Book: On Having No Head – Douglas Harding


If you like this article and want to read this book, you can buy it here: On Having No Head.

On Having No Head – Douglas Harding

Me auld mucker Tommie told me recently that this book was one of David Bowie’s 100 must-read books, which is pretty cool. Now, as TaSTA listeners might remember, I’ve harped on about this book on two recent episodes, such has been my great excitement regarding it. Look, it’s bonkers and it’s great fun and it’s incredibly insightful. Hands down though, this is one of the funnest books I’ve read since getting into all this kind of stuff. 

The whole idea is, well, basically you don’t have a head. So…look, OK, you have a head and it’s there but y’know, you obviously can’t see it. Even when you’re looking into a mirror you’re not seeing your head, you’re seeing a reflection and you’re putting your trust in a mirror hoping it’s a true reflection of what you look like.

You have ears, eyes, a mouth, a nose, nostrils, cheeks, hair (maybe), but if you trace back where all these things are, or are meant to be, then they become empty. Like, going down to a cellular level and lower everything is just atoms and whatnot in empty space bouncing off each other. So, yea, I don’t have a head and neither do you. And because I don’t have a head, I don’t have anything. And if I don’t have anything then, hold on a second, there’s not even an I to have. 

Now that there’s no I, then surely there can only be a Oneness, or a Unity with the universe: He says:

“Meeting you, there is for me only one face – yours – and I can never get face-to-face with you….We trade faces, and this is a most precious and intimate exchange of appearances. I have every reason to think the world of you. For I must believe that what is true for me is true for everyone, that we are all in the same condition – reduced to headless voids, to nothing, so that we may contain and become everything.”

He continues:

“I don’t doubt the scientist who says that from his observation point over there, I have a clearly defined head consisting of an immense hierarchy of clearly defined bodies such as organs, cell, and molecules – an inexhaustibly complex world of physical things and processes. But I happen to know (or rather, be) the inside story of this world and every one of its inhabitants, and it completely contradicts the outside story.”

“And I find this is true, not only of my human body, but of my total Body, the universe itself. How much of this total Body I take on depends upon the occasion, but automatically I feel my way into as much as I need. Thus I may with perfect ease identify myself in turn with my head, my six-foot body, my family, my country, my planet and so on, without ever coming up against any limit or barrier. The reality behind all appearances is lucid, open and all together accessible. I know my way in and out of the secret inmost heart of every creature, however remote or repulsive it might seem to the outsider, because we are all one Body and that Body is one Void.”

Plenty of food for thought there. 

But a little on the author before we go into other issues he writes about. Douglas Harding was an English philosopher, mystic, and writer who delved into the nature of perception and self-awareness. Born in Suffolk, England, he embarked on a lifelong exploration of the human experience. His approach encourages direct experiential understanding, emphasizing the absence of a separate “head” or ego. Harding’s first awakening experience happened while traveling in the Himalayas and for most of his life he would re-examine the event, taking it apart and making sense of it. Not your typical guru, he didn’t set up a school or establish a lineage or put himself into one. He really just wanted more and more people to learn to see the ego for what it is, or as the case actually is, what it isn’t.

I guess the reason I got such a kick out of this book was the easiness of the method he’s talking about. Working towards the goal of enlightenment/awakening is supposed to be a tough slog. It’s supposed to be hardship, pain, inner turmoil, crossing the abyss and all that jazz. Harding, does address this however:

“We are not enlightened! (his italics). The fact is that in all us lurks an existential terror, a powerful and altogether natural resistance to what – seemingly – accounts to sudden death and annihilation. All that long-drawn-out and often agonizing effort, urged on by every kind of social pressure, to paper over the void within and to build on it a somebody right here, a face that belongs to oneself, a distinct personality of one’s very own, a stable character to match up to those around us – and now, it’s being exposed as not just a collapsing card-castle but as the cause of our trouble.”

We’re not enlightened because we (our egos) are in the way.

“No wonder some people are visibly disturbed – embarrassed, insulted, scared, nauseated, angry, occasionally violent – when invited to look within, and shy away from the horror instantly.”

These feeling are, he says are

“just another passing experience among the myriads that go to make up a human life.”

So, he’s saying that these thoughts and feelings of being terrified of looking within are just that; thoughts and feelings and, as such, are empty of any substance, just like everything else. Ernst Mach, self-portrait

Towards the final pages he writes that real happiness, real enlightenment is therefore in accepting the here and now, the unfolding of existence that we’re here and present for. Nothing more and nothing less. We’re not our personalities, characteristics, labels etc. We’re just here and being and that’s enough. He quotes the Buddha, saying:

‘Nirvana is visible in this life, inviting, attractive, accessible to the wise disciple.’

And he finishes off with a quote from the Jesuit writer, Jean-Pierre de Caussade: 

“If you abandon all restraint, carry your wishes to their fullest limits, open your heart boundlessly, there is not a single moment when you will not find all you could possibly desire. The present moment hold infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams.”

This book’s a ton of fun, doing the exercises of seeing that you have no head or the other one of pointing your index fingers out at the world and the other back at yourself while appreciating that all of existence is at the end of both finger tips is, well, fun. But there’s great insight too, as I’ve hopefully shown above. Y’know, spirituality doesn’t have to be about being the hero/victim of it all. At the end, it’s all just about being and this book is a great wee read to remind us of that. 

If you like this article and want to read this book, you can buy it here: On Having No Head

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