Headless: inside or outside?

Point your forefinger back at yourself and look for the “looker,” or the self. We might then notice a peculiar absence, obvious all along but somehow overlooked.

(Douglas Harding has developed many such experiments that directly point to an emptiness of self. You can find these at headless.org)

Put another way, we might register the absence of a boundary between “self” and “world.” As Douglas says, “I was nowhere around.” “I” seems to have dissolved into the world, like a sugar crystal into water.

In essence, headlessness seems to question the powerful assumption that “I-am-the-body.” The pointing experiment shows up this assumption for what it is quite dramatically and in a profoundly non-verbal fashion.

It seems that the Void can become evident in ordinary daily life.

Birthday again

Let’s look at that opening sentence from Douglas Harding’s book On Having No Head again.

(For those who are unfamiliar with Harding’s work, here is an excellent documentary):

“The best day of my life – my rebirthday, so to speak – was when I found I had no head.”

This opening salvo is obvioulsy not meant to be taken literally. In a physical sense, you and I have heads (although, come to think of it, there is a swift abstract picture of a body that we carry around with us that we tap into when needed. If you close your eyes and just be honest to pure sensation, can you really say you have a body? Or , rather, do we only register a complex patchwork of sensation? Warmth, cool, tingling, pressure etc).

So then how can we understand this marvellous opening sentence?

I think this is not a matter to be intellectually grappled with. It is an observation, pure and simple: when we look, we find the world (which includes our body, thoughts and feelings) but no centre from which the world is observed or sensed. The world just is.

Again, this is not an idea to intellectually battle over. It is a fact to be seen, not conceptually practised. This is really the challenge, for we can get trapped in intellectually battling this insight, doing a “for” and “against” rationalisation.

Headlessness frees us from an ego-trapped view of reality. We register a delightful glimpse of freedom that is mercifully non-rational and fundamentally non-argumentative.

Can it be practised? Sustained? Improved upon? I find these concepts quite exhausting and limited. The trick is just to relax and see.


The best day of my life – my rebirthday, so to speak – was when I found I had no head.

Thus begins the classic On Having No Head. As Douglas Harding sometimes writes, this is it. One doesn’t need to know or understand more than this simple statement. However, there are deeper and deeper implications to this simple seeing (of headlessness) that we can all access and which point, simultaneously, to both the void and the fullness “within.”

Let’s take a moment to look at our surroundings. There is a window, through which some trees and an apartment block are visible. There is a wall, and a half-open door. Here is my table, on which my teacup and the computer rest. Here are my hands, my torso–and, very manifestly, no head. For me, this sudden recognition triggers a sense of a void within which all is operating. There is a feeling of lightness, of not being trapped within my skull and my body, and an urge to laugh with a sense of freedom. Particular sensory imputs–colours, shapes, sounds–stand out in sharp focus.

This is a glimpse of freedom, according to me. However, the thinking process does something interesting with this glimpse. The thinking process wants this experience to be repeated and to live “continuously” in this glimpse. At that point, it is an interesting experiment to relax and see that these insistent thoughts are themselves arising and subsiding in a perfect void that is essentially clear.


I have recently become fascinated with Douglas Harding and the Headless Way. For those who are unfamiliar with this approach, it is a radical, stunning and simple approach to glimpsing the fundamentally empty nature of consciousness–empty of self, that is.

Douglas has many “experiments” that reveal this basic emptiness. The simplest is to point your finger at your head and try to direct your attention to what is present in the direction of your pointing. It may suddenly be glimpsed that nothing is present; there is only the clear space of awareness. Or, he may say, just notice that you don’t have a head (or a face, or a central ego) at this point.

Either way, there is a sense of laughter, lightness and, as Douglas puts it, “the dropping of an intolerable burden.”

I will, in succeeding posts, try to explore Douglas’s book On Having No Head, through short extracts and commentaries. Perhaps those who are excited by this would wish to open up a conversation together.