Here is just emptiness. There is no getting m ego out of the way, and all that stuff. There is just seeing, shining in great brilliance and clarity – Douglas Harding

Douglas Edison Harding (12 February 1909 – 11 January 2007) was an English mystic, philosopher, spiritual teacher and author. He was born in 1909 in Suffolk, and grew up in a strict fundamentalist Christian sect called the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren. The Brethren believed that they were the saved ones, that they only had the one true path to God and everyone else was bound for Hell. 

However he could not accept their way of life and when he was 21 he left against his fathers wishes. From an early age, he always felt that the power behind the world was one of self-giving love.

So he devoted himself to this quest, trying to understand his true nature. He wanted an answer to the question, “Who Am I?” Most people are content and never seek to answer these important questions and are happy with the answers the holy books teach.

He wasn’t about to take others opinions and beliefs about the matter, neither was he going to accept what religion or society told him about himself. He wanted to find this out directly for himself.

At the time, philosophy was influenced by the ideas of relativity. He realised that his identity depended on the observer – from several meters away he appeared to be human, but at close range he was cells, molecules, atoms and from further away he was absorbed into the rest of society, life, the planets, the stars. He realised that like an onion he had many layers.   

But what was the the centre of these layers? Who was he really?

For example, take this writing. I can read  it now only because I am at just the right range – almost 20 inches, and the words are bristling with meaning. Nearer still provided I sharpen my vision with electronic aids – the screen is a collection of patterns called molecules and beyond these atoms, particles, quarks and finally space itself is packed full of energy. Neither the page or anything else will stand up to close inspection.  

The “penny” dropped for him at the age of 33. He accidentally stumbled upon a  drawing by the Austrian philosopher and physicist Ernst Mach. It was a self portrait but with an unusual difference:

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What is so unusual about this self portrait? The unusual thing is that you don’t see the artists head.

For most people this fact is interesting. However for Harding he had discovered the keys to his identity, as he noticed his head was missing to. So at the centre of the world there was no head, no appearance – nothing at all. This nothing was special as it was alive and fully awake to the world.

However he was still seeking the answer to the question, “Who Am I ?” And this occurred to him with the realization and so he happened by chance to walking in the Himalayas.

The best day of my life – my rebirthday, 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.

What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quite, an odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason, imagination and all mental chatter died down. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, man hood, animal hood, all that could be called mine. It was as 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 shirt front terminating upwards in – absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not a head. 

– Douglas Harding, from his book, “On Having No Head.”

Douglas Harding had seen his own original face. He saw that emptiness contained a world. And nowhere did he find any evidence of a head. Hence the original face is also a koan in Zen Buddhism: What did your face look like before your parents were born? You are what you experience in the NOW moment.

Think about this for a brief moment! Your head only exists as a concept. You imagine yourself to have a head when there is nothing there but emptiness.

Do the exercises below with an open mind. Simply rely on present evidence rather than imagination, memory or assumptions. Look for yourself – it is only you alone that can see who you really are and no one else can do it for you.