by Richard Lang
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 Harding was 21 he 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 that they alone had the Truth? Everyone couldn’t be right.
In London in the early 1930s Harding was studying and then practising architecture. In his spare time, however, he devoted his energies to philosophy – to trying to understand the nature of the world, and the nature of himself. Into philosophy at this time were filtering the ideas of Relativity. Influenced by these ideas, Harding realized that his identity 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.
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 his identity at centre – his True Identity – took on a degree of urgency. Aware of the obvious dangers of war, he wanted to find out who he really was before he died.
One day Harding stumbled upon a drawing by the Austrian 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 – he had drawn what he looked like from his own point of view, from zero distance.
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 interesting or amusing, but nothing more. For Harding this was the key that opened the door to seeing his innermost identity, for he noticed he was in a similar condition – his own head was missing too. At the centre of his world was no head, no appearance – nothing at all. And this ‘nothing’ was a very special ‘nothing’ for it was both 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 eight 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. 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.
See also the obituary of Douglas Harding from the Independent.
See also short video reflections about Douglas with friends who knew him
The above can be found at The Headless Way