On Having No Head

By: Vijay Balakrishnan
January 12, 2012

Many years ago I was visiting a beloved uncle in Cochin, the most literate member of my family, someone I could spend hours with talking ideas, and he handed me a beat-up copy of Douglas Harding’s classic On Having No Head.” He then went out to do errands. I read it in one delicious sitting, and when he returned I remember we exchanged for a moment the smile of the headless.

The fact that Douglas Harding experienced his headless rebirth while walking in the Himalayas is merely circumstantial in his view. It might have happened anywhere, that startling moment of recognition. The mental chatter subsided, and this is what he describes seeing: “To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouserlegs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in — absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head.”

So, this is Douglas Harding’s first invitation to you. Take a moment and look as he was looking and you see these words, the border of your screen, and beyond, perhaps the clutter of your life. You see your legs, feet, arms, hands, torso, maybe the frames of your glasses, a hazy nub where your nose is, all leading into and terminating in…what? Where?

More invitations to headless liberation forthcoming, but for now, from the quotes opening the book:

Supposing a man were all of a sudden to make his appearance here and cut off your head with a sword!

—Hui-Chung

Behead yourself!… Dissolve your whole body into Vision: become seeing, seeing, seeing!

—Rumi

My soul has been carried away, and usually my head as well, without my being able to prevent it.

—St. Teresa

***

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