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On Having No Head

Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious

By Douglas Harding
21-minute read
Audio available
On Having No Head by Douglas Harding

On Having No Head (1961) is a one-of-a-kind classic of philosophy, spirituality, and mysticism. Combining empirical observations, mystical experiences, logical arguments, personal introspection, practical exercises, Zen Buddhism, and other Eastern spiritual traditions, its aim is to smash through the dualisms that lie beneath much of Western thought: subject and object, mind and body, self and non-self, internal and external world. In their place, the author contends that we can see ourselves and the world around us in a radically different way.

  • Students of Western and Eastern philosophy 
  • People wanting to understand the nature of consciousness 
  • Anyone interested in Zen Buddhism

Douglas Harding was an English philosopher, mystic, and spiritual teacher. He was the author of many books, including The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth. The famous writer and Christian theologian C.S. Lewis wrote the preface to that book, where he praised it as “a work of the highest genius.” On the opposite end of the religious spectrum, parts of On Having No Head have been championed by the prominent New Atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris.

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On Having No Head

Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious

By Douglas Harding
  • Read in 21 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 13 key ideas
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On Having No Head by Douglas Harding
Synopsis

On Having No Head (1961) is a one-of-a-kind classic of philosophy, spirituality, and mysticism. Combining empirical observations, mystical experiences, logical arguments, personal introspection, practical exercises, Zen Buddhism, and other Eastern spiritual traditions, its aim is to smash through the dualisms that lie beneath much of Western thought: subject and object, mind and body, self and non-self, internal and external world. In their place, the author contends that we can see ourselves and the world around us in a radically different way.

Key idea 1 of 13

The author’s reflections were sparked by a life-changing experience in his early adulthood. 

When he was 33 years old, the author had an experience that completely transformed the way he saw himself and the world around him. All of the ideas we’re about to explore are basically reflections on that one experience. So, before we dive into them, let’s take a step back and discover what the author experienced.

The key message here is: The author’s reflections were sparked by a life-changing experience in his early adulthood. 

Here’s what happened. One day, the author was going for a walk in the Himalayas, when, all of a sudden, he stopped thinking. At that moment, he entered a simplified state of consciousness. He was no longer reasoning, imagining, or interpreting the world through language. For a short period of time, he even forgot his name and the fact that he was something called a “human being.” 

Instead, he became focused entirely on the present moment and the immediate sensory experience he was having within it. Here, his attention was drawn to his visual field in particular, and he started mentally tracing the outlines of his own body. Following it downward, he found his pant legs ending in a pair of shoes. To the sides, he found his shirtsleeves ending in a pair of hands. And moving upward, he found a shirtfront ending with – well, nothing. There was absolutely nothing there on top of his shoulders! 

Of course, we know what “should” have been there: his head. But when he looked around and focused solely on his immediate visual perceptions, he didn’t see any head. Instead, he just saw an empty space where his head “should” have been. It was a “headless void,” as he would later call it. 

However, as he looked closer, he noticed there was something rather odd about the empty space of this headless void. It wasn’t really empty at all. In fact, it was quite the opposite. It was totally occupied – filled with grass, trees, hills, mountains, and the bright blue sky of the Himalayan landscape that he was looking at. The absence of his head made room for the presence of the entire world around him. 

But it wasn’t just his head that was absent. There was something else that was noticeably missing from the vast and beautiful scene in front of him: the author himself. There was no “he” who was observing it. There was just the scene itself. The world was simply present – existing as a “self-luminous reality” that was “brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void,” as he would later describe it.

That might sound rather esoteric or mystical, but to him, in that moment, it was as simple as could be, and it filled him with a sense of peace and joy. 

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