeted yesterday:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ethan-nichtern/radical-buddhism_b_671972.html

Mits August 25, 2010 at 3:18 am

David,

Seeing your true nature is the easiest thing in the world; living from it as another matter altogether. One question how does headlessness stack up when your in a job your hate? I suppose it’s about acceptance

Juan August 25, 2010 at 3:43 am

But your mind is also in the outside world. “seeing” is “being” at the empty center, your circumstances and your mind are not you. I guess that “seeing” will not necessarily change the outer scene, it’s just that you observe it untied from it. This does not mean any attitude, fight or acceptance is the same from the emptiness, just your option (easier to tell than to practice …. or not)

David August 25, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Great answer by Juan. The most amazing thing about the empty center of consciousness is that it really is empty. Thoughts exist outside of it, just like sensory perceptions and feelings. Real acceptance is being aware of this clear center while you’re also aware of the content around it.

Eric | Eden Journal August 25, 2010 at 7:31 pm

Looks like you are getting good response now, and people are digging it. That’s good, I hope you post more on the subject, as I’m really enjoying this. I like the experiments that give some proof to the ideas being expressed.

This topic joins nicely with some of the thoughts I’ve been giving to subject reality lately, sourcing from Pavlina’s blog and your earlier post on Nietzsche quotes. Seeing headless is a new way of looking at ourselves and at the world around us. It gets me thinking, and I’d love to see more.

Clearly Composed August 25, 2010 at 8:58 pm

*smiles* Seems all the quiet ones have found our voices. This is interesting, it’s all so interesting because while my brain wants to argue and be right that I indeed have a head, and a kind of cute one at that, there is another part of me that keeps getting very quiet in this very knowing way. This series isn’t something I am understanding…but it is something I am getting. :)

Hayden Tompkins August 25, 2010 at 9:51 pm

I have been keeping the last article open for re-reading because it has impacted me profoundly. Perhaps the lack of commenting stems from the desire not to treat the topic, or article, in a cavalier and truncated fashion.

You can never fully gauge your impact. I have found that the most deeply personal articles I have written may not ‘move the masses’ but the words and ideas have seeped into the hearts of those who were ready, or needed.

I find no fault in your presentation of this topic.

Yu August 27, 2010 at 9:59 am

These exercises are really helpful in demonstrating the continuity between ourselves and the world. I’ve been struggling to come up with an effective demonstration of the concept.
Thanks! I love this series of posts by the way.

Angelika August 30, 2010 at 10:38 pm

wow . beyond . words .

thank you David.
I feel stunned.

one of my favourite poets is Masha Kaleko and for years I have this “engraved in my white cells” (translated from German) :

“Nothing is, the wise one says. You let/make it happen.”

these days I have a sunflower close to me on my desk in a rubyred vase and look at it daily innumerable times : I feel “peace & happiness” whenever I see her.

nrhatch September 7, 2010 at 8:59 am

When I step “out” of the ego and into the role of “detached observer” (headlessness?), a smile automatically appears on my lips and I float in a sea of mirth and peace.

Rather than trying to defend myself from “attack,” I am content to watch the “tantrums” of others in detached amusement, realizing the futility of responding to ego with ego.

If you can say, is that similar to the headlessness you describe?

David September 7, 2010 at 4:40 pm

Yes it’s something like that. I liken it to being the calm eye at the center of a storm.

Whitney Hyshka November 28, 2010 at 10:07 pm

I am so happy I read this article and the “Who you really are” articles! Thank you so much for the insight David. I am excited to do the experiments and learn more about “headlessness”!

yliharma September 25, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Oh my God…I totally missed this post! I’ve read the others of this series and I was so intrigued that I immediately visited http://www.headless.org and started doing the experiments, watching Richard Lang’s videos and thinking A LOT about it. I’m about to start reading “On having no head”… So you actually managed to make me “see” and opened a whole new world to me by presenting Harding’s work. And I am glad you did it: THANK YOU!
(I should have thanked you months ago…sorry…it slipped of my mind…)

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