That day, concentrating to understand what Douglas Harding meant when he said, “I have no head,” my attention ‘looked back’ toward where I expected my seeing to be ‘coming from.’ As a result, my thinking ceased; because no such seer was to be found, and I was left with only the bare activity of seeing a luminous valley before me. Some such discovery – that I am not the kind of being that I imagine myself to be – was inevitable in the situation. What’s deeper than my constructions, that didn’t come into full view, however.

Right there – if I was prepared for such an inversion of the usual way of seeing; if I could see with an unflinching heart – right there was the opportunity to have ‘just the seen.’ With such an unusual, unconstructed perception, a special case of awareness can be discovered – one not established on the subject-object dualism. One can live deeply, seeing deeply, with that ground.

Later, I found the following words which worked well to describe this moment’s opportunity. The Buddha spoke these words to a yogi called Bāhiya: “Let there be, Bāhiya, in the seen, just the seen.” When I took my attention back to find the ‘I’ who was seeing, then for a moment, thought stopped – because there was in fact no locatable ‘me’ behind my eyes looking out. I have discovered from experience, over the years since that day, that in the state which the Buddha described to Bāhiya, this kind of seeing has no ‘from’ (and likewise no a ‘toward’). Space as we normally know it collapses.

If you are ready for the shift, a dissolution of your unexamined sense of ‘I-dentity’ occurs; an ‘I-dentity’ which has hitherto, for as long as you can remember, functioned to concoct your seeing according to personal agendas. The popular way of speaking about this these days is in terms of ‘projections.’ We see ‘over there’ what we are ‘here’ – at our end of the imagined ‘from and to.’ We see what we are conditioned to see. If, after becoming aware of the projections, they don’t happen, then there is ‘in the experienced, just the experienced.’ If you are experiencing ‘seeing’ there is just the seen. If you are experiencing hearing, there is just the heard. And likewise for all that you sense and cognize, whether you call it ‘internal’ or ‘external.’

Now that I look back to that occasion, I can understand that the possibility in the moment when thought stopped was to experience my unity with all of life. When one’s heart is sufficiently open, then naked seeing simple ceases to support the egoic sense of self, which really only sees its own self in the other. You may have had an intimation of this kind of experience if you have ever experienced an eye-to-eye encounter with an infant in its first month of life. Meeting the child’s simple, intimate, undefended gaze can be disconcerting to our habituated sense of self. The directness of the child’s gaze is such that you might feel uncomfortable at your end, unless you are in a special mode of consciousness – for example, if you have a parent’s presence, which is conditioned by millions of years of evolution. (Think ‘oxytocin,’ for instance.)

If, on the other hand, when looking back at the child with naked awareness – that is, if you don’t have some egoic state at your end – you will experience the dissolution of your ordinary sense of self. In his words to Bāhiya, the Buddha described the cessation this way, “When, in the seen, there is just the seen, then you are ‘not by that.’” Your awareness will not be established on the basis of imagining or conceiving the other at all, and at that juncture your egoic sense of self has no basis to stand upon. You might feel naked.

This egoic sense of self is what the Buddha spoke about soon after his awakening (recorded in a text called The Noble Search). There he is portrayed as saying that the truth which he had discovered was too profound for the unprepared to see – “hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning.” He felt that it was too subtle to teach to ‘this generation which delights in the sense of an ego-self. They delight in the sense of an ego-self, rejoice in the sense of an ego-self.

In this text, the Pāli word which I’ve translated here as ‘sense of an ego-self’ is ‘ālaya,’ which points to a ‘substrate.’ So, based on how it manifests at the substrate level, I’m tempted to translate it more evocatively as ‘the ego bubble.’ He’s saying, “People relish their ego-bubble. They love it and rejoice in it. It’s therefore hard for them to see this truth of dependent arising.

This is a helpful pointer to how we can think of our ‘preparedness’ for the revelation of a genuine ‘unestablished awareness,’ and the inversion of our usual world-view. Preparedness comes seamlessly when we compassionately study the ‘ego-bubble’ and become so familiar with it that we intimately know its drawbacks and dangers. We need to know ourselves. We need to comprehend our false sense of self so thoroughly that it loses its power over our experiencing. Then a deeper ground of living emerges.

And this needs to be a ‘combodied’ approach – that is, an approach based in mindfulness in this very body, this lived body which co-arises with all. This is the path I took to heal from the errors of understanding which beset me over the next couple of years.

Let’s notice now, then, that the real issue is not about ‘heads.’ The subject of the statement “I have no head” is ‘I.’ It is identity which is the heart of Douglas’ message. As for heads, I’ll demonstrate that we need not fixate on having or not having ‘a head’; and, I’ll do that without losing his essential point. My demonstration will involve understanding how thinking and saying function in relation to experiencing. This understanding was also an important part of my healing. This will mean a revision of the Harding method of speaking – a revision which we can look forward to. Nevertheless, we will stick to Douglas’ admonition to test all this in experience – to “look for yourself.”

Today I leave you with promise that I will also unpack the Buddha’s enigmatic comment on this very topic, recorded in the text known as the Sutta Nipāta. A man called Bāvari consulted the Buddha about a hostile threat, made by a rogue.  This villainous man declared that Bāvari’s head would be split into many pieces through the power of black magic. The Buddha’s paradoxical response, uttered for Bāvari’s consolation, was that:

The head is ignorance. Understanding splits the head in pieces. It is destroyed by understanding, with its army of powers – that is, with confidence, mindfulness, meditation, determination and energy. These are the powers that split heads.’ (Sn1026)