Self-Discovery Portal

Greatest Western Teachers of Modern Times
~ What Do They Recommend? ~

Douglas Harding Douglas Harding | Richard Rose | Franklin Merrell-Wolff

Douglas Harding calls his discovery headlessness, which he says is the same as "seeing who you really are." To accomplish this, he recommends a method of self-inquiry based on simple, practical exercises.

These exercises are best carried out with another person, especially one who has already seen his own headlessness. Harding has continued to develop and refine these exercises over many decades and has presented them to thousands of people in workshops around the world.

His view is that seeing who we really are, the blessed vision, is available right now and just as we are, not only after a long, perhaps lifelong preparation. And, in a chapter in On Having No Head: Zen & the Rediscovery of the Obvious comparing the divide between the spiritual-psychological and the spiritual-religious gulf, as typified by J. Krishnamurti and Ramana Maharshi, respectively, he lines up with Maharshi's view that "There is nothing so simple as being the Self. It requires no effort, no aid. All are seeing God always, but they don't know it. I see what needs to be seen. I see only just what all see, nothing more. The Self is always self-evident."

He's not a copy-cat adherent of Ramana's views, though, as indicated in a 1996 interview in The Noumenon Journal:

Now you talk about stopping thinking. Well, I've read all the books about Ramana – I've never met him – and I think he says a lot of things – some of which don't mean much to me, it seems to be more part of that culture – but one of the things he does say in places is that you don't have to do anything to see who you really are, you don't have to stop thinking to see who you really, really are. It is obvious, there is nothing more obvious in the whole world. I say that too. It's absolutely obvious, and you say, well does that stop your thinking, Douglas? Well, not really, because it's perfectly compatible with seeing here the one who is supposedly the thinker. The thinker goes along perfectly well with the realisation of the identity of the one here who's alleged to be thinking, but there is a sense – and a very, very important sense – in which seeing who I am does involve cessation of thought, because when we think about a thing we are making it an object. It is there, the thinker and the object thought about, and I am not that. The thinker and the thought are two, but this vision of who I really, really, really am is not thought, it is directly experienced. So here there's no thinking. Seeing who I really, really am is not thinking, it's not a conceptual experience, it's more like a percept – but an absolutely direct experience of what's here.

Also, Harding is no stranger to paradox – another common denominator, I believe, of all those who have found a total answer. While agreeing wholeheartedly with the above expression by Ramana that being the Self requires no effort, his view dovetails with the seeming contradiction expressed by Ramana: "No one succeeds without effort. The successful few owe their success to their perseverance."

Harding added a final section to On Having No Head more than 40 years after his revelation of headlessness, laying out the Path – the Headless Way – he followed "from the unreal to the Real, from darkness to Light, from death to Immortality" (in the words from the Upanishad he quoted). He said that it represents one of countless variations on the Way, and he divided it into eight more-or-less arbitrary stages:

  1. The Headless Infant
  2. The Child
  3. The Headed Grown-up
  4. The Headless Seer
  5. Practicing Headlessness
  6. Working It Out
  7. The Barrier
  8. The Breakthrough

His recommendation is to first become a Headless Seer, which only takes one glimpse and corresponds to stages one through four. He laments that very few of the many people who have glimpsed their true natures in his workshops have followed through with the next step, which is Practicing Headlessness.

Now the "hard" part begins, which is the repetition of this headless seeing-into-Nothingness till the seeing becomes quite natural and nothing special at all; till, whatever one is doing, it's clear that nobody's here doing it.... At first, the essential practice requires much effort of attention. Normally, one takes years or decades to arrive at anything like steady and spontaneous in-seeing. Nevertheless the method is quite simple and the same throughout. It consists of ceasing to overlook the looker – or rather, the absence of the looker.

The third and final step is breaking through the barrier of ego:

No matter how revolutionary the discoveries made along Stages (5) and (6) of the Way, or how valuable for living they are beginning to prove, in the end they leave the wayfarer profoundly unsatisfied. There remains an ache, an undefined longing. In spite of all this quite genuine spiritual "progress," an all-important region remains untravelled, or at least insufficiently explored. It's a dark and dangerous country inhabited by monsters, and it cannot be by-passed. It is the area of the will. Here, beyond and beneath all these luminous goings-on, the unregenerate ego is still at work, possibly beavering away more vigorously than ever.

What is required, he tells us, is 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?" he asks us, rhetorically. The answer: "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." But he goes on, in the Postscript, to give some practical advice, the chief of which is the importance of the company of fellow-adventurers.

I had registered to attend a Harding workshop that the Self Knowledge Symposium had scheduled in Raleigh, NC for October 2001, but Douglas had to cancel due to health problems. (I think that's when he had taken a fall and ended up with a hip replacement.) I dithered from then until the fall of 2003, when I finally wrote to the Hardings, and they invited me to visit. This brings up a point that I think you'll find true of any real teacher, which is that they're accessible. Rose was definitely that way, as was Wolff.

I spent three days with the Hardings in October 2003, and they welcomed me into their home and their hearts as if I were part of the family. One of the first things Douglas said to me was that my job was not to be Douglas or anyone else but my self – the true self that we really are. Another memorable conversation was when he said that "everlasting joy comes from going down, in and through pain, not up and away from it. In religious terminology, God's son takes on the pain of the world. The joy comes through acceptance of the pain. The only real joy is at the base or finale of pain." When he asked if I understood what he was saying, I asked if it were what Buddhists refer to as the bodhisattva vow, and he said yes, it's the same thing.

On the last day I was there, a Saturday, a few friends (students) dropped in, and we did some of the exercises. Douglas led the "tube" experiment (click on the Headless Way web site URL below for details) with me as his partner, and since then I've found my view flipping to an awareness of being the space in which everything, including "my own" consciousness and that of others in my view, is occurring. A friend remarked: "A seed has been planted by a master gardener."


  • Harding felt a conviction, from childhood on, that the power behind the world is one of Self-giving love.
  • He discovered early that the greatest awe is that of Self-origination, of something manifesting out of nothing.
  • He thought it would be a great waste to find ourselves in existence and then not look to see what was the actual nature of that existence – and that this "seeing" was easy and direct.
  • "Either you go baldheaded for Who you really are, or else you get to work on all that mental stuff which is alleged to block the vision of that Who. They just won't mix, and there's no sense in jumping back and forth from one to the other." Harding is a vigorous proponent of going for a direct seeing, and the exercises he developed for helping with this are documented throughout his writing.
  • To overcome the yearning that goes with separation, we then need to break through the final barrier, the ego or individuality sense.
  • When asked about the fear that hinders us from this, he responded (in Face to No-Face):

    ... The profound and well-based reason for this fear is surely that we have one basic fear, the fear of death and annihilation. Coming back Here, looking in at the Void, is an arrow, isn't it? We say the experiments are vehicles, but they're also arrows or bullets. They come and they kill you. It really is the end of you. The fear of death, the fear of annihilation – that's the real terror. The resistance to it is well-based. The Diamond Sutra says as much. Seeing into your void nature is naturally quite terrifying.

    Of course, we have this fear that when we look in we'll find death and annihilation. But it is death and resurrection. We forget that this death of the little one, who is dying anyway, is accompanied by our resurrection as the whole scene. So instead of this in-seeing being death, it becomes the answer to the problem of death.

    See The Headless Way web site for more information.

  • Recommendations / Richard Rose

    Recommendations: Franklin Merrell-Wolff | Douglas Harding | Richard Rose

    Who are they? | What is a Total Answer? | What do they Know/Believe? | What do they
    Summary Comparison | Their Publications | Ongoing Work | GT Home

    © 2000-2024. All rights reserved. | Back to Top