Somewhere in the early eighties I got my hands on a booklet with the peculiar title 'On Having No Head', by a certain Douglas Harding. I don't remember how I got it, perhaps through 'Au Bout Du Monde' in Amsterdam? There is also an article written about it in that fantastic book 'Gödel, Escher, Bach' by Douglas H. Hofstadter. Maybe that was the reason? ...
Anyway, Mr. Harding describes how at one point, during a hike in the Himalayas, he suddenly discovers that he has no head and that instead the space is filled with the environmental scene. 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 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."
The book goes on to refute the criticism that naturally followed his experience and conclusions. Then follows the discovery that the literature of Zen Buddhism contains many clues to the headless experience, especially where reference is made to the 'Original Face'. Finally, there is an explanation of how in the development from newborn to adult we exchange this original face for the illusion of a lump of flesh with holes in it through which we perceive the outside world.
Where other people see a head and where you see a head in the mirror, exactly in that place (Douglas would write 'place' with a capital letter here) I for myself don't see a 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 touch 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 there is who I am". Who we are to ourselves gets forgotten and we walk around in a world that takes place outside of us instead of in the 'space' that we are ... Deep down we feel that we have lost something and we do everything to fill the void: money, relationships, a search for enlightenment, whatever ...
I only had an experience of headlessness myself once and that for a very short time. I am standing in our garden in Lier and look around in a relaxed way. Suddenly the illusion of a head on my shoulders indeed disappears and I experience the world in 360 degrees. The rest of my body is part of the Sight, which unfolds Here at 0 meters (now I am using capital letters too :-).
The headless vision can be practiced, and Douglas has developed numerous simple experiments to exactly do this. You can find them on the website of The Headless Way, a site that I myself designed as one of my first exercises in web design, sometime in 1997. The image with this text is in fact from a second version that I made a few years later (the site looks very different now by the way).
One of the simplest experiments is the following. On the site of The Headless Way it is called the 'Pointing' experiment, where you first point with your finger to objects in your environment, including parts of your body, and then continue to point at the place where you are looking out of – there 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 frame of mind that is not biased. So put off your judgments for the duration of the experiment and try to look uninhibited ...
The text below is from the book 'Liberation IS' by Salvadore Poe who describes the experiment like this:
"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 litlle 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 memory, thoughts. So be clear, i n your own direct visual experience only, right now, do you have a head?"
There are also regular meetings of practitioners of this view. Douglas himself passed away in 2007 at the age of almost 98, and Richard Lang now takes the honors as a contact person. Richard also teaches workshops and has written a number of books on the subject. You can find the THW Facebook page here.