On having no head ― 5 min read

First person view of a person looking down at their body

The foolish reject what they see, not what they think; the wise reject what they think, not what they see ... Observe things as they are and don’t pay attention to other people.

—Huang-Po (9th C.)

This is my attempt to summarize my learnings (or perhaps unlearnings) from On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious by Douglas E. Harding.

Who are you?


After reading this sentence, stop, lift your hand in front of you, point at yourself, look directly at that finger and ask yourself - who are you pointing at?


Did you do it? What did you experience? Did it seem like a silly exercise or did it perhaps challenge you to break out of your ideas about who you are and into a visceral experience?

This was my main takeaway from the book. It is not a book about ideas, it is a book about throwing away ideas and paying attention to our direct experience.

Losing your head


In your direct experience right now do you have a head? Pause and look around you, use all your senses - can you find your head anywhere?


If this has blown your mind and challenged you to second guess your assumptions about who you are then that's entirely the point. However, I feel that the more common reaction is to think something along the lines of "but I can feel the hat on my head" or "I can look in a mirror and see my head". That's a very practical way of thinking but it's still thinking and so you've missed the point 😄.

You can only rationalize the existence of your head in this way by operating within a vast conceptual framework that's so habitual it's usually invisible to us. This framework insists your head is very real and puts it at the center of the whole universe. The exercise is an invitation to throw all of that away and to experience the world directly as it is right here and now.

Who are you?

As something I am merely that thing, as no-thing I am all things.

—Douglas E. Harding, On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious

Through so much of our lives we mistake our ideas of our selves for our selves. When we throw away all our ideas about who we actually are and directly look and see then what do we find? It's an intensely personal question and one I can't answer for you, but anyone is able to look and see at any moment.

What I found was something like absolute nothing and absolute everything. My pinnacle moments have been where I've experienced no boundary between myself and the universe. In these moments I am conscious of everything within and everything without as a single all-encompassing experience. Words don't really suffice, but I think this must be the the non-dualism that Eastern Philosophy has so long pointed to.

The consequences of a changed perspective

Consciously living from the truth of the No-thing-I-am works much, much better than living from the lie of the thing-I’m-not - which is hardly surprising.

—Douglas E. Harding, On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious

I think there's an aspect of this that is interesting to explore - how does this changed perspective actually impact our lives?

If we are conscious of our actual selves then our experience of the world will be richer, wider and we will not fall into the kinds of suffering caused by delusions about what we imagine ourselves and our place in the world to be.

For as this tiny and solid (and quite fictional) something here I shut out all other things from the volume I occupy and so am the poorest of the poor; while as this immense and vacant (and real) No-thing or Space I let them in, I take delivery of the Universe, I have and hold the lot.

—Douglas E. Harding, On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious

When we look inwards at ourselves and find emptiness then we lose all separation with the world and all the anxiety that comes along with it. We experience a oneness with everything. This sounds to me a lot like enlightenment.

Final thoughts

I think it's important to understand that we can cultivate this perspective if we so choose.

I want to end by sharing a revelation that came to me while reading this book and putting it into practice:

I am not in the way of myself anymore

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