In Zen, as in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, there is talk of characters who have two heads. In Adams’ book, it’s a character named Zaphod Beeblebrox. In Zen, it comes from a talk by the 9th century Chinese Master Linji:
…There are indeed so far none who have presented themselves before me all alone, all free, all unique… They are all ghostly existences, ignominious gnomes haunting the woods, elf-spirits of the wilderness….Do you think you deserve the name of ‘monk’ when you are still entertaining mistaken ideas of Zen? You are putting another head over your own! What do you lack in yourselves?
Zen teachings tell us continually that “this is it,” that there is no need to keep seeking for something beyond, for something outside of ourselves. I’ve made a practice for myself of asking “Which head am I in?” Am I in this head that rests on top of my neck, connected to my spine, my heart, and the feelings and sensations that are going on right now? Or am I feeling, thinking, and acting from the additional head I’ve constructed on top of that one?
Paying attention to what I’m actually feeling and sensing, I’ve noticed some signs distinguishing what comes from my actual life, and what has its origins in my “elf spirit of the wilderness.” Second-head phenomena seem to revolve around the Three Poisons: Greed, anger, and ignorance.
GREED ACTIVITY in my second head usually takes the form of desires for ephemeral but very shiny and attractive things. For example, when I want and enjoy a piece of chocolate, that activity may be in my body and the head that’s attached to it. But once when I had a piece of chocolate in my mouth I noticed that I wasn’t actually paying attention to it. Instead, I was focused on wanting the piece of chocolate that was still in my hand. The thought of some future satisfaction was taking precedence over the satisfaction I was actually experiencing. The ephemeral second head was greedy for the ephemeral chocolate-to-be! How silly!
I’ve since noticed similar desires for my next cup of coffee, while still drinking my first. Or for the next morning’s cup of coffee as I go to bed. Or for a glass of wine at the end of the day, just as my day is getting rolling. These are all images, generated in my second head, of some shiny future experience. And these objects of desire will never, ever be something I actually get. They are always in the future. The experience of the actual never seems to quite rise up to the desirability of the imagined. These objects’ existence is fundamentally “ghostly” and unreal.
I also find myself in my second head when I try to re-live good things that have happened. This is usually in the service of trying to ignore something happening now that is less nice. For example, I recently found myself dwelling on a flattering email I’d received in the morning, after getting one in the afternoon that was unpleasant.
So second-head desires have an unreality about them. Another sign of second-headedness, I’ve found, is that the objects of these desires tend to be extremely limited, narrow, and repetitive. The same images come up over and over. In each case they represent “the thing that will be really good.” And in each case they block my view of the very many diverse things that are good—including the chocolate in my mouth!
ANGER AND AVERSION arise in my second head, too. There are thoughts and feelings about the utter unacceptability of something. These “ghostly existences” are things that have to be fixed, that can’t possibly stay as they are. The second head often generates an energy that says I need to work on these things right now.
These include personal failures as well as the ways the world is not how I would like it to be. A few days ago I woke up feeling a familiar flavor of “bad,” that I hadn’t felt the day before. First came the thought, “What’s wrong with me! I should feel good all the time!” Mercifully, this thought, after years of meditation practice, didn’t last long. It was followed by something akin to “Good, bad…who knows. Feelings come and go, and don’t measure any kind of success or failure. Empty. No big deal.” Then, inspired by my intention to investigate my two heads, came the question, “Exactly what kind of ‘bad’ is this? What does it feel like?” It came to me that it was a free-floating cloud of guilt and anxiety related to work. It was the nagging sense that I can never do enough, or fast enough, or well enough. Lastly, I realized, “Oh, it’s a cloud. I can still my hand right through it. It must be part of my ephemeral second head.” I’ve noticed that this feeling tends to come and go. I’ve noticed that the timing of it’s arising isn’t all that closely related to how productive I actually have been or need to be. So I certainly still felt it—I hadn’t gotten rid of it–but I realized I didn’t need to take it too seriously.
I’ve noticed another clear sign of second-headness in regard to things that come up in quiet times such as zazen or waking. It turns out that the particular really urgent thing I have to do right now seems to be, in the vast majority of cases, an arbitrary selection from a long list of possibilities. It is a totally random choice from all the personal, relational, and work things that I could be doing. Sometimes it’s a paper I need to write, sometimes ice dams on the roof, sometimes an email that must go out. Sometimes (especially when I’m half asleep) I even find that it’s a totally made-up task that actually doesn’t face me at all.
It feels as though I have a empty space in me that, when I’m not actually working on something, wants to be filled up. If not faced with a real task, my second head will create something ghostly to fill in the blank. I’ve experimented with, at times like these, giving myself the instruction, “Don’t fill it up.” The world opens.
THE THIRD POISON, “IGNORANCE,” can also be interpreted as “certainty.” Here I find that my second head is a master at laying down bedrock beliefs about who I am and how the world works. And I get very attached to these.
I didn’t begin meditation practice until I was about forty years old. During my thirties, I was married and on an upwards career trajectory in academe. Starting an academic career while bearing and raising two children was an intense process, but I managed to earn tenure in a top-30 department in my field. About the time I hit forty, that all fell apart. Within the space of a few months, divorce and the denial of tenure (at a new university) brought my identity as a married person and professor crashing down.
My whole life as I knew it seemed to be falling away. But of course that “life” that was leaving was, in fact, made up of beliefs and stories, “ghostly existences, ignominious gnomes haunting the woods, elf-spirits of the wilderness.” My actual head was still attached just fine, eating and drinking and breathing. Sitting and watching my breath reminded me of that. I found that I could watch panic rise and fall. And then I could get up and do the difficult things that needed to be done.
Recently, I had a little tiny great enlightenment related to my fundamental beliefs about myself. One of my housemates criticized me, saying that I interrupted her a lot. My immediate internal reactions were “I don’t do that. She’s just too sensitive!” and ”I’m right, she’s wrong!” Then, under that was the thought, coming from my second-head created self-image, “I don’t believe I’m the kind of person who interrupts excessively.” Then, the turning point, where my more grounded first head got a chance to chime in: “Oh, that’s a belief. It could be wrong.” What I actually said out loud to her, after this internal dialog was “I don’t think of myself as someone who interrupts too much. So if you see that happening, please point it out so I can see it.” (Interestingly, a couple weeks later, she said, “My boyfriend pointed out to me that I have a tendency to get easily offended sometimes. I’m sorry.” An open attitude seems to be contagious.)
My second head seems to be populated by the shiny things I think I want, by all the things about myself and the world that seem to urgently require my fixing, and by the bedrock beliefs I have about who I am and how the world works. It’s not going away, nor do I need it to go away. But I find it helpful to distinguish between it and the head that’s on my neck. Just call me Zaphod.
Based on a talk given at the Greater Boston Zen Center, February 2015.