Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Douglas Harding - Headlessness

“Here is just emptiness. There is no getting my ego out of the way, and all that stuff. There is just seeing, shining in great brilliance and clarity.”

Douglas Harding devoted himself to philosophy, trying to understand the nature of himself. He was intrigued by the question, “What Am I?” As most people are content with their identity and never seek to answer the question. And he wasn’t about to take anybody’s word for it. Neither was he going to accept what religion or society told him about himself. He wanted to find out directly for himself.

At the time philosophy was influenced by the ideas of relativity. He realized that his identity depended on the observer – from several meters away he was a human, but a close range he was cells, molecules, atoms and from further away he was absorbed into the rest of society, life, the planets, the star. He realized like an onion he had many layers.

But what was at the centre of these layers? Who was he really?

For example, take this writing. I can read it now only because I am just the right range - almost 10 inches, and the words are bristling with meaning. Nearer still provided I sharpen my vision with electronic aids - the screen is a collection of patterns called molecules and beyond these atoms, particles, quarks and finally space itself, packed full of energy. Neither the page or anything else will stand up to close inspection.

Whilst searching for his innermost identity he happened to stumble upon a drawing by the Austrian philosopher and physicist. It was a self portrait but with an unusual difference:

imageWhat is unusual about this self portrait? The unusual thing is that you don’t see the artists head. For most people this fact is interesting. However for Harding he had discovered the keys to his identity, as he noticed his head was missing to. So at the centre of the world there was no head, no appearance – nothing at all. This nothing was special as it was alive and fully awake to the world.

However he was still seeking the answer to the elusive question, “What am I?” And this occurred with the following experience or realization and at the time he happened to be walking in the Himalayas.

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 trouser legs 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.

Douglas Harding
from his book, “On Having No Head.”

Douglas Harding had seen his original face. He saw emptiness that contained a world. And nowhere did he find evidence of a head. Hence the original face is also a koan in Zen Buddhism: What did your face look like before your parents were born? You are what you experience in the now moment.

Think about this for a moment! You head only exists as a concept. You imagine yourself to have a head when there is nothing but emptiness.

Do the exercises below with an open mind. Rely on present evidence rather than on imagination, memory or assumptions. Look for yourself – you alone can see who you really are and no one else can do it for you.