On Having No Head is a book by D.E. Harding. I'd bought and read it quite a few years ago. Then, when I needed to weed out unwanted books to make room for more, On Having No Head was given away.
Recently, though, I heard Sam Harris speak about the book in his Waking Up iPhone app, so I decided to re-buy and re-read it. Here's my review, which is of a second edition of the book that contains a "Bringing the story up to date" section that was written over forty years after Harding wrote the first edition.
My main problem with On Having No Head is the problem that I have with all books about personal spiritual breakthroughs or realizations. In the early days of my churchlessness, I was more interested in stories of how someone uncovered the Secret of the Universe.
As late as 2006 I was recommending books that now I'm much more skeptical about. Why? Because I've got a better understanding of how the human mind works -- the result of both my own experiences with meditation, and a lot of reading about modern neuroscience and psychology.
Here's the short version of what Harding experienced on a walk in the Himalayas, after he realized that he wasn't seeing his head (excerpt for a part of his nose).
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 snowpeaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.
It was all, quite literally, breathtaking. I seemed to stop breathing altogether, absorbed in the Given. Here it as, this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void, and (and this was the real miracle, the wonder and delight) utterly free of "me," unstained by any observer. It's total presence was my total absence, body and soul. Lighter than air, clearer than glass, altogether released from myself, I was nowhere around.
Yet in spite of the magical and uncanny quality of this vision, it was no dream, no esoteric revelation. Quite the reverse: it felt like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, an end to dreaming. It was self-luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind. It was the revelation, at long last, of the perfectly obvious.
OK. I have no doubt that Harding had a breathtaking experience. But here's the thing: like he said, his revelation was of the perfectly obvious. Yesterday I jotted down a note about something Sam Harris said in lesson 28 of the guided meditations in his Waking Up course.
You're the space in which everything appears. Everything is already happening. All you are is consciousness and its contents.
These three sentences are pretty much the gist of Harding's book. They indeed are perfectly obvious. Everything in the world, or indeed the entire universe, the Himalayas included, has to appear in our consciousness if we are to be aware of it. How else would we know anything?
But here's some facts about the human brain and mind (the mind is the brain in action, basically) that Harding doesn't address in On Having No Head, either because he wasn't aware of them, or chose not to mention them.
(1) The brain has no feeling. This allows surgeons to operate on the brain while a patient is conscious. So we aren't aware of what our hundred billion or so brain cells are doing in the same way we feel our muscles contracting, our fingers touching something, or our stomach digesting a heavy meal.
(2) In the quotation above, and elsewhere in his book, Harding speaks of a "vast emptiness" of consciousness. This may be how it feels to us, but that isn't reality. When Harding looked at the view of the Himalayas, his brain was busily piecing together data from his optic nerves, integrating it with past memories/experiences, and presenting him with what he calls a "superb scene." Visual perception isn't a passive mirroring of the world. It involves a lot of brain activity.
In the updated part of his book, Harding does speak about some neuroscientific truths: there is no evidence for an independent "self" within the brain/mind, nor does it appear that we humans possess free will, which seemingly would require the aforementioned self that doesn't exist.
Here's what Harding says in his Bringing the Story Up to Date section about his final stage of "The Eight Stages of the Headless Way." It's called (8) The Breakthrough.
This amounts to a profound declaration of intent. It is the realization at gut level (so to say) that one's deepest desire is that all shall be as it is -- seeing that it all flows from one's true Nature, the Aware Space here.
How is this breakthrough actually made? What can one do to bring it nearer?
In a sense, nothing. It's not a doing, but an undoing, a giving up, an abandonment of the false belief that there's anyone here to abandon. What else is there to do?
After all, one's initial in-seeing -- no matter how "brief" and "shallow" -- was already total self-surrender: everything here went: or rather, it was clear there's nothing here to go. It was the essential quantum leap from the fiction of egocentricity to the fact of zerocentricity.
And for sure the faithful day-to-day seeing put in since then -- the seeing that already one is Nothing and Everything -- is a most valuable preparation for the discovery that at the deepest level one already wills Nothing and Everything.
Now, Harding goes on to talk about an unconditional surrender to God's will in which we welcome all that the world is bringing to us. But as noted above, his insight also can be framed as a realization that there is no self residing within our psyche, and there is no free will belonging to that nonexistent self.
Which is fully in accord with how Sam Harris understands the human brain/mind, which explains why Harris is a fan of Harding's book.