Having No Head and Other Tales from the Heart

Anxiously awaiting the arrival of what? 
It's already here; our 'eyes' are just shut. 
Be quiet and still, it will appear in a while, 
Lop off your head, and go out in style!

My first experience of having no head happened on a meditation retreat several years ago. We had done a breath concentration meditation for a couple of days to focus attention and then moved on to choiceless awareness practice where we expand attention into the sense fields. I was fully attentive to a small pain/tension in my head. Suddenly, the pain disappeared and so did my head. This was a plain, simple fact; there was no emotion about this, either positive or negative; just clear, bright awareness remained.

As the Buddhist sage Huang Po says, "The ignorant reject what they see, not what they think; the wise reject what they think, not what they see." I wasn't ready then to follow the advice of Master Huang Po, so as thoughts arose again, attention became captivated by the thoughts and started to believe the stories that were being spun, and consequently it seemed like the head was firmly attached once again. It was soon after this retreat that someone introduced me to the work of Douglas Harding who wrote a book titled On Having No Head. Here is what he said about his direct experience of realizing he had no 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." Harding died in 2007, just short of his 98th birthday, but there is a website I recommend that contains numerous exercises he developed to give people a glimpse of the spacious experience of being without a head: http://www.headless.org. They are definitely worth a try. The Center Library also has a video and books by Douglas Harding that are quite informative.

Even when we have a glimpse, we dismiss this insight as having little worth because it seems there is nothing there and attention is conditioned to look for some-thing. But if we entertain the possibility of having no head, what are some of the advantages to realizing this? For one thing, we normally believe or assume that the mind is located within the head. If we're from Western cultures, especially, we believe or assume that all our thoughts arise from the mind. If there is no head, then how could there be a mind within it? If you start to grok this, then you can begin to intuit the freedom that would come from discovering that all thoughts are merely arising within awareness and don't belong to a "self." There would no longer be a need to protect or enhance a self that thought tends to reify. You could still postulate a mind, but it could only remain a postulation—concepts or thoughts that are arising—where? That is an excellent question to pursue. See if you can find wherefrom thoughts arise and dissolve. It is actually the clinging onto thoughts as having some permanent reality that prevents us from realizing the Truth in each moment. As Hindu mystic, Ramana Maharshi says, "The answer to your problem is to see who has it." A corollary to this is: Can there be a Knower of things? If there is no head/mind, who is the Knower?

Another advantage of discovering you have no head is that confrontation begins to crumble away. Douglas Harding describes it well: 

"Nearly everybody lives and dies thinking this is a face to face situation. In all the languages of the world this is a face to face situation. Now, I really look and I see that never for a millionth of a second have I faced anybody in my whole life. It has always been face there to space here for that face. If I could see my face now along with yours it would be a mélange of both of them, a soup. I wouldn't be able to see either of them. It's unimaginable, the face to face situation. It's quite unimaginable. And yet, in all languages, it is face to face. Nobody ever questions that. Well, my job is to question it, and say it's not only stupid, it's damaging—because it's confrontation. Look at the news, look at the papers, and see what is happening. Face to face can lead to confrontation, but it's never face to face. The 1st Person has never faced anyone. It's always been space for that face over there. This is so obvious. It's asymmetrical, not symmetrical."

The only thing I'll add is that when you discover the space where the head used to be and engage in a conversation, it is no longer your ideas as opposed to their ideas—it is just ideas arising in Awareness. Let's see if we can find any disadvantages to being headless. Some people are worried they won't be able to function after a realization of Truth, but as mystic philosopher Franklin Merrell-Wolff said: "The final thought before the 'breakthrough' was the very clear realization that there was nothing to be attained. For attainment implied acquisition and acquisition implied change of content in consciousness. But the Goal is not change of content but divorcement from content. Thus Recognition has nothing to do with anything that happens." So, everything arises as it did before, but now there is no self to grasp onto or push things away. To put it poetically, things are seen as divine sparks or like a rainbow—they have beauty and value but aren't taken as real. Then we can joyfully dance with whatever is arising. Everything is more intimate than ever, but no longer personal.

We usually feel quite attached to "our" head, so the thought of losing it can bring up strong emotions. Emotions such as fear or anger can arise, but this can be used to our advantage as long as we have the courage to face them directly whenever they arise; then we begin to discover the ephemeral nature of all emotions, and the wisdom that underlies them. This becomes a practice unto itself that I won't get into, but chapter 25, "Purifying Emotions," in Joel's book, The Way of Selflessness, is highly recommended.

I mentioned the heart in the title of this article, and I'll just leave that as a teaser for you to contemplate how that might fit together with the head. Some clues: I use Heart here as a symbol of Love; of Ultimate Reality. Is there a body/mind separation? Does the spaciousness we find where we thought the head was equate with the spaciousness we can find in the heart area?

May you discover your True Headless Nature, which is Consciousness Itself.

-Fred, Summer 2011