Headlessness and Faith

D.E. Harding’s “headlessness” is a simple and straightforward way of describing our unmediated sensory experience of the world. It dissolves the boundary between ourselves and the world, which is ultimately conceived or visualised as a “meatball head” with two peep-holes and other sensory organs. Headlessness is the already given state of affairs (we don’t experience or see a head), which we overlay and obscure with inherited theories of perception, such as the theory that the world and the mind are two different “things” mediated by a brain inside a skull-box.

Once you see the world headlessly, you can’t unsee it. Even if you revert back to your habitual way of seeing, you now possess a capacity for nondual vision which you can access at will. It is no different from the acquisition of any other skill, such as solving algebraic equations or riding a bike.

The always-already state of nondual awareness, however described or conceptualised, is available to everyone, but not everyone “gets it”. It depends on a sudden illumination, an “aha!” moment, a penny-dropping, jaw-dropping, world-shattering moment. This is called “seeing into your Original Nature” or “seeing your Original Face” in Zen Buddhism. In the Hindu tradition, this is the direct path or “royal road” known as Raja Yoga. Nisargadatta Maharaj and Ramana Maharshi are probably the most famous exponents of this approach.

Everyone has a royal Raja birthright, but not everyone claims it. The same is true of Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion. In the West, this is best understood as a capacity for “faith”. Everyone is presumably capable of faith, but not everyone “gets it”, just as everyone should in principle be able to ride a bike (in the absence of certain physical disabilities), but not everyone can.

Once you have tasted “One Taste”, you can taste it again, just by remembering or un-forgetting (anamnesis). Once you have tasted “belief in God” and “trust in God”, you can also do it again, just by bringing Him to mind, for example simply by repeating the word “Lord” a few times. You can believe as an active verb, simply by remembering or un-forgetting God.

Headlessness and faith are both discrete, recognisable states of awareness. Once you have experienced them, it’s easy to recognise them. And the more you experience them, the more recognisable they become and the more discrete they become. They are clearly distinguishable from the “ordinary” state of consciousness.

Some people “get” faith but don’t “get” headlessness and vice versa. Most people don’t “get” either. I suspect this is because in the modern West, we live and breathe in a left-brain hemisphere dominant society, where “knowledge about” trumps direct “knowledge of” (see Iain MacGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary thesis). I would argue that both headlessness and faith are right-brain hemisphere capacities and that Raja Yoga and Bhakti Yoga are right-hemisphere activities.

Faith is obviously undervalued and discouraged in secular, materialist culture. For the most part, nonduality and headlessness don’t even register at all. The only pursuits recognised as worthwhile are action and knowledge, which, raised to their highest spiritual expressions, are represented in Hindu tradition by Karma Yoga and Jnana Yoga respectively.

Lama Yeshe said, “True religion should be the pursuit of self-realization, not an exercise in the accumulation of facts”. And St Paul said, “A person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law”. In other words, neither Jnana Yoga nor Karma Yoga are enough. Neither have the whole picture. We also need self-realization (Raja Yoga) and faith (Bhakti Yoga).

Man cannot live by bread alone, but neither can he live by the left-brain hemisphere alone. For a mature, balanced and integrated spirituality, we need reason and good works but also headlessness and faith. And if you don’t “get” either, it may just be because you’ve never tried.