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Douglas Harding
"The Headless Way"

Douglas Harding was born in 1909 in Suffolk, England. 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 he was 21 Harding 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 they had the only true path to God? Everyone couldn’t be right. In London studying and then practising architecture in the early 1930s, Harding was curious about life and about his identity. What is it to be a human being, what is our place in the universe? He felt it was a miracle just to be alive, and half-asleep not to be astonished at one’s own existence. He questioned society’s assumptions about who we are – how could he be sure society had got it right?
So Harding began enquiring for himself into what it is to be human, to exist. Into philosophy during the 1930s were filtering the ideas of Relativity. Influenced by these ideas, Harding realized that what he was 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 the nature of his Centre became urgent. He was aware he might die soon. He wanted to find out who he really was before he died.
One day Harding stumbled upon a drawing by the 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 – from his own point of view.
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 perhaps interesting or amusing, but nothing more. For Harding this was the key that opened the door to his innermost identity. For he noticed he was in a similar condition – his own head was missing. At the centre of his world was not an appearance but nothing at all. And this ‘nothing’ was a very special ‘nothing’ – for it was 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. To read the relevant passage, click >here.
Following this discovery, Harding spent five 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. (The Shollond Trust published copies of the much larger original manuscript in 1998.) 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 wrote other books - available via the >Bookshop. He died in January 2007, a month before his 98th birthday.

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