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The Decapitation of Douglas Harding

Douglas Harding was a modern-day English philosopher who made a remarkable discovery about human nature, and developed a simple and ingenious method for guiding others to see it for themselves. This post is the third post in a series about his method. [Post one] [Post two]

Though an architect by trade, Douglas Harding was strongly drawn to philosophy, and his primary interest was answering the simple question of who he really was.

Was he a really only a six-foot bag of meat, animated by some mysterious biological energy? Or was he what the religious and spiritual masters said he was: pure, empty consciousness, undivided from the rest of the universe?

He wasn’t about to take anyone’s word for it.

While thinking about the principle of relativity, he realized that his identity depended on his distance from the observer. Looked at from a distance of a few meters, he appeared to be what could only be described as a man. But from a distance of an inch or so, “patch of skin” would be a more honest descriptor of his appearance. Zoom in further, and he became cells. At closer ranges still he became molecules, atoms, and particles.

He recognized that it worked the other way too. Observe from far enough away, and his close-range appearance as a man gives way to that of a city, then a continent, a planet, and so on.

Careful to avoid assumptions and going only off of objective observations, it was clear that what he was at three meters was nothing like what he was at three nanometers, or three billion meters.

He couldn’t deny that he had many layers of appearances, quite inseparable from one another, and all of them dependent on the distance from which he was observed.

It was also undeniable that he needed all of those layers to survive. Clearly he needed the surrounding planet to breathe and sustain himself, which in turn needed the surrounding solar system to keep it in its life-sustaining position, which in turn needed the surrounding universe to put it where it was, and so on. Looking in the other direction, he knew he also needed his constituent body parts and cells, which in turn needed their constituent molecules and atoms.

This led him to the idea of nondualism, as fabled in religious and spiritual teachings. There was no perceivable separation between the six-foot human he always figured himself to be, and the universe that surrounded it and comprised it. The only separation between Douglas the person and the remainder of the universe was an arbitrary, imagined one: the common, generally unquestioned thought that a human being ends strictly at the limits of its skin.

Of course, this “skin boundary” is hopelessly fuzzy by its very nature. We already know our bodies are made of the surrounding environment, constantly exchanging matter with it seamlessly during the acts of breathing, eating, shedding and regrowing skin, and eventually, dying and rotting. Any separation between a body and what surrounds it (or what it surrounds) is a made-up distinction, useful for categorizing and labeling, but ultimately misleading.

Who Douglas really was could not possibly be bounded by something as arbitrary and indistinct as skin.

Yet because he’d spent most of his time interacting with others at ranges of a few meters, Douglas had naturally identified most strongly (if not wholly) with his appearance at that casual, across-the-dining-room distance.

It still left him with a burning question: what would he look like from even closer than particle-range? Would he find himself to be nothing at all? In any case, he wasn’t content settling with the status quo — that his appearance at the few-meters-away range trumped the others, and that it was the appearance he should consider to be “himself.”

A Self-Portrait Like No Other

Harding’s answer came in the form of an extraordinary self-portrait by the physicist/philosopher Ernst Mach.

Most self-portraits are created using a mirror, and so the artist appears as he would from a distance of a few meters, like this one by Roger Fry:

Roger Fry self-portrait

Roger Fry's self-portrait

This is a typical self-portrait because it is the view of ourselves we are most familiar with, from looking in the mirror, from looking at photos of ourselves, and listening to what other people say about our looks. Most of our dealings with other people occur at distances of a few meters, as do our encounters with mirrors and cameras. So almost all of the information we have about our appearance is based on observations from some distance away from us. It’s no wonder we’ve grown to believe that the few-meters-away appearance illustrates what humans truly are, and that our appearances from all other distances don’t count: they’re too far or too close to see, or are somehow inaccurate in comparison.

Mach took an unconventional view of himself. Here is his self-portrait:

Ernst Mach's self-portrait

Ernst Mach's self-portrait

Evidently, Ernst Mach didn’t see himself the same way Roger Fry did. He drew himself in the first person. At first it appears to be just an amusing trick, the sort of mind-bending but merely entertaining cheekiness you might find in an M.C. Escher drawing.

But Harding saw something much more profound here, and I do too. Mach has drawn a portrait of himself as he appears to himself, as opposed to drawing it from the conventional viewpoint of a few meters away.

This self-portrait is completely unusual. It should shock us that it’s so unusual, because it is the perspective from which each of us lives every single moment of our lives. This is the “home” view of our lives, in fact it is inescapable, yet we think of ourselves in the third person nearly all the time.

More strikingly: though this is a picture Mach drew of himself, the artist’s head isn’t present. This is because from where he is looking — from where he always is looking  — there is no head to be seen.

It had never occurred to Harding that a human being’s most intimate, most central view, the one he is witnessing every moment of his life, was completely headless.

Years later, while he was walking in (of all places) the Himalayas, he had an experience that made Mach’s curious self-portrait take on a world-shattering new meaning for him.

In his own words:

The best day of my life—my rebirthday, so to speak—was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head.

[…] What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animalhood, all that could be called mine. 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.

~From Harding’s book On Having No Head. A full account of his initial experience is available online here.

Finally, he had seen himself from closer than nanometers. He had seen, precisely, what he looked like from zero distance, and it was nothing like he looked to others. Other people sported heads, out there at a distance, but here, at zero distance, there was no head to be seen.

When he turned his attention inwards — at the empty space he was looking out of — he saw absolutely no evidence of a head. He saw boundless clarity, a cavernous, horizon-wide space, which did not protrude from his body like a head, but plainly contained his body.

Emptiness was not some far-off Zen concept, it was plain as day, all the time.

Harding was stunned at how incredibly obvious and ordinary all this was, yet it was a major revelation. He had lived his entire life from this same physical perspective, and in that perspective he clearly had no head.

Think about it: in every moment you experience, your head is never part of the scenery. Of course, you’d think you’d have one there, but except for in your imagination and memories, it is conspicuously absent. Even when you look in the mirror or at a photograph of yourself, that mirror and that photograph are contained within a boundless empty space that sits where you normally imagine to be a head, as are the rest of the scene around them, which includes your body.

In other words, what you look like to yourself does not feature a head. Why should we tend to our identity as seen by others, in preference to, and at the expense of, our identity as seen by ourselves?

Somehow or other I had vaguely thought of myself as inhabiting this house which is my body, and looking out through its two little round windows at the world. Now I find it isn’t like that at all. As I gaze into the distance, what is there at this moment to tell me how many eyes I have here — two, three, or hundreds, or none? In fact, only one window appears on this side of my facade, and that one is wide open and frameless and immense, with nobody looking out of it. It is always the other fellow who has eyes and a face to frame them; never this one.

~On Having No Head

It was only memory and imagination and the words of others that could suggest that he had a head. This he couldn’t deny, and it had disturbing implications. It meant that his entire life, what he was actually seeing had been superseded at nearly all times by his opinions about what he was seeing, namely that he wasn’t looking at the world from a vast, empty space, but from “two tiny holes in an eight-inch meatball” atop his shoulders.

See, you can’t ever see yourself from a distance, as others see you. But our most common way to experience ourselves is in the third person, through thought. We nearly always ignore what we actually see of ourselves in deference to what we think of ourselves — how we imagine others see us.

No wonder we have ego issues. In the previous post I said the ego is simply what you think you are. That collection of thoughts is what you normally regard yourself to be. Looking at yourself as you really appear to yourself allows you to see who you are outside thought. This is a rare state for most people, but it is always right there. There is nothing abstract about it.

Behead yourself! Dissolve your whole body into Vision: become seeing, seeing, seeing!

~Rumi

I know to some this all sounds like a cheeky, naive revelation with no real meaning. After all, we all know we have heads. We’ve seen them in mirrors, we’ve touched them, we can even see a blurry patch in the corner of our vision most of us would take for granted is a nose. And above all, of what use is this revelation?

Harding certainly had all those objections too, and with an investigative spirit like his, he wasn’t about to ignore them. On Monday I’ll show you why they didn’t change a thing.

In the mean time, rather that taking my word for it, why not introduce yourself to your own headlessness by doing an experiment to investigate what you actually see of yourself. This is the first of a half-dozen or so exercises Harding developed to help people investigate who they are outside thought. Harding’s friend Richard Lang will guide you in the video below.

It is crucial that you actually do the experiment, and not just watch the video of the experiment. Hearsay and conceptual understandings won’t get you anywhere here.

There is a text-and-graphic version of this experiment too, which some people might prefer, here.

***

It was a lucid moment in a confused life-history. It was a ceasing to ignore something which (since early childhood at any rate) I had always been too busy or too clever to see. It was naked, uncritical attention to what had all along been staring me in the face – my utter facelessness. In short, it was all perfectly simple and plain and straightforward, beyond argument, thought, and words.

Maybe the red pill isn’t as bitter as we thought.

R

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