In 2007 I attended the memorial and burial of the writer and philosopher, Douglas Edison Harding. My presence at his graveside that day was a co-incidence and not due to any personal connection to the family. To be honest, I had never heard of the man C.S. Lewis once described as a writer of ‘the highest genius’. I was in Suffolk that day because my husband had offered to drive three Buddhist monks to the funeral and I went along for the ride.
Harding’s wife, Catherine, was born and raised in France. When she heard that I had a degree in French she gifted me a copy of her children’s book*, written in her native language and based on the philosophy of her husband’s now spiritual classic On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious (1961).
Douglas Harding was born into the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren, a Christian fundamentalist sect. In his early twenties he broke away from the group, was immediately excommunicated and remained estranged from his family for the rest of his life. According to his obituary questioning all things that could not be verified by direct observation, taking nothing on trust, Harding began with the attitude of a scientist and ended with the insights of a mystic **
His premise was simple. We each have a head, one that we ourselves are unable to see without the assistance of a mirror or a shop front window. We can’t see our own heads but we can look out from inside them and encounter a world of thoughts and feelings that are completely unique to each one of us. Every person we meet lives at the centre of a world no one else can see. We learn that who we are to ourselves can be different to how we are seen by others. We realise that our behaviour adapts according to the person we are with – friend, parent, teacher.
As Harding so succinctly put it: I am the sole and final authority on me. Mostly however, we take other people’s word for who we are. Only you are in a position to say what it’s like being you at this time.
I was intrigued and began to consider Harding’s ideas in terms of the work I was doing with primary and secondary school students.
Twelve year-old Jackie arrived in my office one morning, accused of having sworn at a teacher in the corridor. When I asked her what had prompted her to lose her temper, she replied. He was looking at me funny. As a member of the Traveller community, Jackie often experienced her world as judgmental, critical and excluding and so she interpreted her teacher’s expression as disparaging. He, in turn, experienced her reaction as insulting.
I suggested that what she read as a critical look might have had nothing at all to do with her. Perhaps the teacher had narrowed his eyes because the sun was shining in his face; perhaps he had been reflecting on a personal problem that had nothing at all to do with Jackie. She couldn’t see inside her teacher’s head and he couldn’t see inside hers. To ourselves we are headless and what happens on the outside, in our expressions and reactions, may not accurately reflect what we are experiencing on the inside.
We spent some time talking about all the things that made Jackie proud to be who she was – a tomboy, someone who could stand up for herself, a sense of being part of an extended community that was adaptable, but also refused to be pushed into a corner. We talked about the thoughts and feelings of others and the responsibility we all have for what we think, say and do.
Sometimes I used Art or Music to help students experience ‘headlessness’. Both art forms exist beyond reality, beyond the known world and so can be used imaginatively and in a very personal way. There’s no right or wrong answer when we use music or painting to represent what we are experiencing. The reality is internal. As a child once observed It’s an inside truth. As Douglas Harding said Nobody is in a position to tell me what my direct experience is.
It’s important for young people to learn about the world around them and it’s important for them to learn about the world inside them. What do you see when you are not looking at your physical reflection? What do others see? How can you differentiate between who you are to yourself and who you are to others? The journey to personal stability, whilst balancing our personal relationships, is honed and refined over the course of a lifetime.
In the words of Bruce Springsteen: Is that you – or just a brilliant disguise?
*Les Explorateurs du Vrai Monde par Catherine Harding.
** Douglas Harding obituary, The Independent, February 15th, 2007