Tag: Advaita


Non-duality and Suicide

When Richard Sylvester asserts as the title of a book he wrote ‘I hope You Die Soon’ he is not exhorting you to commit suicide. The ‘You’ he hopes will die soon is the small ‘you’, your ego seemingly bounded in space and time. It is born and dies, believes a story about itself including, for most, a specific gender.

Others, of course, hold different opinions about little ‘you’, based upon the opinions formed as a result their own egos.

When the certainty of your ego falls away you are left with a sense of unbounded knowing and not-knowing apparently occurring locally, surrendering itself in the people and objects that seem to manifest before you.

Richard puts it thus:

“When the sensation that I am in control of my life and must make it happen ends, then life is simply lived and relaxation takes place. There is a sense of ease with whatever is the case and an end to grasping for what might be.”

Few of us appearing as within our materialistic world think much about such a death; two hundred years ago each of us would have known siblings, if not a parent, who had physically died when we were children. Death was much more commonplace back then.

Today, dwelling upon death – particularly suicide seems the province of the insane, yet it’s simply the opposite side of what we call life. An analogy is to think of the moon. Most of us only get to see the hemisphere that faces us, yet we intuit it has another side even if we think little of it. I doubt if any of us seriously think that we live there, even in our imagination.

For some the prospect of death holds out the promise of release from the pressures of contemporary life. It may also be an escape from pain and, in the context of suicide, an ultimate act of self determination.

A number of noteworthy people have chosen to take their own lives, and arguably were of sound mind when they did so.

Donald Vaughan Sinclair (1911 – 1995), the model for Sigfreid Farnon in the books written under the pen-name James Herriott by James Alfred “Alf” Wight, OBE, FRCVS (3 October 1916 – 23 February 1995), ended his life by taking an overdose of barbiturates. His wife had died just two weeks earlier and his friend and partner Alfred Wright just a few weeks prior to her death. His brother, Wallace Brian Vaughan Sinclair (27 September 1915 – 13 December 1988), the model for Tristan Farnon in the Herriot books predeceasing him by a few years.

Arthur Koestler, CBE (1905 – 1983), a Hungarian-British author and journalist. Koestler was an energetic intellectual, a talented writer, and above all a survivor. His works include: ‘The Sleepwalkers’, (1959) in which he argued that modern science is trying too hard to be rational, and that faith and reason may co-exist; ‘The Act of Creation’, (1964) a book about processes of discovery, invention, imagination and creativity in humour, science, and the arts; and my particular favourite: ‘The Ghost in the Machine, (1967) an early treatise on System Theory as related to neurology.

Hunter Stockton Thompson (1937 – 2005), the American journalist and author, died at Owl Farm, his “fortified compound” in Woody Creek, Colorado, at 5:42 p.m. on February 20, 2005, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Nathan Gill (1960 – 2014) was one of the pioneers in a western movement that has come to be known as Neo-Advaida. He wrote a series of books on the nature of consciousness whilst continuing to work as a gardener. These gentle books still mischievously play in a reader’s topiary of awareness. They are titled: Clarity, Already Awake, and Being: The Bottom Line.

He claimed: ‘As Consciousness You are already awake and aware. . . . ; it’s simply that this is veiled by appearances, the story of ‘me’ as an individual.’

Not all suicides may be justified as a kind of sanity.

Robin Williams (1951 – 2014), the actor, had been suffering from severe depression, as well as dementia associated with Parkinson’s disease.

Terence Donovan (1936 – 1996), a photographer was referred to with Duffy and Bailey, nicknamed by another photographer Norman Parkinson, in the Sunday Times, as one of the ‘Black Trinity’, of innovative, if irreverent London photographers from the 1960s. Donovan was a black belt in judo and co-wrote a popular judo book, Fighting Judo, with former World Judo Gold medallist Katsuhiko Kashiwazaki. He was also a Buddhist. He took his own life in a state of depression; some say as the result of the side-effects of the powerful medication he was taking to combat a skin condition.

How do we separate sane from unsound suicide, especially in the context of non-duality?

When I was seventeen I was recruited into the Mental Health Department of the County in which I was raised.

County Hall, Dorchester

County Hall, Dorchester

As a Welfare Assistant I rapidly learned of the ways in which people suffer, both in youth and old age. To help me assist them it was arranged that I would attend some third year lectures in psychiatry offered to student nurses at the local psychiatric hospital, which in the days before ‘Care in the Community’ was the home of around six hundred souls, many of whom had lived most of their lives there.

These talks were both informative and unnerving. At the conclusion to each of them I became convinced that I suffered with Schizophrenia, Manic Depressive Psychosis, Psychopathy, or whatever the day’s topic under discussion.

Like many before me, I came to the conclusion that my symptoms came within a ‘normal’ scale of disturbance, whilst those of patients suffering mental illness were simply ‘special cases’ that occurred under specific physical, (including biological predisposition), and social conditions.

One specific condition we studied is known as disassociation, describes a wide array of experiences from mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experience. Sometimes disassociation can include: a sense that self or the world is unreal (depersonalization and derealization); a loss of memory (amnesia); forgetting identity or assuming a new self (fugue); and fragmentation of identity or self into separate streams of consciousness.

Disassociation is quite different from the experience of those living through the lens of non-duality, or rather the lack of any lens at all. For the non-dualist the world is not only real, but imbued with a sacred intensity. The body and the mind are no less part of this munificence; it’s simply that we don’t accord them importance above any other feature of consciousness.

Examples of work made by patients in the Art Therapy Department were shown to me, at the hospital. Many seemed remarkably well executed, and although sometimes bizarre and disturbing, most seemed in sympathy with the prevailing art of the day that command today astronomical prices.

We must be cautious when examining the lives of artists. The really good ones reveal to us the deeper facets of what it means to live with intensity. However, the likes of Van Gough, Gauguin, or even Rothko, amongst us must be seen to manage the daily aspects of living, lest they be thought crazy and incarcerated for ‘treatment’.

I survived for less than two years as a Welfare Assistant without getting myself hospitalized. Late in my second year of employment I was promoted to being a Mental Welfare Officer, with statutory powers at my disposal to compulsorily admit people to psychiatric hospitals in specific circumstances. These are laid out in The Mental Health Act of 1959.

According to this Act:

An application for admission for observation may be made in respect of a patient on the grounds:

  • (a) that he is suffering from mental disorder of a nature or degree which warrants the detention of the patient in a hospital under observation (with or without other medical treatment) for at least a limited period ; and
  • (b) that he ought to be so detained in the interests of his own health or safety or with a view to the protection of other persons.

In addition to ensuring a patient, thus committed, got safely to the hospital it was the function of Mental Welfare Officers to represent a lay-person’s opinion, so no one got admitted to mental hospital simply because medical practitioners claimed they were mentally ill.

Although we were chosen to be the eyes, ears, and voice of reason in the face of technical psychobabble, I remain unsure to what degree any of felt free to keep sane individuals who were determined to kill themselves for good reason from preservation in hospital. We certainly had no influence once people became patients following admission. They were often subjected to Electro-convulsive Therapy, which marred their intellectual capacity.

The sections of the 1959 Mental Health Act that refer to compulsory hospital admission and treatment are superseded by a new Act in 1983. Amendments in 2007 broadened the range of professionals who may apply for such admissions, once they had received suitable training.

It’s been years since, as a professional, I thought about suicide. I stopped practicing psychotherapy in 2006, and speaking personally the most overcast days always seemed preferable to self-imposed oblivion. Too much radiant joy, seemingly within, resonates with dramatic sombre, brooding clouds in the skies above. I attempted to capture something of their quality in the Trees and Sky Exhibition back in 2010, and continue to be excited by dark weather because it seems pregnant with unpredictable possibility.

Suicide and Non-duality?

Rupert Spira, who is also a teacher in non-duality, once wrote a sensitive response to someone who was disturbed by the suicide of Nathan Gill. In it he explains that, “from a materialistic point of view, the body gives rise to the mind and the mind gives rise to consciousness.” In this model killing the body does away with the mind and so that is the end of suffering.

There are problems with this conclusion, however, even though it’s the way most think in western society. Difficulties arise because research into dying reveals a number of anomalies. People report being visited by dead relatives, and even angels, prior to death. Extant relatives report intuitions at the time close relatives die, even when these occur on other sides of the globe. Sometimes the dead appear in the dreams, as in the case of the man who drowned and appeared in his mother’s dream dripping wet, whilst assuring her that he was not suffering. These are not simply old wives tales, or fallacies, they are collaborated by contemporary research carried out by Dr. Robert Fenwick, a British neuroscientist with impeccable credentials.

Rupert Spira, in his response, goes on to explain: ‘from a spiritual point of view the body is an appearance in the mind, and the mind is made of pure Consciousness. Therefore, from this point of view, the death of the body is simply a cessation of an appearance in the mind; it is not the end of the mind itself.’

It follows from what Spira writes that in such a model suffering may continue after the death of a body, and that a mind may create a new body, within a new world, in which pain may continue.

The problem with Rupert Spira’s answer, even if well intentioned, is that it, ultimately, is rooted in duality. Body and mind are seen as separate, much in the same way that a single cell forms part of the make-up the body of a larger organism, rather than also being seen as an essence which also contains the organism.

To truly unify the life and death dichotomy we need to experience something like the Auguries of Innocence described poetically by William Blake.

‘To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.’

It’s difficult to describe such an experience in a scientific way, but we can say that Newton’s Laws of Motion are accurate within certain contexts, and may be regarded as examples of predictable results anticipated by of Einstein’s Theories of Relativity under specific conditions. Within Einsten’s Special Theory of Relativity, however, Space-Time is a unified concept, although, when described in Newton’s Law of Motion it appears as if Space and Time are discrete, separate, phenomena.

I think we may also claim that bodies, and the worlds they inhabit, may be considered as specific examples of mind precipitated into an apparent local awareness, with its concomitant objects, as a result of a self-reflexive process. The objects that we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell, and which are seen to travel through and decay in time, are no more than specific examples of life’s possibilities.

To claim, for them, substance greater than what remains unmanifested in our perception of space-time, is a misunderstanding. Whatever is missing from the manifestation before you is simply the other side of the moon; the limitless sacrificing to awareness a background, so that what appears seems like a universe composed of separate objects, including thoughts, and other bifurcations.

In other words, unmanifest is there simultaneously with the possibility that becomes an object as a perception within Mind. Without unmanifest there is no manifest. All, ultimately, are limitless, timeless, boundlessness.

The apparent you, living within your world as a personal entity is a shadow without substance; your movement, including thoughts and feelings, are specific instances of timeless, limitless, boundlessness, expression.

Does this mean, then, that all instances of suicide are both unavoidable and acceptable?

In my view the answer to this is an emphatic ‘no’! Whilst each of us expresses the timeless, limitless, boundlessness, in specific ways – a common way is to understand ourselves as separate from that clarity which perceives and knows our true identity.

Ralph Steadman, a long, close, friend of Hunter S. Thompson sums up the quality of his expression:

“… He told me 25 years ago that he would feel real trapped if he didn’t know that he could commit suicide at any moment. I don’t know if that is brave or stupid or what, but it was inevitable. I think that the truth of what rings through all his writing is that he meant what he said. If that is entertainment to you, well, that’s OK. If you think that it enlightened you, well, that’s even better. If you wonder if he’s gone to Heaven or Hell, rest assured he will check out them both, find out which one Richard Milhous Nixon went to — and go there. He could never stand being bored. But there must be Football too — and Peacocks …”

Thompson lived his life on the edge of death and, in doing so, probably experienced and knew more of what it means to ‘suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ than most. He experimented with drugs, and alcohol. Ultimately, he experimented with death as if it were the next logical step in the story of his life.

Steadman, and Thompson had designed the cannon that would shoot his ashes into the heavens at Woody Creek some time before his suicide. He once remarked: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”

Hari Kunzru wrote, of Thompson whilst reviewing his novel ‘The Rum Diary’, that, “the true voice of Thompson is revealed to be that of American moralist … one who often makes himself ugly to expose the ugliness he sees around him.”

He died as he lived, a martyr to his cause.

George Mikes, in ‘Arthur Koestler: The Story of a Friendship’, wrote that Koestler more than once said ‘that he was not afraid of being dead but was afraid of the process of dying. He did not wish to suffer the indignity of losing control over his body or mind. His suicide was not unexpected among close friends.’ Shortly before his suicide, his doctor had discovered a swelling in the groin which indicated a metastasis of the cancer.

It seems, then, that Koestler chose to manage the form of the death of his physical body, and that somehow he had premonitions that he may have to face such a decision.

Koestler was someone of considerable intellectual prowess, who possessed considerable survival skill. He recognised, in his concept of ‘a holon’, what Blake had articulated in the Auguries of Innocence. No doubt he experienced his death as an expression of the survival of something essential to what had been his life.

Donald Vaughan Sinclair spent his life relieving animals of their suffering, either by helping them to heal or, where this became impossible, by killing them with an overdose of anaesthetic.

It was by this method that he chose to end his own life when those closest to him had all ceased to live. No doubt, he felt that it had been a good party but with the departure of the last guest it had come to an end.

All three of these men chose to die in the spirit that they had lived.

The same conclusion must be made for Nathan Gill, who saw clearly that his true identity was timeless, limitless, and boundless. As his body fell away he cooperated with the process drawing what had been his earthly identity back into the light of consciousness from which it had emerged.

Depression is a completely different way of being than that experienced by those preparing for sane suicide. It can only exist when experiencing separation, and in which both the world and the body are felt as unbearable burdens. Suicide, in this context, is never the end of the party or a celebration of life, but an attempt to escape living and, as Rupert Spira intuits, must ultimately be doomed to failure.

Psychosis also has its roots in separation. Those suffering delusions, and hallucinations, by definition feel themselves to be separated from any sense of completeness. They believe themselves to be ‘evil’, or ‘sent by a divinity’. Some hear disembodied feelings, or experience unexplained bodily sensations.

Depression and psychosis are expressions of timeless, limitless, boundlessness, but they do not occur in isolation from those witnessing them. They arise in the lives of therapists, welfare officers, nurses, and others, as well as those suffering directly. Working with such symptoms gives many a raison d’être, and may ultimately liberate therapist and patient alike.

In memory of Nathan Gill


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


Bateson, Gregory. (1980) Mind and Nature. Flamingo Edition, (1985) London: Fontana.
Bray, Stephen. (1985) Absurd Therapy: A Reply to Roger Adams. AFT Newsletter Vol 5: No 4. Dundee: AFT.
Capra, F. (1982) The Turning Point, Science Society and the Rising Culture. London: Fontana Paperbacks.
Foucault, Michel. (1973) The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books.
Goswami, Amit; Reed, Richard; and Goswami, Maggie. (1995) The Self-Aware Universe: How Consciousness Creates the Material World. New York: Tarcher-Putnam.
McFarlane, Thomas. (1997) Integral Science An Overview. Proceedings of the American National Philosophical Association 13th Annual Meeting. California: Stanford Press.
Harding, Douglas. (1961) On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious. Revised Edition (2000), London: Sholland Trust.
Harding, Douglas. (1990) Head Off Stress: Beyond the Bottom Line. London: Sholland Trust.
Harding, Douglas. (2000) David Lang Ed. Face to No-Face. Carlsbad: California.
James, William. (1912) Does Consciousness Exist? In: Essays on Radical Empiricism. New York: Longman Green and Co.
Jaynes, Julian. (1976) The Evolution of Consciousness in The Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral Mind. Second Edition (1990). Boston MA: Houghton Miffin Company.
Maturana, Humberto and Varela, Francisco. (1987) The Tree of Knowledge. Boston: Shambhala.
Pilgrim, David. (2000) The real problem for postmodernism. Journal of Family Therapy. Vol: 22 No: 1 6-23.
Sinclair, Joseph and Bray, Stephen. (1998) An ABC of NLP. London: ASPEN.
Watzlawick, Paul. (1977) How Real Is Real? New York: Vintage Books Edition.
Wheeler, John. (1982) ‘The Computer and The Universe.’ International Journal of Theoretical Physics. 21: 557-72

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.


Presence, (a poem).

Presence is perfect,
like a circle


No beginning ~ No end!

simply Present,
does not perceive itself


Awareness is finite ~ like a line
being finite it perceives the Presence
of infinity at its boundaries

we call this Awe


Presence radiates
in all directions


and dimensions too!


one possibility is two universes

An outer universe of planets, people and things
and an inner universe of thought and fantasy


The two universes seem to travel in time and space
toward the infinite void
from which they arose

We call these universes
our outer world and our inner awareness
forgetting they are one and the same.


We say where these meet
is who we are, but who we are
precipitates these illusions!


A past and future
become our life
and we forget to experience


And your life is no longer just a possibility
via the perception of Awareness


You forget time is relative
and your true home is elsewhere


so troubles begin
as you struggle to accumulate and plan
in order to escape a death
that was never truly yours
to endure

Where has Presence gone
in your nightmare?


Presence :
a slight breeze? gentle sun?
storm clouds and rain?
No, like a hurricane it has no centre
yet it moves.

“If only it were so simple,” you say
from the inner universe of your mind
to the outer universe of your world

but I cannot reply
because I am not there.


Stephen Bray asserts the moral right as the author of this work
This page may be freely copied and distributed As-Is.