Douglas Harding: On Having No Head

It seems that since the publication of Paul Watzlawick’s informative work on the nature of communication family therapists have pondered the subject of its title: ‘How Real is Real?’ Family therapy is of course concerned with communication, but recently it has become increasingly preoccupied with the nature of ‘reality’.

Watlazick is right when he asserts, “. . . our everyday traditional ideas of reality are delusions which we spend substantial parts of our daily lives shoring up, even at the considerable risk of trying to force facts to fit our definition of reality instead of visa versa”, (Watzlawick, 1977 xi).

The problem is nested in the very meanings of the terms ‘reality’, and ‘truth’. To quote David Pilgrim: “Postmodernism refuses to concede a stable a priori self and attends to the inscriptions of personhood created by diverse and shifting discourses. Postmodernism reflects on a diverse world of multiple shifting realities.” (Pilgrim, 2000 p.7) I predicted that Family Therapy would encounter such ideas as early as 1985 when I cited Capra in support of my stance:

“Capra (1982) suggests that a bootstrap model of society would be fruitful. This means gradually formulating a network of interlocking concepts and models and at the same time developing corresponding social organisation. Such theories and models and organisations will have to be trans-disciplinary, using whatever language becomes appropriate to describe different aspects of the multi-levelled, inter-related fabric of reality.” (Bray, 1985).

Integral science, (following Foucault, 1973), holds that science may be divided into ‘Inner (a priori) Science’, and ‘Outer (posteriori) Science’. Inner Science refers to mathematics where the rules are applied in the private domain of the mind, and are accessible only to those trained to use mathematical rules; whereas Outer Science refers to experiments in phenomena that may be observed in an apparent ‘outer world’. Biology is an example of such a discipline.

Integral Science seeks to unify the rules of science regardless of whether they be ‘inner’ or ‘outer’ related:

“It is a fundamental principle of Outer Science that hypotheses be subjected to verification in the outer domain of experience by a community of trained practitioners. A physical theory, for example, is subject to the condition that its predictions must be compatible with our sensory experiences of the world of outer objects. It is important to note that only trained physicists are qualified to test physical theories against experience.

Similarly, it is also a fundamental principle of Inner Science that a community of trained practitioners subject hypotheses to verification. A mathematical theorem, for example, is subject to the condition that its proof must be compatible with our inner conceptual experiences, in particular, the inner experiences of trained mathematicians.”

From the above, we form a generalized principle of verification which does not depend on the domain of experience.” (McFarlane, 1977).

Social ‘scientists’, however recognize that perhaps more than any other creature human beings are unpredictable, especially in their imaginings. “In the natural world a frog shares the ability to be conceptualised as a whole entity; in the same way as a prince. However, only the prince will be able to imagine what it may be like to be a frog, or a beggar, and to model each if he wishes to do so”. (Sinclair and Bray, 1998 p. 62)

My issue then is not with the idea that we appear to live in a ‘Multiverse’, in which experience may seem contradictory and communication baffling, especially to families uneducated in the subtleties of post-modern thinking. Rather it is with the implication in Watzlawick’s statement that there is no reality that we can rely upon, or verify when there is confusion in our world.

Fortunately help is at hand in the writings of the English born lecturer and philosopher Douglas Harding. As a young subaltern Harding travelled to India with the sappers. During the Calcutta famine of 1943 he was granted leave, which he spent in the Himalayas. It was in these mountains that he made his amazing discovery. On returning from leave the streets were full of thousands of people who were dying of starvation. Harding did what he could, but found himself to be at once uninvolved, detached and cool. He did not deliberately withdraw from the suffering around him, but he found a place of ‘absolute detachment’. (Harding, 1990 p. 119).

Harding admits that his detachment was an incomplete ‘solution’, (as if any solution could be complete given the magnitude of the horror he witnessed). He writes: “I sought refuge . . . from the real world of inhabited space, and in particular its more tragic aspects.” (Harding, 1990 p. 129). It was not until he realised that there is no demarcation between the world’s container, and the world’s content and that these are supported by nothing at all, that he started to live life fully. . . but I rush far too quickly in writing thus . . .

Douglas Harding must be among the 20th Century’s most revolutionary thinkers. Whilst a partner in a flourishing architectural practice he taught comparative religion at Cambridge University, where he was on debating terms with Bertrand Russell, and greatly admired by C.S. Lewis. His published works include a whodunit, a philosophical treatise that took eight years to write, books on religion and the arts of living and dying and articles for the Transactional Analysis Journal, Architectural Review, Middle Way and the Saturday Evening Post. Anne Bancroft’s 20th Century Mystics and Sages has a chapter on Harding as ‘the man without a head’ – a reputation the Incredible String Band helped to establish with their Douglas Harding Song.

I first came across Harding’s ideas when in 1990 I returned to the market town in the south of England where I grew up. Here I discovered in local cafes and pubs a myriad of conversations on the nature of reality, some no doubt induced by psychotropic substances. Among the discussants, who seemed mostly confused and argumentative, was a giant Friar Tuck of a man, whom I shall call Eddy.

‘Ed-less Eddy’

Time after time, in conversation after conversation Eddy would reduce speculations concerning the truth to a connectedness between others and him that would end in a belly laugh.

It should be noted here that Eddy is no psychotherapist. He is a factory worker who endures long shifts, some by day, and some by night, year in year out but when not working he brings sunshine to those that meet him.

Curious, and used to asking impertinent questions, one day I demanded his secret. “I’m ‘Ed-less”, he responded, as if this answered my question perfectly.

“’Ed-less, I mean headless”, I queried?

“Yeah, ‘Ed-less”, he replied.

Now clearly this was not the sort of answer to likely to satisfy curiosity. What did he mean? Was Eddie psychotic after all? The situation remained thus for several months until one evening a cry went through the town at ‘closing time’ ~ “All back to Eddy’s”, this of course being an invitation to party.

In his kitchen Eddy brewed tea before casually passing me a faded and stained copy of a paperback book. I read the title: “On Having No Head”, its author Douglas Harding.

On the very first line of the book Harding declares:

“The best day of my life – my re-birthday, 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”, (Harding, 1961. p.1).

“Hmmmm”, I pondered, “a book that can infect a manual worker is a dangerous book indeed.” And I was right for the book next turned its attention toward me.

Harding writes: “At its briefest and plainest, (a scientist’s) tale of how I see you runs something like this. Light leaves the sun, and eight minutes later gets to your body, which absorbs a part of it. The rest bounces off in all directions, and some of it reaches my eye, passing through the lens and forming an inverted picture of you on the screen at the back of my eyeball. This picture sets up chemical changes in a light-sensitive substance there, and these changes disturb the cells (they are tiny living creatures) of which the screen is built. They pass on their agitation to other very elongated cells; and these, in turn, to cells in a certain region of my brain. It is only when this terminus is reached and the molecules and atoms and particles of these brain-cells are affected, that I see you or anything else. And the same is true for other senses, I neither see nor hear nor smell nor taste nor feel anything at all until the converging stimuli actually arrive, after the most drastic changes and delays, at this centre. It is only at this terminus, this moment and place of all arrivals at the Grand Central Station of my Here-Now, that the whole traffic system – what I call my universe – springs into existence. For me, this is the time and place of all creation.

“There are many odd things, infinitely remote from common sense, about this plain tale of science. And the oddest of them is that the tale’s conclusion cancels out the rest of it. For it says that all I can know is what is going on here and now, at this brain terminal, where my world is miraculously created. I have no way of finding out what is going on elsewhere – in the other regions of my head, in my eyes, in the outside world – if, indeed, there is an elsewhere, and outside world at all. The sober truth is that my body, and your body, and everything else on Earth, and the Universe itself – as they might exist out there in themselves and in their own space, independently of me – are mere figments, not worth a second thought. There neither is nor can be any evidence for two parallel worlds (an unknown outer or physical world there, plus a known inner or mental world here which mysteriously duplicates it) but only for this one world which is always before me, and in which I can find no division into mind and matter, inside and outside, soul and body. It is what it’s observed to be, no more and no less, and it’s the explosion of this centre – this terminal spot where “I” or “my consciousness” is supposed to be located – an explosion powerful enough to fill out and become the boundless scene that’s now before me, that is me.

“…. The commonsense or un-paradoxical view of myself as an, ‘ordinary man with a head’, doesn’t work at all; as soon as I examine it with any care, it turns out to be nonsense”, (Harding, 1961. pp. 12-13).

Harding’s assertive prose, almost archaic in style and simplicity is captivating, but no less theoretical than the ideas of Watzlawick. One reads 100, or even 1000 journal articles expounding this theory, or that idea, in terms of philosophy or practice, but ultimately they remain just words. Had Harding continued in the same vein, I doubt if I would have come to any harm. But the wiley author offered a stronger discourse than logic.

The text that follows is given for information purposes only. On no account should you attempt any of the experiments reported, lest you, dear reader, also lose your head!

How to verify your headlessness:

Experiment No. One. ~ Pointing

Point at the wall ahead . . . see how solid and opaque it is . . .

Now slowly bring your fingers down till it is pointing at the floor . . . still you are pointing at something, a surface . . . Next bring your hand round and point to your feet . . . your legs . . . your trunk . . . your chest . . .

Finally, point to what is above your chest . . . to your neck . . . your face . . . your eyes . . . Or rather, to the place where people told you those things are to be found . . .

Illustration by Douglas Harding, used here with permission.

You are now pointing at No-thing at all 😉

You are now pointing at no surface, at no thing at all!

Check that it is featureless . . . colourless . . . transparent . . . boundless . . . Keep on pointing seeing into the emptiness . . . seeing how wide . . . how deep . . . how high . . .is that no-thing that is your side of that pointing finger . . .

Have you ever been other than this No-thing/All-things this perfect union of stress-free exclusiveness and stress free inclusiveness? (Harding, 1990. pp. 8-9)

Experiment No. Two ~ In the bag

Douglas Harding's bag experiment

In the bag!

Find a large paper bag and remove the bottom to make a tube. You (A) and friend (B) fit your faces into the ends of the bag, friend (C) asks you the following questions:

On present evidence, dropping belief and imagination, how many faces are there in the bag? . . . Are you face-to-face in there, or is it face-to-space?

Take in the human features of the face opposite . . . the contours and shapes that make it unique among faces . . . Compare these with your own lack of human features of any kind, let alone distinctive ones . . . Take in the colouring of that face . . . its various textures . . . its opacity . . . its complexity . . . And compare these with your own colourlessness . . . your smoothness and freedom from all blemishes . . . your perfect transparency . . . your over all sameness. (Harding, 1990. p. 35).

Experiment No. Three ~ At arm’s length

Take an oval or any hand mirror. Hold out the mirror at arms length until you can see your face in it. Keep the mirror there throughout the experiment.

You can find your face in a mirror, or in a photograph.

You will only see your face reflected in a mirror, or represented as a photograph.

Dropping belief and imagination see where that face presents itself . . . Notice the place where you keep it – at the far end of your arm . . .

This distance is where others, too, recognise it. This is where they hold their cameras to photograph it, and where you put your camera to make a self-portrait. It has never been much nearer to you than that, or much farther away. (Harding 1990, pp. 26). Closer it becomes an eye and then darkness; farther away it becomes a head and torso even a full body, or part of a football team. This is not simply true for your reflection in that mirror; it’s also how others see you.

Often at this stage in discussions of Harding’s ideas certain objections arise. One example is to consider that his experiments must be disqualified because they arise as a result of distortions of perception. People assume that Harding somehow uses optical illusion to obtain his results. But this is not so. If one examines the kind of phenomena created by Adalbert Ames whereby images of two sizes are formed of different sizes in the two eyes, (Bateson 1980, pp. 40), we find that such experiments manipulate the content of what is seen, but are unconcerned about the ‘transparency’, or ‘Grand Central Station’ to which Harding is referring, where the illusions are assembled. It’s not optical illusion. They are phenomena of different logical types, (Bateson op. cit, pp 205).

The second objection that arises is that of common sense. Since everyone has a head, and everyone says I have a head, then I must have one. But this is tantamount to declaring our heads are no more real than any other social construction. Even a two year old would not stand for such nonsense! You might ask; “Can you not imagine yourself as part of a group, talking with others clearly and visibly carrying on your shoulders a wonderfully proportioned moustachioed head?” I would have to reply, “Yes indeed, I do see that fine specimen of a human being there in my mind’s eye, and I agree with all you say about him, including the distinctive features of his rugged countenance ~ but do you in turn not appreciate that I am now looking out at him, not from him and his body, but from a no-place or inviolate level? (Goswami, 1995 p. 182). He is no more real than the reflection in the mirror in the third of the experiments above.

At this stage violence has been known to erupt. People have been tortured and wars have been fought for less cause than Harding’s assertions. Thank goodness that AFT debates such matters through learned journals such as JFT and Context.

Harding is very clear: “If some misguided sceptic were to strike out in this direction . . . the result would be most unpleasant as if I owned the most punchable of noses. Again what about this complex of subtle tensions movements, pressures, itches, tickles, aches, warmths, and throbings, never entirely absent from this central region? Above all what about these touch-feelings that arise when I explore here with my hand? Surely these findings add up to massive evidence for the existence of my head right here after all?

“I find they do nothing of the sort. No doubt a great variety of sensations is plainly given here and cannot be ignored, but they don’t amount to a head, or anything like one. The only way to make a head would be to throw in all sorts of ingredients that are plainly missing here – in particular, all manner of coloured shapes in three dimensions. What sort of head is it that, though containing innumerable sensations is observed to lack eyes, ears, mouth, hair, and indeed all the bodily equipment which other heads are observed to contain?”(Harding 1961, p. 8).

“So what?” you ask in desperation. “What have the ‘deranged’ ramblings of a factory worker and a Cambridge lecturer, to do with family therapy?”

Let’s return for a moment to the third experiment above, Take your mirror out to arms length and find your face in it.

Douglas Harding playfully putting your head on another's body.

Finding a body for your head 🙂

“Where does that face really belong? You couldn’t fit it on your shoulders. The poor little thing is loose out there. It needs a body. Well, let’s find a body for it. Turn to your neighbour, and put your head on your neighbour’s body, where it fits perfectly.

“Why does your face fit on your neighbour? It fits because it belongs to your neighbour. My face belongs to you. We steal our faces from other people and put them here on our shoulders.” (Harding, 2000 p. 47).

And here is the space where our stories connect. My face appears in your space, and your face in mine. Regardless of whether your face is white, black, yellow, green or puce it is now my colour. I witness you from a transparency over which I have no control, and no wish to control. You may have an issue with my appearance, but I am for an hour or so a timeless universe in which you may express yourself.

You look at me; there is a kind of hostility in your eyes. You are a woman, I am a man and you have an agenda fuelled apparently by the abuse of centuries of male oppression, personalised by the molestation of a grandfather. As a man I cannot help you, but as space in which you narrate your stories I find ways to aid you to help yourself. You have become my focus; the universe shrinks to becoming simply space for you. Your story unfolds within it.

A Case Example

It’s late and I have seen three families already this afternoon. The face in the mirror looks tired; it’s the face of someone who wants to go home. The family has been referred by Social Services for assessment. The Local Authority is engaged in Care Proceedings with the family. The mother and children live in a family centre, the father occupies the family’s flat. The woman carries a tiny baby who smells and needs changing. The man seems hostile, he seems to resent the assessment, but has come in order to ‘win’ his children back. The three year old sits on his lap, a white candle of mucus suspended from his nose. A six-year old girl sits near the mother. Slowly I attempt to instil some structure into the session, mother leaves to change the baby’s nappy. The father is talking more reasonably. But when mother returns the three year old says he wants to go to the toilet. When Father tells him to wait he vomits on the floor. From that no-place where the universe assembles I recognise that all this process is occurring in the same space as my torso, hands and feet. It is occurring within a space called ‘my experience’. I realise that I am part of the chaos, and also its witness. I find that as a witness I am neither tired nor stressed. I encourage the family members to take some time out. The following week when they arrive they are more relaxed. There is also a vomit stain on the clinic’s fitted carpet. As the weeks pass that indelible stain on the floor reminds me of how even the most unpredictable and hostile families may be helped when engaged from the place of timeless clarity.

Recent theorists whose findings seem to support Harding’s assertion that: there is only one world, undivided into inner and outer, mind and matter, body and soul include: James, 1912 pp. 1-38; Jaynes, 1976 p. 44; Bateson, 1980 p. 20; Maturana and Varela, 1987 p. 244; Wheeler, 1982. But to read them is time-consuming, leads only to confusion, disagreement and headache. Maybe after all it is wiser to apply Douglas Harding’s experiments and simply become ‘Ed-less?

Acknowledgement: All illustrations in this article are by Douglas Harding ©Sholland Trust, London.
They are reprinted, as are the lengthy quotations, with permission. The Trust’s website is http://www.headless.org


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Written when a clinical tutor in family therapy with the Turkish Association for Child Guidance and Mental Health, (CARE-DER), Istanbul, Turkey.

The article appeared in an issue of Context: The magazine for family therapy and systemic practice, in the section ‘Thinking About Thinkers’, but this issue no longer appears on-line.

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