Sonorous thro’ the shaded air it sings.” (Pope, Odyss. viii. 214, ref OED)

I thought I would be able to write about human transformation by simply giving a model of the human being that works. But my own deepest personal trauma kept presenting itself as I wrote. I was probably a little slow to realise that I’ve got to include it in the writing; but that’s where I’ve arrived.

This approach immediately presents me with a dilemma. I want this writing to be as relevant as possible to a wide audience, but I am going to start with a highly unusual situation. I’m confident that this particular instance of human healing and awakening will have universal relevance; but, even so, it might initially seem to be far from my readers’ everyday life. I therefore hope dear Reader, that your kindness and patience will allow the unusual in this case – to put aside the thought that such a case is not likely to apply to you.

I hope to demonstrate that such an ordinary behaviour as ‘seeing’ – the ordinary sense of sight, seeing per se, regardless of the nature of the seen – is a doorway to a healthy mind-process. Indeed, that any ordinary sense activity is a doorway into the transformative wonderment toward life which we humans so need.

Close to fifty years ago I saw that I am not locatable anywhere perceptible. I am not found or located in what comes and goes; especially and least of all: behind my eyes. Another way of saying this is that after a very precise date, I could no longer ‘self-locate’ on the basis of the familiar inside/outside division. Wherever I looked, that distinction didn’t work to tell me who I am. However, for me this wasn’t as liberative as Harding must surely have intended it. I entered a profoundly ambiguous state tainted by childhood trauma.

This fifty years of work have not been fruitless, however. I am more at ease with my unfindability than ever; and, indeed, I find it a blessed fact. The changes which I have experienced since then, though these changes may have been gradual, even very slow, can be understood, and that is my goal in this project. More than that, though, I am sure a theory of human change can be derived from this understanding – if only because I am a human like any other (at least in respect of those aspects which I will include in this account).

Mine will be only one theory about human life, and I am not suggesting that it needs to be the only one; but, to be clear, I write it in the confidence that it is about being human, not simply about being an unusual individual who had an unusual experience. The basis of this confidence is that ‘experiencing’ is universal. As author Sue Hamilton-Blyth said (2000),

This is not to suggest that we all have the same experiences, but, rather, that what we have most in common is that we all do have experience – and, most fundamentally, the experience of being a human being on earth. Moreover, we all experience the notion of identity, of being human being A and not human being B.” (Hamilton-Blyth, Sue. Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder.)

I’m taking this to be a self-evident first principle for all that follows in my own project. While possibly not ultimately provable by logic, it has nevertheless the sonorous ring of sanity. So it is: that I start with a description of the occasion of this particular trauma.

In 1975, I saw that I cannot be located. At first, my way of speaking about it owed its origin to the man Douglas Edison Harding and his little book On Having No Head. However, the matter was far from complete with that days’ events. Unrecognised by myself I was traumatised by the experience. The trauma in the situation was the shock of suddenly losing a fictitious sense of myself. I say ‘fictitious’ despite the fact that this kind of mental fiction was (and, is) shared by the majority of the general population of any country in the world – whether the culture is individualist or collectivist.

As I alluded to above, the egoic fiction says that you can be identified with what comes and goes, what is perceptible. I was not prepared for such a revolutionary turnabout in my consciousness of myself. It was an inversion of the common everyday understanding of ‘self.’ This understanding could be essentialized as: Our self-representations present us with who we are.

This break with convention occurred on a balcony of a home in North Canberra, Australia, on a fine winter morning, late June 1975. At this point in my life, I was not ready to so suddenly disidentify with the accumulation of self-representations I had built up since I was a small child. Hence, I experienced it as the loss of all that told me who I am. This project will be, then, in part, an examination of the meaning (that is, the experience) of the question, “Who am I?” – an inquiry into ‘Identity.’

As a separate project, I am writing an autobiographical fiction to explore the human phenomenon of Identity. So, to give you a feel for the experiential aspect of what I am conceptually describing, I’ll adapt passages from that manuscript.

It begins early to mid-winter in Eastern Australia, in the capital town Canberra, when breath forms clouds in the morning air, and frosty grass crunches and squeaks beneath one’s tread; when growth seems stilled for a time. It was Sunday morning of the last weekend of Australian June, 1975, around ten o’clock.

We begin our tale with a seemingly innocuous invitation from my friend Matthew. I am lodging temporarily in my friend Matt’s rented house, and I have just risen from a sleeping bag.


I had woken up earlier that morning on the floor of the study in Matthew’s share-house in Nardoo Crescent. I entered that day, the second full day in his home, supported by a sense of new a beginning. Dwelling each night in a sleeping bag in the corner of someone’s study, on the floor, might not sound an auspicious beginning to anything; but not waking up in bed with my dissatisfied wife held, for me, the promise of the freedom I was seeking.

In the kitchen, Matt handed me a thin paperback, saying: “This might prove interesting to you, Tige.”

“Yes?” I respond. I took the book. “Thanks, Matt.”

The cover was striking. It was a plain white cover; and in the front was a cut-out in the shape of a human head. I had never seen a book published with a hole in its cover. The first page was presented through the shape, and there revealed was the title of the book: On Having No Head. “Clever,” I thought, as I considered the design. I browsed its pages. The full title was On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious. A book on my favourite topic. I had been immersing myself in D.T. Suzuki’s translation of the Lankavatara Sutra, and absorbing everything written by Suzuki. I was reading almost nothing else but books on Zen in those days, contemplating myself and the world in their light.

It was a mild winter morning, so I made a cup of tea and took the book outside to sit in a plastic chair in the benign sun. Matthew went about his day. There was a balcony at the rear of Matthew’s place, which overlooked the peaceful plain of a suburban valley. The air was crisp. The sky, a luminous pale blue. I placed my tea on the table beside the plastic chair, then paused to look out over the valley spread before me. Here and there over the still valley, the household chimney were threading the air with low, horizontal smoke-streams. The slight haze didn’t obscure the hill on the other side of the valley. Standing for a moment, I took pleasure in the familiar form of Mt. Majura over there. Then I sat down, put my feet up on the balcony railing, and I began to read:

The best day of my life – my rebirthday, so to speak – was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head.

With that, Douglas Harding had had me transfixed. This ‘rebirthday’ idea was as compelling as any of the enigmatic Zen koans and mondos detailed in my three volumes of Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism. I too was looking for a rebirth. Without pause, I entered into Harding’s invitation, asking: “What can he mean?”

Certain phrases in this book were like signposts to that meaning. They appeared to raise themselves above the crowd of Harding’s sentences: “…absorbed in the question ‘What am I?‘” he wrote. And these: “I stopped thinking“; “Past and future dropped away“; “…utterly free of me.”

I looked up and out to the sleepy valley. Those sentences echoed for me. “Only the Now,” the voice of Harding said. I was excited. This was a wholly new kind of book on Zen, with a wholly unexpected line of inquiry.

Right now, under the blue of a southern sky, where I was gathering my energies inwardly on Matthew’s balcony, a flock of a dozen pigeons were circling above me. I noted the birds. And at the same time, I noticed how easy it is to be distracted from making this reading an experiential task. “If this not going to be just an intellectual reading,” I thought, then I really have to concentrate on ‘reality reading.’ Hence, I now more deliberately zig-zagged between reading a little text and then referring to my own immediate experiencing. Only the Now. The meaning wasn’t in the words, but in the experience.

The pigeons were now at about forty-five degrees. My sneakered feet on the railing, the book before me. I began to practice. I read a passage or two, and then took my eyes off the pages to look past my sneakers, out over the peaceful suburban valley, then up at the birds – all the while delving into the meaning of ‘I have no head.’

I noted the morning sun shimmering off their wings as they wheeled about, and a line for a haiku emerged in my thoughts: “Light bright off wheeling wings…” I looked back at the circling flock again, and then I looked inward, directly back to where I sensed I was seeing them from – back to where my head most assuredly must be. At this point, no change in my habitual impression of ‘having a head’ occurred.

I turned back to the little book. There on the page Harding continued his description of his awakening, which occurred when walking among the magnificent Himalayan mountains. He recorded that suddenly his thinking went quiet, and that when he looked, he saw: “…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.

What could this man mean? I wanted to know.