Reflections on the Headless Way
By way of introduction, I became a spiritual seeker at the age of nineteen, like many others after experimenting with LSD while at university. My adventures in the following years involved several different teachers and practices of varying quality and effectiveness.These provided many rich and rewarding experiences as well as a few unfortunate ones, none of which however, succeeded in bringing my seeking – my “Buddha disease"– to an end.
This did finally come about though, many decades into my search via a direct experience of the Headless Way, shared by my now very good friend Richard Lang. What follows is an account of this meeting and some reflections on why I believe this approach, pioneered by English philosopher Douglas Harding and his friends, is a new and unique development, particularly suited to the temper of our times and why it succeeded in my case where so many others failed.
From quite early on I realised that the search for spiritual liberation (the end of seeking), is the search for who I really am. In other words, that by discovering who one really is, or what Harding has called conscious first personhood, we come into true contact and union with reality. This must be true from a non-dualistic perspective which I understood to mean that, at depth, all is one.
This is made explicit in some traditional teachings, most famously those of Ramana Maharshi, with the instruction to use the question “Who am I?” as the most direct way to liberation. It's also an important koan or “gate” in the Zen tradition – to see one's “Original Face”. This instruction is usually understood in a psychological sense with the student expected to pare away more and more layers of false personality in order to uncover their elusive “True Self”. Ramana himself used the analogy of a pot full of water which is being boiled away by the heat of enquiry until nothing remains. This is characterised as sometimes being a short process (if the aspirant is encumbered with only a little “karmic baggage”) but more often a long and painful one, involving a degree of psychological distress and even symptoms of mental illness.
But either way it's a process, with much hard graft between the aspirant and their goal.
The advertised benefits of reaching the goal promised via this arduous process nonetheless seemed to me to provide a compelling incentive. They included exalted states of bliss, unbounded compassion for others and an ability to deal with the stresses of life creatively and with a sense of joyous acceptance, freedom from suffering and so on. You may have your own list.
I've sincerely attempted this “who am I” approach both in contemplative solitude and while practising in pairs using the “Enlightenment Intensive" methodology.
It seemed to me though, that after a while all the digging just seemed to lead to more digging, with no end in sight. After a lot of futile effort, I abandoned this practice in favour of a form of mindfulness meditation based loosely on Vipassana and Zen techniques. I also experimented with all kinds of other practices including Sufi Zhikr, Rajneesh's “dynamic” meditations and various types of yoga. While these efforts could be fruitful psychologically in terms of improving my general metal health and lowering my stress levels, I continued to default to a sense of basic alienation from the rest of existence that I now know to inevitably accompany the unconscious, exclusive identification with the one I appear as a separate self.
The admonitions of Advaita teachers to “just stop and be, because you are already in your destination” , while they made sense to me intellectually were found to be impossible to implement. The doctrine that “all practice is a distraction” also proved pretty unhelpful. My very search for where and how to “just be” continued to isolate me from the goal, and knowing this didn't help. Every now and then a glimpse of unbounded openness and ease would light up my life sufficiently to keep me in the chase, but I was in a pretty pickle.
During the early 2000's my wife Mary and I became involved with a local group of seekers who would meet on Saturday afternoons to hear the teachings of the likes of Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti. As the group increased in size we began inviting teachers to give talks and workshops in person. Many famous and not so famous contemporary spiritual guides turned up and offered their wisdom. Most seemed to “have something” and were apparently sincere. Most I found genuinely helpful and quite admirable. Sadly, a couple were clearly charlatans although whether this was conscious on their part or not it was hard to tell.
They all had one thing in common though – they sat up at the front (we had a podium) and declaimed, often accompanied by a vase of flowers and pictures of a dead guru or two to establish lineage authority. The rest of us sat silently at their feet and listened, hoping to “get” what they were on about. Whatever it was, they had it and we wanted it. If there was a Q&A afterwards, the questions that came up tended to be depressingly repetitive and while it was certainly pleasant and even restorative to have an excuse to sit in meditative silence with like-minded friends, it didn't seem like there was a lot of actual real spiritual transmission going on. The “enlightenment hit rate”remained low, to say the least. Still, we kept coming back for more in the hope that the next presenter would somehow deliver the goods.
Breaking the Spell
One evening though, we arrived at the meeting room to find the podium had not been set up as usual and the flowers, guru pictures and incense were missing. In its place sat an unassuming guy about my age, waiting for everyone to come in and be seated. This was a departure from the usual protocol, which involved everyone sitting quietly for several minutes prior to the Teacher making their entrance, greeted by a hushed and reverent silence.
The speaker that night was Richard Lang and he had come to share an approach to self enquiry called “The Headless Way”, pioneered by his friend of many years, author and philosopher Douglas Harding. As soon as everyone was seated he began by saying, “What I have to share with you tonight is about you personally, just as you are, sitting on that chair.”
He proceeded to give a short but compelling introduction to the idea that our human level of appearance is only one of many, extending from the sub-atomic to the trans-galactic and that we need every one of them to exist and function. And then with the question, “And what's at the centre of all those layers of appearance?” he suggested we perform some simple perceptual experiments to find out.
Initially sceptical but intrigued, I participated as sincerely as I could in the first awareness exercise he took us through – Pointing Home. By what was revealed in this simple exercise of relaxed attention, it would be no exaggeration to say that my life has been changed irrevocably. This was followed by several other experiments, all designed to bring home the important difference between what we appear as to others, at a distance (third person), and what we find ourselves to be at zero distance – where we actually are (first person). Since experiencing this astonishingly physical revelation, I have stopped seeking who I really am and started, fitfully at first but with more success over time, living from Here. The end of the search turned out to be the beginning of a vast and all-absorbing adventure, which has included my continuing friendship and working relationship with Richard Lang. This is shared, I'm grateful to say by my wife Mary who also “got the point” that evening, along with several others with whom we continue to get together regularly to this day,over fifteen years later.
To see what this and the other Headless Way experiments are about, and to try them for yourself, I recommend the web page:
I would suggest that to give these experiments their due, it's important to:
actually perform them as described and not just imagine yourself doing them
take seriously what they reveal
distinguish clearly between what you see and what you “know”
try more than one
This mode of transmission does not require personal contact with a current “practitioner” (although it can help) and many have found their way in alone, aided only by the experiments, perhaps some writings on the subject by Harding, Lang and others, combined with their own willingness to take a fresh look.
So what's different about the Headless Way?
And now to what it is that distinguishes this “headless” approach. What follows is a list of important features which, it seems to me, constitute a real departure from traditional spiritual practice and a new way forward free of many of its known pitfalls.
The Experimental Imperative
The feeling and belief that we're in a body, looking out of two peepholes in a sort of meat ball comes from our necessary subscription to social reality – for assuming, not unreasonably, that we are for ourselves the same as what we seem to others; a sort of ego in a skin bag. It can feel like we are riding behind our face, looking out at the world from there.
This illusion is vulnerable to inspection experientially though, as the Headless Way experiments can dramatically demonstrate.These experiments are direct and physical ways to clear up the perceptual confusion that is at the core of our psychological confusion, and which places us as a kind of thing in the world, instead of (first personally) the awake space in which the world appears. These experiments do not require subscription to any particular theory of reality, but they do require a temporary suspension of any such theory in favour of attention to the facts as they are given in experience. Most importantly, they rely on no authority except your own.
Conscious first personhood clearly distinguishes between phenomena and the field in which they occur. In fact it is attention to that very distinction which Harding calls "Seeing". In the tube experiment for instance, only one end of the tube is seen to contain phenomena. But crucially, in this case, "distinction" doesn't mean separation. The two views are clearly seen to present themselves inseparably, and "mutually interpenetrating" as the Buddhists like to say.
Harding's unique (as far as I know) contribution was to show that this asymmetric setup has to be encountered experientially and fully taken on board as the price of freedom from egoic confusion and true non-dual realisation.
This experimental honesty and rejection of revealed truth from authority I'd say aligns the Headless Way more closely with a post European Enlightenment scientific sensibility than to most traditional spirituality and religion.
Front loading the journey
Unlike other approaches which tend to prefer the slow reveal in various ways, the Headless Way gives you the whole no-thing up front. Apart from some brief contextual verbal framing, the experiments themselves are the introduction and initiation into this Way, and once what they reveal is directly experienced and valued, the initiate is in the same essential condition as every other headless Seer. As Richard Lang puts it, “From the moment of first Seeing, everyone in a workshop is equal in the sense that everyone now has full access at will to their True Self. There is nothing more to see, nothing more to get. You are Home. Congratulations. You are ‘good to go’!”
This has enormous implications for how the Way can be transmitted and shared, and frees it from the need for any authoritarian power structure or the danger of the often disastrous psychological transference by the student/disciple onto a “guru” figure.
It also “lowers the overhead” on the sharing of Seeing, as any Seer can do it and crucially, it can be shared freely and unconditionally. In practice, this seems to be what is happening, with slow but steady, more or less viral, peer-to-peer propagation. No recruitment mechanisms or staged levels of initiation are required. Douglas's friends created a charitable trust (The Sholland Trust) to disseminate his work and promote the Headless Way, but everyone involved serves in a voluntary capacity.
Locating the true authority
The only real authority on who/what is Seeing is the one Seeing, or as Douglas likes to put it “You are the only authority on what it's like to be you at zero distance”. This does an end run around around the vexed issue of spiritual authority and the asymmetric, and often abusive power relationships it fosters. Seeing confers no special status or power over others. It is always shared between peers.
Once experienced, Seeing remains accessible “at will”. One just has to look. That is not to say that it needs to be a continuous preoccupation, but it is available to the Seer in any moment. While fascination with life's experiences and vicissitudes can often monopolise one's attention, the open boundless Capacity in which it appears never goes anywhere, let alone “away”. It is not reliant on any special state or mood and so can be immediately noticed now, whatever is going on. With practice this becomes a natural and spontaneous flow of attention.
Embracing the sense of self
Unlike many other approaches the Headless Way does not demonise the sense of being a separate self, which it honours as a necessary development for navigating and engaging in worldly action, creativity, service and relationships. Learning to play “the Face Game”, as Harding calls it, is not seen as being a mistake or trap, but actually an important stage of human development which only becomes problematic when clung to too tenaciously. The stage of “Seer”– equipped with the advantages of the Face Game but aware of, and living from a deeper identity – is regarded as a natural stage of human development, rather than as a vaguely supernatural state of being to be enjoyed by the lucky few.
Here is a cogent summary of the Face Game idea, which Harding formulated in collaboration with Eric Berne, one of the founders of Transactional Analysis and author of “The Games People Play”.
The Five Stages of the Game
(1) Like any animal, the newborn infant is - for himself - No-thing, faceless, at large, unseparate from his world, 1st-person without knowing it.
(2) The young child, as we have seen, is liable to become aware (however briefly and intermittently) of himself-as-he-is-for-himself - faceless Capacity. Yet he's also becoming increasingly aware of himself-as-he-is-for-others: a very special and all-too-human 3rd person, complete with head and face. Both views of himself are valid and needful.
(3) But as the growing child learns the Face Game his acquired view of himself-from-outside comes to overshadow, and in the end to obliterate, his native view of himself-from-inside. In fact, he grows down, not up. At first, he contained his world: now it contains him - what little there is of him. He takes everybody's word for what it's like where he is, except his own, and is 1st-person no longer. The consequences are just what might be expected. Shrunk from being the Whole into being this insignificant part, he grows greedy, hating, fearful, closed in, phoney, and tired. Greedy, as he tries to regain, at whatever cost, a little of his lost empire; hating, as he tries to revenge himself on a society that has cruelly cut him down to size; fearful, as he sees himself a mere thing up against all other things; closed in, because it is the nature of a thing to keep others out; phoney, as he puts on mask after mask for each person or occasion; tired, because so much energy goes in keeping up these appearances instead of letting them go to where they belong - in and for the others. And all these troubles - and many more - arise from his basic pretence, the Face Game, as he imagines (contrary to all the evidence) that he is at 0 feet what he looks like at 6 feet - a solid, opaque, coloured, outlined lump of stuff. In short, he's beside himself, eccentric, self-alienated.
(4) He sees through the Game. Play is, for the moment, halted. This initial seeing is simplicity itself. Once noticed, nothing is more obvious than one's facelessness. The results, however, including freedom from greed, hate, fear, and delusion, are assured only while the Clarity here (which is Freedom itself) is being attended to. Flashes of Clarity aren't enough.
(5) Now the really exacting stage begins. He has to go on seeing his facelessness whenever and wherever he can till the seeing becomes quite natural and unbroken. Then at last the Game is over. He is game-free, Liberated, Awake, Enlightened, truly 1st-person."
From "The Face Game", an article by Douglas Harding.
The the end of seeking and the beginning of the work
As pointed out at the end of the quote above, Seeing, while bringing to an end the seeking caused by egoic confusion, is also the beginning of the work of learning to live from and integrate conscious first personhood in all aspects of life. This work has a completely different quality to the confused, seeking-based efforts that went before though. Sam Harris put this beautifully in this reflection on meditation:
“Most people feel that the self is real and that they’re going to somehow unravel it—or, if it’s an illusion, it is one that requires a protracted process of meditation to dispel. One gets the sense in every dualistic
approach that there’s nothing to notice in the beginning but the evidence of one’s own unenlightenment. Your mind is a mess that must be cleaned up. You’re at the base of the mountain, and there’s nothing to do but schlep to the top.The non-dual truth is that consciousness is already free of this thing we think we have in our heads—the ego, the thinker of thoughts, the grumpy homunculus. And the intrinsic selflessness of consciousness can be recognised, right now, before you make any effort to be free of the self through goal-oriented practice. Once you have recognised the way consciousness already is, there is still practice to do, but it’s not the same as just logging your miles of mindfulness on the breath or any other object of perception.”
Sam Harris in conversation with Dan Harris
In Seeing I disappear in favour of the other. One realises one has never really been “face to face”with anyone. It's always been face (there) to no-face (here). When this realisation is put into everyday practice it has a powerful effect on all our relationships, in ways that continue to unfold. While not the same as unconditional love, this way of seeing others certainly forms fertile soil for it.“Fellow feeling makes us wondrous kind”, as the saying goes but I'd say fellow Seeing is even more reliable. One realises that consciously or not, every other sentient being is in the same basic condition – awake space full of the world –and worthy of love and respect as a unique locus of consciousness. To deny this would be a monstrous solipsism. To embrace it is radical, uncaused compassion.
The Social Aspect
Since Douglas Harding and then also his friends started exploring this approach together, there has developed a loose society of “Seeing friends” whose members get together in person both informally and at various events, but more and more in recent times, online on social media and in teleconference meetings. The company of Seeing friends is profoundly nourishing, as it provides a social antidote to the ubiquitous societal taboo against noticing and living from who we really are. Unlike “enlightened” teachers, who tend not to socialise with other “enlightened ones” and prefer the company of their disciples, Seeing friends have the profoundly healthy psychological luxury of a society of peers.
To See headlessly is to see that everyone else is looking from the same “place”, whether or not they are aware of it. No-one is excluded and everyone is welcome. There are no special prerequisites for initiation except the willingness to look and then take seriously what is revealed.
Much more can be, and has been, said and written about the Headless Way, so if any of the above piques your interest there are abundant resources for further exploration, including:
The Headless Way Website
Richard Lang's Youtube Channel
Headless Way Books and Videos Catalogue