The Surprising Ramifications Of Losing Your Head.
Adventures in the headless way.
My girlfriend was wearing a look that was equal parts exasperation and an apparently genuine concern that I‘d finally lost my mind. So I must say that she handled herself with admirable diplomacy.
“I’m…just not really sure what the point you’re trying to make is.” she managed to stutter.
At the time I was still too excited by my discovery to sympathise with her confusion, but with the benefit of hindsight I can see how she might have been finding what I was saying difficult to follow. I’d been trying to explain that I didn’t have a head after all.
Of course, from her perspective I had a head. I understood that. I was also under no illusion that if I looked into a mirror, I’d see a head, with its attendant face, looking back at me. I was well aware that if I reached up my hand, I would feel a head at the top of my neck, but none of this changed the fact that from my point of view, looking out into the world as I, and you, normally do, there was no head to be found.
You might be wondering, as my girlfriend did, what the point of this observation is. What difference does it make if you can’t see your head if I know it’s there? It’s a fair question, but to answer it, we need to take a brief trip to the Himalayas.
In 1942, at the age of 33, Douglas Harding was walking in the mountains when he had a flash of pure clarity, what the Buddhists would call satori or insight. He found himself totally absorbed in the present moment, past and future dropped away, and he found himself looking out at the world as if he had just that moment been born.
Below is his account of what he discovered when he tried to figure out what this new-born creature he was actually…was:
“…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 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 snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.”
This experience marked the beginning of Douglas’ journey on what he eventually named “The Headless Way” which he described as “a direct way of seeing who you really are”.
To understand how thinking of yourself as headless can possibly offer insights into our true nature, we have to recognise clearly what the insight is. Nobody is claiming that the head is an illusion, or that it doesn’t exist. Clearly, that’s nonsense. Anybody can point to your head just as you can point to anybody else’s. The insight to be had here is that we each have a perspective on ourselves that nobody else has, or can have.
Everybody else sees you at a distance of at least a few feet. From this perspective, you clearly have a head. But you see yourself from a distance of zero. And from this distance, there’s no head to be found.
This seems like pure semantics until you realise that what things are always changes depending on the distance we’re viewing them from. Think of the device you’re reading this on for example. At the distance you’re looking at it from, it’s clear that it’s a phone or laptop or tablet or whatever it is. If you put it right up to your face, it would be nothing more than a screen. If you looked at it through a powerful microscope it would become a collection of individual pixels. Closer still atoms, and even closer than that, it would be mostly empty space.
Which one of these is true? The answer is all of them, depending on your perspective. You’re able to say different things about the nature of whatever you’re looking at, depending on how close you are to it. But with external objects, we’re always looking from some distance. The only thing we can look at from zero distance is our own head. And from this unique perspective, we find that there is just space which is filled with the world.
Still not convinced? Let’s try another thought experiment. Let’s imagine that we’re lying in a large field, and there’s a mirror floating above us. To begin with, the mirror is very close. Just centimetres from our face. It’s so close that all we can make out is the reflection of our eye. The mirror floats upwards a little and we see our faces (our face can be seen now of course, because we’re using the mirror to allow us to see ourselves from greater than zero distance).
The mirror continues to move away (let’s just pretend we have really great eyesight) Now we see the field we’re lying in reflected in the mirror. Further still, we might see the town or city that we live in, then the country, then the planet, then the solar system, and so on..
Which of these views is true? Which one of these is really us? Again, the answer is all of them. What we appear to be changes with the distance from which we’re being observed. We’re just as dependent on the layers of solar system and planet and country for our survival as we are on the layer that we call our body.
The internal experience of having no head is meaningful because it is a constant, direct, and easily accessible reminder of our connection to and dependence on the world around us. From our perspective we’re not discrete beings wrapped in heads that seal us off from the world, we’re open, expansive beings that are connected to the world in a way that we can literally see. This perspective is available for all of us. All we have to do is look.