by contemplativeinquiry

In my last post I said that I was exploring a modern tradition known as the Headless Way. I’ll be mentioning it from time to time in future posts as I go on. So I have looked around for a congenial explanation of what it stands for, written by an experienced practitioner.

Jim Clatfelter’s Headless Dao is a version of the Tao Te Ching modified by a ‘headless’ lens. Each chapter is reinforced by a commentary. It is written in a breezy, jingling verse in some contrast with my favourite free-form version by Ursula K. Le Guin. Yet it is very successful in making its point, and I value it for that – especially appreciating the commentary to the extract from Chapter 42 below. The overall view is one which I essentially share. It makes sense to me and fits my experience.

I’ve chosen extracts from two chapters and their commentaries to offer a taste of Clatfelter’s work. I’ve kept the chapter headings so that readers can compare it with other versions. Ursula Le Guin’s is still the one that I would take to a desert island.



Before the first beginning

An emptiness is here

Alone forever and at peace

This side of what appears,

Eternally unchanging

And lacking any limit

The void of all potential

The present ultimate.

It enters all appearance

And then returns to source

It’s ever at your center

Your only true recourse

For here begin the heavens

The earth and humankind

Following this greatest way

You cannot be confined.


“Here Laozi gives us an outline of his view of existence. What appears to us as a void or an absence or emptiness is truly a mystery. It’s the ultimate. The absolute. It’s the source of existence in its infinite potential.

“It’s also a presence, pure and unchanging awareness, the always-so. This presence contains all that comes and goes in the here and now moment. It is your true, unchanging and eternal identity. It is beyond time because it contains time.

“Can you see this Dao first in all things? You are the Dao, the one awareness, the only awareness. This awareness is very close at hand. It’s at your very center, and it’s always available. It’s who you really are, and it’s always at peace and beyond upset.”



Dao enfolds a oneness

Holds yin and yang as two

Within a single presence

As two sides of the view

With yin upon my shoulders

And yang in my embrace

I live the presence of the Dao

Where all is in its place.

When the two appear as one

It’s wholeness that I see

And balance has to follow

As well as harmony.


“In Laozi’s original, this verse begins: from one comes two, and this makes three, and thus 10,000 come to be. What do these numbers refer to? …. One is Dao, the single presence. Two are yin and yang, the complementary opposites of Dao. Three is the sum, the whole.

“Laozi goes on to locate yin and yang in our direct experience. Just what is Dao?  It is yin on my shoulders and yang in my arms. The three terms Dao, yin and yang are not metaphysical terms. They are not mere words and names. They are concrete, physical and visible. You can literally point to them with a finger. To look at the yin, point to your own faceless awareness. To look at the yang, point your finger to the world of appearances (the 10,000 things) directly in front of you. See that nothing separates this yin and yang. They are two views of your presence, your life in the moment, two views of Dao. Can you see both ways and harmonize and balance the two views? It’s the Way to wholeness.”

Jim Clatfelter Headless Dao London: Shollond Trust, 2015. The Sholland Trust acts as the administrative arm of the Headless Way, which can be found at www.headless.org