The Headless Way
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The Headless Way

Douglas Harding

(Written in the 1970s)

Over the past thirty years a truly contemporary and Western way of 'seeing into one's Nature' or 'Enlightenment' has been developing. Though in essence the same as Zen, Sufism, and other spiritual disciplines, this way proceeds in an unusually down-to-earth fashion. It claims that modern man is more likely to see Who he really is in a minute of active experimentation than in years of reading, lecture-attending, thinking, ritual observances, and passive meditation of the traditional sort. Instead of these, it uses a variety of simple, non-verbal, fact-finding tests, all of them asking: how do I look to myself? They direct my attention to my blind spot - to the space I occupy, to what's given right here at the Centre of my universe, to what it's like being 1st-person singular, present tense.

Five stages of development are distinguished:

1. Like any animal, the new-born infant is for himself no-thing, faceless and at large, unseparate from his world, 1st-person without knowing it.
2. The young child, becoming briefly and intermittently aware of himself-as-he-is-for-himself, may ask his mother why she has a head and he hasn't, or may protest that he isn't a boy (he's not like that at all!), or may even announce that he's nothing, not there, invisible. Yet he's also becoming increasingly aware of himself-as-he-is-for-others - a very human and special 3rd person complete with head and face. Both views of himself are valid and needful.
3. But as the child grows up his acquired view of himself-from-outside come to overshadow, and in the end to obliterate, his native view of himself-from-inside. In fact, he grows down. At first, he contained his world; now, it contains him - what there is of him. Victim of the adults' universal confidence trick, he is 1st-person no longer. Shrunk from being the Whole into being this contemptible part, he grows greedy, hating, fearful, and deluded. Greedy, as he tries to regain at whatever cost a little of his lost empire; hating, as he revenges himself upon a society that has cruelly cut him down to size; fearful, as he sees himself a mere thing up against all other things; deluded, as he imagines (contrary to all the evidence) that he is at 0 feet what he looks like at 6 feet - a solid, opaque, coloured, outlined lump of stuff.
4. His cure is to take a fresh look at himself-as-he-is-for-himself and discover Who he really is. Of the many recommended pointers to this Self-realisation (some of which use other senses than vision) the following are typical. (Warning: it's no good just reading about them: you have actually to carry out these simple experiments, for yourself.)

1. Pointing here. Point to your friend's feet, then yours; to his legs, then yours; to his torso, then yours; to his head, then… What, on present evidence, is your finger now pointing at?
2. Single eye. In your own experience at this moment, are you peering through two little holes in a kind of meat-ball? If so, what's it like in there - dark, stuffy, congested, small? Slowly put on a pair of spectacles and notice how those two little 'windows' become one vast 'window' - spotlessly clean and with nobody looking out of it.
3. Putting on a no-face. Cut a head-sized hole in a card. Hold the card out at arm's length, noting the hole's boundaries. See how they vanish into your boundlessness as you bring the card forward and put it right on - to your face?
4. Paper bag. Get an ordinary bag (preferably white) about 12" square, and cut the bottom off. Fit your face into one end while your friend fits his into the other. How many faces are given in the bag? Dropping memory and imagination, are you face-to-face or face-to-no-face?
5. In the body? By stroking and pinching and pummelling, try to build up here on your shoulders the sort of thing you see over there on your friend's shoulders. Now try to get inside it, and describe its contents. Aren't you still out-of-doors, as much at large as ever? Look at your hand. Are you in it, or is it in you?
6. Mirror. Notice where you keep your face - over there in your mirror, and where your friend is in receipt of it (and can accordingly tell you all about it), and where he holds his camera (which can accordingly register it in full detail).
7. Onion peeling. Get your friend to check your faceless emptiness (at 0 feet) by coming right up to you with his camera (a viewfinder-hole in a sheet of paper will do). He starts at a place (say 6 feet away) where he finds you to be a man, then comes to where (at, say, 3 feet) he finds a torso, then a head, then an eye, then a mere blur. If he has efficient instruments, the blur reads as an eyelash, then as cells, then as particles of descending order, and in the end as practically empty space - featureless, transparent, colourless. The closer he gets to you the closer he gets to your own view of yourself as No-thing whatever.

5. You have actually seen, by carrying out such exercises in basic attention, what it is to be 1st-person singular - the No-thing that is nevertheless keenly aware of Itself as the Container or Ground of the whole display. This seeing is believing. Altogether unmystical (in the popular sense), it is a precise, total, all-or-nothing experience admitting of no degrees - so long as it lasts. Now your task is to go on seeing your Absence/Presence in all situations, till the seeing becomes quite natural and continuous. This is neither to lose yourself in your Emptiness nor in what fills it, but simultaneously to view the thing you are looking at and the No-thing you are looking out of. There will be found no times when this two-way attention is out of place or can safely be dispensed with.

The initial seeing into your Nature is simplicity itself: once noticed, Nothing is so obvious! But it is operative only in so far as it is practised. The results - freedom from greed and hate and fear and delusion - are assured only while the One they belong to isn't overlooked.

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