The headless way


Douglas

I know most people would say I have mental problems, but I don't have a head.

Where other people see a head and where you see a head in the mirror, exactly in that place I myself, if I look honestly and unbiasedly, see no head and when I touch that place with my hands there are in fact no things like a 'nose' or 'cheeks', but on the contrary only vague tactile impressions. We have learned to interpret those impressions as 'nose' and 'cheeks'. We have also learned to identify with the image we see in the mirror: "that little boy or girl over there is who I am". Who we are to ourselves is forgotten and we walk around in a world that takes place outside of us instead of in the 'space' that we are ...We feel we have lost something and we do everything to fill that void: with money, relationships, a search for enlightenment, whatever.

Sometime in the early 1980s, I got my hands on a little book with the peculiar title 'On Having No Head', by a certain Douglas Harding. I don't remember how I got it, perhaps via 'Au Bout Du Monde' in Amsterdam? There was also an article about it in that fantastic book 'Gödel, Escher, Bach' by Douglas H. Hofstadter. Maybe that was the reason?

Anyway, Douglas describes how at one point, while trekking in the Himalayas, he suddenly discovers that he has no head and that instead the space, where he first thought his head should be, is filled with the ambient environment. In his words:

"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 the 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 snowpeaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world." 1)

I myself have had an experience of headlessness only once and for a very short time. I am standing in our garden in Belgium and look around relaxed. Suddenly, indeed, the illusion of a head on my shoulders disappears and I experience the world in 360 degrees. The rest of my body is part of the vision, which unfolds here at 0 meters. Moments later, the 'normal' feeling is back.

Headless vision can be practiced, and Douglas has developed numerous simple experiments to do exactly this. You can find them on the website of The Headless Way, a site I designed myself as one of my first exercises in web design, sometime in 1997 (now the site looks very different).

pointing One of the simplest experiments is the following. On The Headless Way's site, it's called the 'Pointing' experiment, in which you first point your finger at objects in your environment, including parts of your body, and then continue pointing to where you are looking out of - where others see your face - and then try to describe what you see in that direction.

The pointing experiment can be very revealing and disconcerting, if done in a mind that is not biased. So turn off your judgments for the duration of the experiment and try to look with an open mind ...

The text below is from the book 'Liberation IS' by Salvadore Poe who describes the experiment as follows:

"Now, keeping your eyes straight ahead, and without using your imagination or memory, in your own direct visual experience here and now, do you have a head? Take a moment to look.

[...]

What proof or evidence in your own direct visual experience right now indicates that there is a head? There might be a little bit of vague shaped color in your view. But does that say nose? Take a moment to look.

[...]

And furthermore, in your own direct experience right now, do you have two eyes? Or is there just open space? Without using memory, only in your direct visual experience here and now can you say you have two eyes? Look and see now.

[...]

Right now in your direct experience there are shapes and colors, but without the knowledge of what those are, can you say you have a head or a body? Look and see.

[...]

If you say you have a head, then you are obviously using your memory, thoughts. So be clear, in your own direct visual experience only, right now, do you have a head?

[...]"

The belief in an 'inner world' and an 'outer world' separated from it creates a kind of hardening of the sense of life. People look fearful and lonely through the holes in their illusory heads and put on a mask to hide that loneliness. Here I am. There you are. We have become things, cut off from the flow. "I am a rock, I am an island."

1) Douglas Harding, On Heaving No Head, Chapter 1