Douglas Harding is the inventor of Headlessness, also called “seeing who you really are,” a method of self-inquiry based on simple, practical exercises. He was interviewed in 1996 by Kriben Pillay, editor of The Noumenon Journal.
Kriben Pillay: Douglas, the objective of this interview is to pick your brains as it were — not so much about what you have always stated in your books and in your workshops, but more pointedly to ask you what do you feel it means to be Douglas Harding? I think when we read about so-called enlightened people, people who have discovered some earth-shattering insight or gone through some kind of transformative experience — which you admit to in your book On Having No Head — of seeing the world in a totally different way, traditionally these people have always been put on a pedestal as having some kind of consciousness which is very different to the consciousness of the ordinary person in the street.
One example — and I shall ask you about this later in the interview — is that of the enlightened person who does not dream, who has a dreamless sleep, virtually constantly, or perhaps doesn’t sleep at all, and so on and so forth. And I think with regard to yourself, the information might be useful in demystifying some of these traditional concepts. So that’s the thrust of my interview with you today.
What does it feel like to be Douglas Harding, given all that you’ve written and spoken about in a very direct way? If the ordinary ‘Joe on the street’ says, ‘well, okay, I’ve turned around 180º and I see who I really am — so what?'
Douglas Harding: What does it feel like to be Douglas Harding? Well, I suppose really that this Douglas Hardingness is inescapably colouring the whole of my life. I mean one isn’t, at least I’m not, avoiding that identification, connection, expression at all. On the contrary, particularly lately, I’ve been saying how absolutely essential, precious, extraordinary is that identification. The one in the mirror, I find, is not for putting down, not for dismissing, not for undervaluing. On the contrary, I think what I would say about Douglas Harding — particularly I suppose as revealed through his face, voice and behaviour, face particularly — I would say that it is enormously precious for these reasons.
First of all, it is unique and no other face has been like that ever, no other face would behave exactly like that. Some would come fairly close, certainly never the same. And in all the millions of humans who will live in the future, none would have that face. And the number, think of the number, how many thousand millions of people on the earth — this is unique and this is very important — it signifies to me that one has something unique to contribute, one is a special incarnation of Reality, one is a special expression of Reality that’s needed to complete the total picture, and so that is enormously important.
But if it’s only that, if that’s the whole story, then that, however valuable, however inspiring, is eventually the road to hell. Why is it the road to hell? Because it’s what distinguishes me from all others. Now that which distinguishes me from all others, the little guy in the mirror, in combination with this which joins me to all others whom I identify with in my reality totally — who I really, really, really am — is exactly who you really, really, really are, and all sentient beings really, really, really are. So it seems that this combination is marvellous. Separate the two and I’m in deep trouble.
To go for the phenomenal Douglas in all his Douglasness alone, which is what we normally do after all — this ego trip which lasts a lifetime — to go for that alone is half the battle, is half the job and is the half which leads to hell. In combination with who I really, really am here, is exactly what the doctor ordered, and so it is that combination, that union of the two — that is not separating them functionally; but certainly, I mean they come totally together, their function is totally different and they’re different aspects of who I really, really, really am — each of which is complimentary to the other. About the dreaming thing, do you want me to answer that now or later?
KP: I’ll come to it later. Douglas, there is almost an innate curiosity in human beings about the fellow who makes certain claims and then, I think, especially in the spiritual world, wanting to know what this state is. Of course you very eloquently make people see what this state is, but I think many would still say — ‘listen, for me I come to Douglas Harding’s workshops and I have an experience of turning around at 180º and seeing into the void, and for some people it can be very transformative, but I go home and I’m beset with all my worldly problems and chores and what have you, and surely you’re not saying that this is exactly how it is for you, Douglas Harding?’ Is it perhaps more stabilised?
Throughout the literature of mysticism there is one thing that seems to characterise somebody who has made this discovery, be it Ramana Maharshi or whoever, and it is that the thinking mechanism does not seem to be in operation to the same extent that it is in the average person. The average person goes around incessantly thinking; thinking about this, that and it always refers, finally, to one’s sense of self. I’m either going to experience some pain in the future which I’m trying to avoid now, or I’m trying to experience some kind of pleasure, and the mind incessantly goes around these concerns. And the enlightened person is supposed to be someone who is not thinking in that way anymore. There seem to be some who have even said that there is a cessation of thought. What is the thinking mind like for Douglas?
DH: Well, before I try and answer that one, let me get something out of the way. I don’t use the word enlightened anymore; it’s a buzz word, it’s a word which is a very, very tricky one, and I don’t say I’m enlightened and you’re endarkened. I do not say that. In fact, I don’t feel that way. I don’t feel myself to be enlightened in a world of endarkened people. That distinction is not real for me, it does not feel like that. I meet people. I don’t think ‘you don’t see what I do’. It is the last thing I think and I swear that it is my experience and you see — the way I think of other people vis-à-vis myself — they and I living are living from the same place, in the same way and in the same fashion.
All of us are living from who we really, really, really are and we couldn’t do otherwise. And if they wish — and certainly most people wish to overlook this fact or to ignore this fact; of what they’re looking out of, of who they really, really, really are — it doesn’t prevent them living in that place, and so one cannot feel enlightened or superior to them at all. It’s just that I happen to be interested in observing what I’m looking out of, interested in making this 180º u-turn to be awake, not only to the object as object, but to the subject as object. In fact, I’m not content with one-way looking but with two-way looking, but other people have the right to delay that. Why should I really feel superior to all that?
Now you talk about stopping thinking. Well, I’ve read all the books about Ramana — I’ve never met him — and I think he says a lot of things — some of which don’t mean much to me, it seems to be more part of that culture — but one of the things he does say in places is that you don’t have to do anything to see who you really are, you don’t have to stop thinking to see who you really, really are. It is obvious, there is nothing more obvious in the whole world. I say that too. It’s absolutely obvious, and you say, well does that stop your thinking, Douglas? Well, not really, because it’s perfectly compatible with seeing here the one who is supposedly the thinker. The thinker goes along perfectly well with the realisation of the identity of the one here who’s alleged to be thinking, but there is a sense — and a very, very important sense — in which seeing who I am does involve cessation of thought, because when we think about a thing we are making it an object. It is there, the thinker and the object thought about, and I am not that. The thinker and the thought are two, but this vision of who I really, really, really am is not thought, it is directly experienced. So here there’s no thinking. Seeing who I really, really am is not thinking, it’s not a conceptual experience, it’s more like a percept — but an absolutely direct experience of what’s here.
To look at the outside world at all is to see it, perceive it with all sorts of names, coloration, past experience. I see that tree now — I mean I recognise it — not only as a tree, but a Yew tree in Spring. I think all of us, adults or even children, are incapable of destroying, getting rid of thoughts. To deal with the external world is to clothe it with meaning, and meaning means thinking. And thinking and meaning mean relying on all my past experience of Yew trees and so forth and the language itself. The world as I know it is a huge construct there; present, past, future. It is coloured and structured by past experience, by present data and by future intentions. That’s what the world is like. Now here it’s not like that. This which is containing that thought-full stuff is not of the same order — this is not a thinking thing at all, but pure, pure simple being. That being — I call it perception — but that could be misleading of the direct realisation of the thought-free one here. The idea — and a lot of people have said this, but I don’t care, I’m saying it and I’m being my own authority here — that one has to stop thinking, somehow kill the mind, insofar it means anything at all, to me it means kill the idea that there is something here which is mind stuff here. The mind stuff is all this stuff; my thoughts and feelings and structuring the world which I perceive, and so on. The whole thing, the phenomenal universe, is full of thought and feeling contributed from here — but this is thought-free.
KP: But wouldn’t you say Douglas, that having realised this, there is less pre-occupation with one’s petty concerns? Compared to the person who actually sees this, the average person goes around totally identified with everyday thinking.
DH: Well, they’re missing a very, very great deal. I mean, I wouldn’t devote my life to sharing this if I didn’t think of it as enormously valuable. I mean there is something enormously to be gained by seeing who we are, but it doesn’t enable me to despise other people or look upon them as unenlightened.
Text copyright © 1996. Reprinted with permission from The Noumenon Journal Spring/Summer 1996.
Douglas Edison Harding (1909‒2007) was an English architect, author, and inventor of the Headless Way.
Kriben Pillay, D.Phil., is editor of The Noumenon Journal and a former senior lecturer at the University of Durban-Westville in South Africa.
By Douglas Harding
William Arsenis, an Amazon reviewer, writes:
“On Having No Head is a short, funny, and down to earth book—literally pointing at who we really are.
“It is simple without being at all simplistic. People with a non-dual background would likely find this book easy to understand.
“Direct Path inquiry uses direct experience exclusively, disregarding the thoughts that explain and interpret. From this perspective, no one has direct experience of actually having a head. That is Mr. Harding’s initial point, but it is not the essence of the message.
“Point at your head and there is nothing to be seen. This nothing is the space in which everything arises. In non-dual circles, this is not a new concept, though the approach (pointing at your head) most certainly is.
“I love his sense of humor — it is so very English.
“If you are open to different perspectives and approaches to the question ‘Who am I?’ On Having No Head offers more than mere philosophy, it offers a refreshing view and a direct technique to apply this view.”
This page was published on October 21, 2001 and last revised on June 15, 2017.