“Well my heart’s runnin’ round like a chicken with its head cut off
All around the barn yard falling in and out of love
Poor thing’s blind as a bat
Gettin’ up, fallin’ down, gettin’ up
Who’d fall in love with a chicken with its head cut off?”
Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields – A Chicken with its Head Cut Off
When you look out at the world, what do you see? Take your finger and point… here a building, there a tree… here a wall, there a table. Now, look down… point at your feet, then at your knees, now at your stomach, now at your chest… Now, take your finger and slowly point at the place you are looking out from. What do you experience? How is it different from pointing at the tree, the table, your knees? You can repeat this little experiment online at
Douglas Harding, in his ground-breaking, head-losing book, “On Having No Head”, describes his discovery, at the age of thirty-three, trekking through the Himalayas:
“What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animal-hood, all that could be called mine. It was if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment, and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouser-legs 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.
It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been, was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.”
Douglas Harding went on to spend the rest of his life helping others to lose their heads and to discover the truth of who they really are. What he discovered that day in the Himalayas (and he notes: “The fact that I happened to be walking in the Himalayas at the time probably had little to do with it”) is that “who we are” and “who we think we are” are often two very different things. He went on to devise a number of simple ‘experiments’ to challenge our beliefs and to encourage us to experience this for ourselves.
He reminds us that how we appear to others and how we see others depends on our perspective. If you were to observe me from a distant galaxy, what would you see? You’d probably see the Milky Way Galaxy where I live. How about from the moon? You’d see me as the earth. From a few miles away, as a tiny dot. From a few feet, as a body with arms, legs and a head. Up close? As a nose and a pair of lips and eyes. Closer? As cells… and so on, down to cells and molecules, then atoms and particles. That’s the view from the outside, but how do I see out of the place I’m looking from?
If you take your hands and place them in front of your face and slowly draw them back past your ears on either side of your head, what do you experience?
You can listen and watch this experiment here:
As young children, we fail to recognize that that creature we see in the mirror is our own reflection. Only after considerable learning and conditioning do we associate the nature of other’s faces with our own, and only by taking what we see – forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, chin – flipping it around and placing it where our own face should be. But is this construction what we actually experience when we look out from this place?
If you take your finger and point it again at the place you’re looking out from and slowly direct this finger outward, where do you end and where does the world begin?
What we experience has profound implications for how we relate to others and the world. Once we discover who we really are, we can discover our infinite capacity – our boundless transparency! We can discover not only who and what we are, but we can also reclaim the universe as our rightful inheritance.
Douglas Harding (the one with the head) died in January, 2007, just before his 98th birthday. Douglas Harding (the headless one), goes on forever. His work is being carried on by Richard Lang and the Shollond Trust.
You can find out more (and I would encourage you to explore and try all of the experiments) at http://www.headless.org.
Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t’ai chi ch’uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition. Miles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article cannot be re-published without permission.