Douglas Harding (1909-2007) was a British philosopher, mystic, and spiritual teacher whose most famous books are the monumental The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth (1952) and On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious (1961). He taught a practical, on-the-ground method of spiritual awakening based on the immediate first-person experience of headlessness. From one’s own first-person vantage point, as a matter of immediate personal experience aside from any speculation or abstraction, one manifestly has no head (look for yourself right now and see). From this central truth Douglas developed a philosophy, and just as importantly, a practical method of transmitting its primary experiential realization, that synthesizes and integrates elements of all the world’s great spiritual traditions.
He was recognized early on as a genius of startling vision; when he sent the unpublished draft of The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth to C.S. Lewis, who by that time was already a world celebrity, Lewis wrote back in a letter dated Easter 1950 and raved, “Hang it all, you’ve made me drunk, roaring drunk as I haven’t been on a book (I mean a book of doctrine; imaginative works are another matter) since I first read Bergson during World War I. Who or what are you? How have I lived forty years without my having heard of you before and my sensation is that you have written a book of the highest genius.”
Lewis went on to write the preface for the first published edition of the book. In it he said, “This book is, I believe, the first attempt to reverse a movement of thought which has been going on since the beginning of philosophy. . . . If [this book] should turn out to have been even the remote ancestor of some system which will give us again a credible universe inhabited by credible agents and observers, this will still have been a very important book indeed.”
Douglas’s influence grew in the 1960s and 70s when such prominent figures in the burgeoning countercultural spiritual movement as Alan Watts referred approvingly to his work. He grew up in a strict fundamentalist Christian sect, the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren. The ‘Brethren’ believed they were the ‘saved’ ones, that they had the one true path to God and that everyone else was bound for Hell. When Harding was 21 he left. He could not accept their view of the world. What guarantee was there that they were right? What about all the other spiritual groups who also claimed that they alone had the Truth? Everyone couldn’t be right.
In London in the early 1930s Harding was studying and then practising architecture. In his spare time, however, he devoted his energies to philosophy – to trying to understand the nature of the world, and the nature of himself. Into philosophy at this time were filtering the ideas of Relativity. Influenced by these ideas, Harding realized that his identity depended on the range of the observer – from several metres he was human, but at closer ranges he was cells, molecules, atoms, particles… and from further away he was absorbed into the rest of society, life, the planet, the star, the galaxy… Like an onion he had many layers. Clearly he needed every one of these layers to exist.
But what was at the centre of all these layers? Who was he really? In the mid-1930s Harding moved to India with his family to work there as an architect. When the Second World War broke out, Harding’s quest to uncover his identity at centre – his True Identity – took on a degree of urgency. Aware of the obvious dangers of war, he wanted to find out who he really was before he died.
One day Harding stumbled upon a drawing by the Austrian philosopher and physicist Ernst Mach. It was a self-portrait – but a self-portrait with a difference. Most self-portraits are what the artist looks like from several feet – she looks in a mirror and draws what she sees there. But Mach had drawn himself without using a mirror – he had drawn what he looked like from his own point of view, from zero distance.
When Harding saw this self-portrait the penny dropped. Until this moment he had been investigating his identity from various distances. He was trying to get to his centre by peeling away the layers. Here however was a self-portrait from the point of view of the centre itself. The obvious thing about this portrait is that you don’t see the artist’s head. For most people this fact is interesting or amusing, but nothing more. For Harding this was the key that opened the door to seeing his innermost identity, for he noticed he was in a similar condition – his own head was missing too. At the centre of his world was no head, no appearance – nothing at all. And this ‘nothing’ was a very special ‘nothing’ for it was both awake to itself and full of the whole world. Many years later Harding wrote about the first time he saw his headlessness:
“I don’t think there was a ‘first time’. Or, if there was, it was simply a becoming more aware of what one had all along been dimly aware of. How could there be a ‘first-time’ seeing into the Timeless, anyway? One occasion I do remember most distinctly – of very clear in-seeing. It had 3 parts. (1) I discovered in Karl Pearson’s Grammar of Science, a copy of Ernst Mach’s drawing of himself as a headless figure lying on his bed. (2) I noted that he – and I – were looking out at that body and the world, from the Core of the onion of our appearances. (3) It was clear that the Hierarchy, which I was then in the early stages of, had to begin with headlessness, and that this had to be the thread on which the whole of it had to be hung.”
However, Harding did describe his discovery more dramatically in On Having No Head:
“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.
It was eighteen years ago, when I was thirty-three, that I made the discovery. Though it certainly came out of the blue, it did so in response to an urgent enquiry; I had for several months been absorbed in the question: what am I? The fact that I happened to be walking in the Himalayas at the time probably had little to do with it; though in that country unusual states of mind are said to come more easily. However that may be, a very still clear day, and a view from the ridge where I stood, over misty blue valleys to the highest mountain range in the world, with Kangchenjunga and Everest unprominent among its snow-peaks, made a setting worthy of the grandest vision.
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.
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.
It was all, quite literally, breathtaking. I seemed to stop breathing altogether, absorbed in the Given. Here it was, this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void, and (and this was the real miracle, the wonder and delight) utterly free of “me”, unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence, body and soul. Lighter than air, clearer than glass, altogether released from myself, I was nowhere around.
Yet in spite of the magical and uncanny quality of this vision, it was no dream, no esoteric revelation. Quite the reverse: it felt like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, an end to dreaming. It was self-luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind. It was the revelation, at long last, of the perfectly obvious. 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. There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden.”
Following this discovery, Harding spent eight more years working on The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth. Prefaced by CS Lewis who called it “a work of the highest genius”, The Hierarchy was published by Faber and Faber in 1952. In this book Harding explores, tests and makes sense of his discovery in the broadest and deepest terms. It is not a book for a popular audience, but it is a book that will surely, in time, be recognized as a truly great work of philosophy.
In 1961 the Buddhist Society published On Having No Head – written for a popular audience. In the late 1960s and 1970s Harding developed the experiments – awareness exercises designed to make it easy to see one’s headlessness and to explore its meaning and implications in everyday life.
Harding added a final section to On Having No Head more than 40 years after his revelation of headlessness, laying out the Path – the Headless Way – he followed “from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to Light, from death to Immortality” (in the words from the Upanishad he quoted). He said that it represents one of countless variations on the Way, and he divided it into eight more-or-less arbitrary stages:
The Headless Infant
The Headed Grown-up
The Headless Seer
Working It Out
His recommendation is to first become a Headless Seer, which only takes one glimpse and corresponds to stages one through four. He laments that very few of the many people who have glimpsed their true natures in his workshops have followed through with the next step, which is Practicing Headlessness.
“Now the ‘hard’ part begins, which is the repetition of this headless seeing-into-Nothingness till the seeing becomes quite natural and nothing special at all; till, whatever one is doing, it’s clear that nobody’s here doing it…. At first, the essential practice requires much effort of attention. Normally, one takes years or decades to arrive to arrive at anything like steady and spontaneous in-seeing. Nevertheless the method is quite simple and the same throughout. It consists of ceasing to overlook the looker – or rather, the absence of the looker.”
The third and final step is breaking through the barrier of ego:
“No matter how revolutionary the discoveries made along Stages (5) and (6) of the Way, or how valuable for living they are beginning to prove, in the end they leave the wayfarer profoundly unsatisfied. There remains an ache, an undefined longing. In spite of all this quite genuine spiritual “progress,” an all-important region remains untravelled, or at least insufficiently explored. It’s a dark and dangerous country inhabited by monsters, and it cannot be by-passed. It is the area of the will. Here, beyond and beneath all these luminous goings-on, the unregenerate ego is still at work, possibly beavering away more vigorously than ever.”
What is required, he tells us, is a “profound declaration of intent”:
“It is the realization at gut level (so to say) that one’s deepest desire is that all shall be as it is – seeing that it all flows from one’s true Nature, the Aware Space here.”
“How is this breakthrough actually made? What can one do to bring it nearer?” he asks us, rhetorically. The answer: “In a sense, nothing. It’s not a doing but an undoing, a giving up, an abandonment of the false belief that there’s anyone here to abandon.” But he goes on, in the Postscript, to give some practical advice, the chief of which is the importance of the company of fellow-adventurers.
Harding felt a conviction, from childhood on, that the power behind the world is one of Self-giving love.
He discovered early that the greatest awe is that of Self-origination, of something manifesting out of nothing.
He thought it would be a great waste to find ourselves in existence and then not look to see what was the actual nature of that existence – and that this “seeing” was easy and direct.
“Either you go baldheaded for Who you really are, or else you get to work on all that mental stuff which is alleged to block the vision of that Who. They just won’t mix, and there’s no sense in jumping back and forth from one to the other.”
Harding is a vigorous proponent of going for a direct seeing, and the exercises he developed for helping with this are documented throughout his writing.
To overcome the yearning that goes with separation, we then need to break through the final barrier, the ego or individuality sense.
When asked about the fear that hinders us from this, he responded (in Face to No-Face):
“The profound and well-based reason for this fear is surely that we have one basic fear, the fear of death and annihilation. Coming back Here, looking in at the Void, is an arrow, isn’t it? We say the experiments are vehicles, but they’re also arrows or bullets. They come and they kill you. It really is the end of you. The fear of death, the fear of annihilation – that’s the real terror. The resistance to it is well-based. The Diamond Sutra says as much. Seeing into your void nature is naturally quite terrifying.
Of course, we have this fear that when we look in we’ll find death and annihilation. But it is death and resurrection. We forget that this death of the little one, who is dying anyway, is accompanied by our resurrection as the whole scene. So instead of this in-seeing being death, it becomes the answer to the problem of death.”
More excerpts from his writing:
“There is a Reality which is Indivisible, One, Alone, the Source and Being of all; not a thing, nor even a mind, but pure Spirit or clear Consciousness; and we are That and nothing but That, for That is our true Nature; and the only way to find It is to look steadily within, where are to be found utmost peace, unfading joy, and eternal life itself.”
“Over the past [sixty] 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.”
“You are divine at centre, human in appearance – at a certain range. Seeing Who you really are doesn’t mean you are no longer aware of your appearance, no longer self-conscious – that’s impossible as well as undesirable. So you still respond to your name, still recognize yourself in the mirror, still take responsibility for your actions. Of course. But you are now aware that your humanity is like a disguise, an incarnation you have taken on to be here in this world. Inwardly you are God, outwardly you are a person – a unique person with a special contribution to make. Instead of thinking you are just that person, that appearance, you are awake to the Power behind you, the Safety within you, the Source of inspiration and guidance at the heart of your human life. This enables you to be yourself even more so.”
“Here is just emptiness. There is no getting my ego out of the way, and all that stuff. There is just the seeing, shining in great brilliance and clarity.”
“The big thing for me, a development over the last few years, is the realization of the Incarnation. To put it very, very simply, if it is true what Tennyson says, what the Koran says, that God is nearer to me than my hands and my feet and my breathing, then God is Here and This is where he lives. This is the temple of the living God, and these hands are not coming out of an organism Here. I see that they’re coming out of the Space. Then these hands do a different job. These feet go on the errands of God, and this voice speaks his words. They are the instruments of Who we really, really are. This is a very different organism from the one we see in the mirror and see around us. This is the First Person, and the First Person is totally different from the third person.”
“Relying on the given facts rather than preconceptions is always sound policy. I neither am my body nor in it. On the contrary, it – along with the rest of my world – IS in me. What was wrong with alternatives (1) BEING the body and (2) BEING IN the body was the notion that, in and for oneself, one is a limited thing stuffed with a lot of even more limited things. Correct the false notion that you are an example of the taxidermist’s art, and you will find that all three alternatives come to the same thing. Which isn’t a thing at all, but immense and brilliantly conscious capacity for everything under and above the sun.”
“The lost Gospel according to Thomas, discovered “by accident” in an Egyptian cave in 1945, couldn’t have appeared at a more opportune moment in history, or with a message that speaks more directly to our condition and needs.
In this early apocryphal Christian text, the living voice of Jesus comes down to us directly, bypassing all that men have been saying about him and doing in his name. It comes across distinctly, high above the confused roar of two millenia of Christendom, so-called.
It’s as if he himself had planted this beneficient time bomb in the cave at Nag Hammadi, carefully setting the fuse to delay its explosion till the world would be ready for the impact.
It’s as if, so tragically far ahead of his time, he knew when significant numbers of quite ordinary men and women ( as distinct from highly specialised and disciplined saints and sages and seers ) would at last be capable of catching up with his vision of the Light, his experience of what he calls the Kingdom.”
“Whether looked at from outside or inside, bodies dissolve, matter vanishes, spirit remains – once we bother to go into the matter. “Spirit is the living body seen from within, and the body is the outer manifestation of the living spirit.” Extend this statement by Carl Jung to all bodies from electrons to galaxies, and you have the ultimate physics.”
“Now you talk about stopping thinking. Well, I’ve read all the books about Ramana – I’ve never met him – and I think he says a lot of things – some of which don’t mean much to me, it seems to be more part of that culture – but one of the things he does say in places is that you don’t have to do anything to see who you really are, you don’t have to stop thinking to see who you really, really are. It is obvious, there is nothing more obvious in the whole world. I say that too. It’s absolutely obvious, and you say, well does that stop your thinking, Douglas? Well, not really, because it’s perfectly compatible with seeing here the one who is supposedly the thinker. The thinker goes along perfectly well with the realisation of the identity of the one here who’s alleged to be thinking, but there is a sense – and a very, very important sense – in which seeing who I am does involve cessation of thought, because when we think about a thing we are making it an object. It is there, the thinker and the object thought about, and I am not that. The thinker and the thought are two, but this vision of who I really, really, really am is not thought, it is directly experienced. So here there’s no thinking. Seeing who I really, really am is not thinking, it’s not a conceptual experience, it’s more like a percept – but an absolutely direct experience of what’s here.”
“What if you were happy already — were happiness itself — and never noticed the fact? What if this frantic search for happiness elsewhere blinds you to the searcher’s True Nature which is bliss itself?
Sri Nisargadatta is sure of the answer, and certainly doesn’t mince matters. “Nothing can make you happier than you are. All search for happiness is misery and leads to more misery. The only happiness worth the name is the natural happiness of conscious being.” This, together with the teaching of the long line of seers and sages who have indissolubly linked ananda (Bliss) with sat (Being) and chit (Awareness), and certainly the experience of this writer, all insist that the true recipe for happiness is seeing Who you really are, and enjoying your very Nature as unalloyed Bliss.
How, then, to see Who you really are? In fact, it’s easier to see than anything else! Just look at What you are looking out of at this moment, at what’s your side of these printed words, and see Nothing — no shape or form, no complexity, no color, no texture, no opacity, no limits, no movement — nothing but Awareness.
But does this seeing into your Self-nature (and it’s something you can’t do wrong) mean that you want things to happen as they do happen? Well, who is responsible for them? Who you really, really are creates the world, and presumably isn’t regretting any of it.
Those who have actually tried it find that this last recipe for happiness is the one that works. What’s more, it makes the other two work. Consistently seeing Who you really are, you want what you get and get what you want. Again, this isn’t for believing but for testing.
In his Ethics the great Greek philosopher Aristotle concluded that happiness is some form of theoria, which means a looking-at, a viewing, a beholding. That’s to say, not a subjective state for achieving one day but an objective reality for enjoying right now. A reality we can’t get rid of no matter how we try.”