How to live in the moment

Post image for How to live in the moment

Two things happen when you’re actually living in the moment: you don’t feel like you need to be anywhere else, and your face goes away.

When I’m preoccupied — not in the moment — I keep seeing my own face or profile as I do things. It’s almost as if I can see what I look like as I talk to people, walk to the store, or do anything else. At least I think I keep seeing myself.

Whenever I feel completely centered, I don’t see my face anywhere, except if I happen to look at a mirror or a photo. My face can be found nowhere else, and when I do see it, it doesn’t seem like a hugely important part of the world. It’s just another detail in the world around me.

The times when I’m in the moment, my face is refreshingly absent from my experience. I see my hands constantly, and occasionally the blur of a strand of hair or my nose, and my feet when I look down. But aside from reflections and photos there is absolutely nothing resembling my face in my actual experience of the world. If I ever think I see my face right up close, in the place I’m looking out of, then that’s all it is: thinking. It’s just a mental image, I’m not actually seeing it.

This first person viewpoint, where I can’t see my face, is the only real viewpoint of the world I ever actually have. When I finally let myself live in it, I wonder why I ever left. I’ve come back from a hectic world of mental images to the real world. That’s what “being centered” or “living on the moment” actually is — returning to the first person experience, which is the real world.

In my experience, if I actually look rather than just think about it, where I’m supposed to have a face I actually have nothing. It’s a clear space. Out in front of that nothing a little ways, there is a nose-blur and sometimes a hair-blur, and beyond that there is all sorts of interesting content which changes all the time — people, skies, computer screens, piles of snow, concerts, city lights, birds, throw rugs, music, food. But in every moment, no matter what the content, at the absolute nearest end is a great big nothing.

I am looking out of this nothing everywhere I go. On a plane. Across a diner booth from someone. From my pillow. While I’m doing a push up. Wherever I am, in every single moment of my life, no matter what I do, I am looking out of an empty space. 

If you don’t follow, point at where your face is supposed to be, where you’re looking from. In your actual experience — not what you think you should be experiencing — is your finger not aimed at an empty space?

You’re always looking out from this same empty space. Things happen in that space — walls, people, computer screens, sunsets, movies, books, your arms and legs — but it’s always just a space. It’s always open on your end.

This is a super helpful thing to notice, because it’s a way to return to present moment reality at any time. You look at something out there in the world, then you direct your attention back the other way along that same line, and see the space you are looking out of. Suddenly the world seems bare again, and you have the sensation of losing a huge weight, because you have ceased investing everything out there in the world with its relationship to your story and your needs. You are empty for the world again.

Coming back to reality

Your face only exists in the third person; it can only be seen from some distance away from yourself. You, of course, are always zero distance from yourself, which means you are never actually seeing your face, even though you probably feel like you do all the time, even when there are no mirrors around at all.

The only way you can seemingly escape your first-person experience is to get lost in your thoughts. You think about yourself from the outside, and you stop noticing that every moment is inescapably first-person. In other words, to live in the moment is to return to your first-person experience of the world. And the most conspicuous feature of a true first-person experience is that your face is absent from the experience.

Most adults live the other way most of the time — lost in a hugely complicated diorama of their own thoughts, in which they are a tiny, faulty figure among a gazillion other figures. It’s riddled with third-person images of yourself, often frumpy, faulty, unsatisfying ones, fumbling through life in real-time, but also the past and future. Somehow while you’re walking to the store, you see yourself doing embarrassing things as a teenager, or botching your upcoming speech, or confronting a bad driver you encountered yesterday.

In this way, it’s pretty normal to lose track of hard reality, which is always first person and always present, and slip into a life that consists almost entirely of thoughts, informed only intermittently by actual, first-person experience.

With all this added complexity it’s hard to get to a point in the experience where you can sit and feel good about the whole thing. Generally, living this way sucks, because things only feel okay when you can temporarily arrange the figures in that mental diorama in ways that make your own figure appear safe and prosperous. And if you do, it doesn’t last.

This is normal though, at least for people over the age of 3. As we grow up and become more preoccupied with our thoughts, life quickly goes hyper-abstract, and it’s hard to get back into the real moment in the physical world and stay there.

Living from the first person is totally different. It’s always the same on your end — an empty space with stuff happening in it. And nothing can really threaten that space, because it has no physical features. Things can happen to the objects you perceive in that space, but nothing can happen to the space itself. It’s available to you at any time, and if you’re aware of it, it greatly simplifies any situation.

Most importantly, the space is always here. It’s the only thing that’s always here. If you notice it, you’re here. Welcome back.

I get lost and come back all the time. I’m glad I learned to come back at all. Several times a day I rediscover that I’m living from a space with things happening in it, not a face with things happening to it.

Of course, I know my face is a prominent part of the experience of other people sometimes, although I can’t actually verify this first-hand. I’m looking out from where other people are looking into my face, and so that face is a part of their world and not mine. My own face, in a way, is none of my business. It’s for other people. I usually only see it in the bathroom, and it’s about six feet away, not right up here where it is for others.

Young kids live like that all the time. They have to actually be taught that the face they see in the mirror is theirs. Taking cues from the crazed adults around them, they come to rely more and more on their thoughts to tell them what is real, eventually believing their thoughts to be true even when they contradict their actual first-person experiences. They no longer notice that they’re looking out of a space, which is the most obvious thing in the world really, until it gets conditioned out of them completely and they have to rediscover it later as a thirty-year old reading a philosophy blog.

A place to sit

When you’re aware that you’re looking out of a space, you feel like you finally have a place to sit and operate from. Your primary activity is observing, even as your body does things. It feels good to observe when you have a place to sit. It’s always interesting.

Oddly, you get better at almost everything, I suppose partly because your thoughts go on the backburner whenever reality is up front, so there’s less to distract you — fewer facts to deal with, not that thoughts make for very good facts. Your arms and legs and even your voice all seem to know what they’re doing.

You can sit anywhere, regardless of the current arrangement of content. You can sit comfortably in a lineup at the bank. You can sit still and watch the interstate zoom under you and the trees sail by you. Door frames swallow you. Faces come up to you, speak into the space, and you respond, yet your face is nowhere to be seen.

Ordinary things sometimes become strangely hilarious. I can’t describe the intrinsic hilarity of watching a spoonful of cereal come closer to your space until it goes blurry and disappears, then becomes replaced by an explosion of invisible taste, sound and tactile sensations. Then an empty spoon comes back into focus and your hand puts it back in the bowl. You swallow, which is another invisible but obvious set of sensations, and you want to do it again.

One-on-one communication becomes profound. You feel instant affection for the faces you do see. There seems to be nothing in the way of them. Rather than face-to-face, you experience these conversations as face to no-face, or face to space. Your space is a perfect place to put this visiting face. It’s much easier to understand what they’re getting at, because you’re no longer trying to keep track of how what they’re saying relates to your little third-person diorama of your life. Almost everyone is adorable when you’re face to space with them.

Perhaps the most profound insight from practicing this is that none of that diorama needs to be sorted out at all anyway. It’s an impossible mess of thought with no solution — most of it is just thoughts about future problems that might actually happen — and when you return to the present moment the whole thing seems like a foolish side project you were working on.

Any of those thoughts that represent real things will be dealt with in their own time, once they are actually real, right here in front of you in the space, because life simply doesn’t happen anywhere else. Life is much smaller and more intimate and more interesting than we ever thought.

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If this post leaves you confused but still intrigued you ought to check out the work of Douglas Harding. His books Look for Yourself and On Having No Head are good places to start. A website dedicated to his work is here. The Experiment Section is the best place to learn how to practice returning to the first-person.

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Photo by Anders.Bachmann

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{ 67 Comments }

Nathan January 6, 2014 at 1:04 am

Wow, I read all your posts but comment on few because so many people do already. This one compelled me to comment though. You are such a gift to human kind. Your ability to describe the human condition in relation to the world around us is phenomenal. You are so reflective and are able to use the right wording to describe those reflections in a way that is very special. I feel this is like wiping a computer clean and starting fresh. It works more efficiently. Same with a brain, by centering your self in that space that never leaves you, you work more efficiently, are more creative, have less anxieties, and feel renewed. A little brain training is all it takes and that space is yours again. :) I have been doing this for some time but I never thought about it quite like how your put it. Thank you for this post David!

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David Cain January 6, 2014 at 2:23 pm

That’s the most useful aspect of it: that it’s always there. You can always find it. I’m getting better at remembering to look in situations when I’m upset. Problems seem more relative than absolute, because I know that thousands of problems have passed through the same space and left it unharmed.

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Kenneth January 6, 2014 at 1:09 am

An intriguing article, the part about young children gradually being taught by adults to downplay the significance of their first-person experience and instead rely on their thoughts as true reality particularly resonated with me. My niece is at a golden age where every waking moment (I assume) is spent experiencing and observing the things and events in her space. There’s a lot that I can learn from her…and I believe it is no coincedence that she is the most blissfully happy person I know.

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Sky January 6, 2014 at 1:26 am

David, thank you for this post =)

Can i ask how much time per day do you personally live in this state on a percentage basis?

I find that I live from this zero-point state for short segments of time and spend the majority of my day in the ‘conceptual world’ where the mind is very active. However I can go back to zero-point any time I want (or remember) to via several techniques, the pointing technique being one of them.

Do you think that the people we refer to as sages or gurus are those that live from this point of view 100% (or the majority) of the time? People like Maharshi etc.

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David Cain January 6, 2014 at 2:26 pm

Good question, and that’s hard to answer. I’d say maybe 10% on a good day, at this point. The habit of living from the conceptual storyline is so strong. But I think it’s less a matter of what proportion of time is spent in that state than it is a matter of how often your return to it. I am returning to it several times a day now, and a few years ago I would let weeks go by without noticing the space sometimes.

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Sky January 8, 2014 at 6:01 am

Thanks again David,

I’d say I am on a similar level to yourself at this point also.

I remember Eckhart Tolle also saying that ‘returning to spaciousness’ as frequently as possible throughout the day is the way to go. However I have also heard OSHO say that he was able to live from that point of view almost all of the time, even while speaking.

It is very difficult to not get pulled into the conceptual world if you are living a ‘modern’ lifestyle because we are surrounded by so many mind-triggers, mainly words (spoken or printed) which activate thought.

I guess that is why I am so drawn to being alone in nature, it is a place with no words!

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Cathy January 6, 2014 at 2:31 am

As someone living with depression and anxiety, this post has given me a kind of comfort and solace that I can’t quite put into words but am very grateful to you for. The bit about the cereal made me laugh haha. Your writing will go on to help all the other lucky folks who happen to stumble upon this blog, thank you David

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:27 pm

I’m glad to hear that Cathy. The cereal experience is a constant source of joy in my life. Works with oatmeal too.

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Richard January 6, 2014 at 3:11 am

Hi David,

Another splendid post. I was intrigued with the post you did on Douglas last time and went and watched the video of him in Australia. He’s a very charming man with and incredible insight very few people seem to grasp, realise or even understand. I must admit I sort of understand it but I think I need to practise trying it out.

I think I’ll buy those books but do keep posting on the subject as I think you make it a bit easier understand – No offence to the spirit of Douglas Hardy of course.

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David Cain January 6, 2014 at 2:29 pm

I will keep returning to this topic. I have avoided it because it’s important to me yet it’s so easy inadvertently to confuse people. I’ll touch on it every now and then but it is one of the most important things I write about, IMO.

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Amanda January 6, 2014 at 3:37 am

Fantastic post! Thank you. Others above have articulated it better, but this is not confusing and completely helpful. I love your blog!

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:25 pm

I’m glad it wasn’t that confusing. These ideas are quite familiar to me so I lose track of how strange they might be to others.

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Randall Pitts January 6, 2014 at 4:14 am

This post left me confused for a while. I didn’t know where you were going with it. Basically, I think you are just talking about focus, attention or concentration. We all have the ability to control what we focus on. When I focus my concentration on playing guitar I am only aware of the music. There are no other thoughts. No other perspectives. Just music. The same is true when I’m dancing or pushing heavy weights over my head. My thoughts are focused on the moment and there is no third person perspective. I can, however, create a third person focus when I want to but this is not my normal state. What you are describing sounds so normal for me the I don’t see the importance of the subject. But maybe I really have no idea what you mean. I think the ability to reflect and think abstractly about things that happen in your environment, (as you do so well) is far more important than returning “to the present moment”. Reflecting enables you to see your potential and to grow.

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David Cain January 6, 2014 at 2:41 pm

Although in this article I talk mostly about the dichotomy between being present and being preoccupied with thought, I am getting at something more specific, something which has to do with the experience of physically seeing that you are looking out of nothing. A common response people make is, “I see it, but so what?” and I can never tell whether they are seeing the same thing I am and don’t see anything significant about it, or they are just thinking about it and not really seeing it.

As far as its significance goes, there are a lot of useful applications of this practice I haven’t gone into yet, so I understand the “so what” reaction.

The topic is difficult for me to write about because all I can really do is intrigue people enough to explore the idea through doing the experiments that I linked to, or maybe to see what they’re looking out of while they look at the computer. All I can hope is that I say it in the right way for some of the readers at any given time. I will keep writing about it from different angles.

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theFIREstarter January 6, 2014 at 5:24 pm

I think I got it, so there is one for your list.

Someone linked to the headless.org site in one of your last posts comments section which I checked out at the time, but didn’t have the time to read through much of it. This post has definitely whet my appetite to go back and continue reading, thanks!

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Randall Pitts January 7, 2014 at 12:47 am

Thanks for your response. After writing my response to your post I read through some of the experiments. For the most part they are simply experiments in the boundaries of physical perception. I “discovered” these bounderies as a child in times of solitude and thought. I enjoyed the moments then, but the importance of performing these “experiments” eludes me. It’s like stating the obvious and expecting someone to get excited. In one of the experiment videos Richard suggests that when we walk or drive we are not moving, but the world is moving to us; to our “faceless” boundless capacity. This is just changing your perspective intellectually. And? I don’t expect you to defend Richard Lang’s position, but I simply can’t take his point of view seriously. The experiments are appropriate for children who are learning to discover perception and perspective but seriously, it’s like starting a blog to help people understand that snow is cold. How did you get hooked on this?

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Hamlet January 7, 2014 at 12:56 pm

Headlessness is primarily an experience, and there may be no satisfactory way to convey the meaning verbally to “get hooked on it.” Perhaps D. Harding himself came closest to it in this article, especially the section titled “The Experience without the Meaning”: http://headless.org/articles/experience-and-meaning.htm

David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Hamlet said it well. It’s really not an intellectual understanding at all, and that’s why it’s so difficult to convey. The best I hope for when I write about it is that people are intrigued enough to do the experiments and that they will notice something interesting in them. I can’t do much beyond that. There are also a lot of interesting implications and applications of this practice that I have not gone into because then the article would be too long.

DiscoveredJoys January 6, 2014 at 4:32 am

There’s an argument that, as a prosocial species, our sense of self is partly created from the relationships with other people, and that when we are not consciously thinking our background thinking is chewing over personal relationships. (‘Social: Why our brains are wired to connect’ by Matthew D Lieberman)

Which might suggest why when we are consciously in the moment ( or in ‘flow’) our ‘face’ is not present – if you take interpret ‘face’ as our socially constructed relationship with others.

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:04 pm

Yes, absolutely — probably most of our self-concept comes from other people, and so we build it in the third person. Instead of a space in which things happen we learn to see ourselves like we see others: at a distance, finite, made of matter, etc.

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Kabamba January 6, 2014 at 5:20 am

I started reading your blog in 2009 and whenever you have talked about heedlessness I have really loved it. :-)

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Kabamba January 6, 2014 at 5:22 am

headlessness, that is.

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:05 pm

My phone always auto-corrects to heedlessness :)

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Kabamba January 9, 2014 at 10:57 am

Now I know I am not alone. :-)

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Robb Gorringe January 6, 2014 at 5:34 am

Hi David,

I’m new to your blog, but I’m finding to be very deep and interesting. I like how you said, “The times when I’m in the moment, my face is refreshingly absent from my experience.” I think we all need more human experiences like this— where we focus more on those around us, rather than on our own pretty selves.

Robb

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:06 pm

Welcome Robb! This practice certainly helps one to focus on others. They become really interesting and there’s a distinct sensation of nothing between you and them.

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Sameer January 6, 2014 at 5:50 am

Hi David,

I love your blog, and would love to be more present and less self centered but I find all this talk of headlessness spectacularly unpersuasive (especially Harding’s descriptions of it). Occam’s razor suggests a simple explanation for your experiences with cereal, mirrors, and other people – *the face is yours.* I’ll try it as a thought experiment, but trying to believe in its literal truth catapults me in the wrong direction.

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Yeah, it’s not supposed to be persuasive. There’s nothing to convince you of. Doing the experiments either gives people an experience worth looking further into, or it doesn’t. There’s nothing you need to believe here.

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BNL January 6, 2014 at 6:26 am

David –

I enjoyed this post. I didn’t know where you were going for awhile with the faceless aspect, but liked how it all came together.

I haven’t ever thought about it as headless or faceless, but I think my results have been the same. I prefer to think of it as that I have a body, but my body is just a vehicle that *I* sit in and control, so that I can get from one place to another, and one moment to another. I have to feed my body and take care of my body, no different than I have to feed and maintain a car if I want it to keep working. But my face, nor my hands, nor my feet are “me,” they are just things I have the fortunate opportunity to control. This is something I learned through meditation, and it’s what allowed to to live more in the moment.

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:11 pm

That is one of the great implications of this practice — that your body is one of the physical details that happens in the empty space, but the only thing you are actually identified with is the space itself. This is a completely liberating feeling, in my experience, because the only thing I really really am is an indestructible, incorruptible space. If I am other things (like my body, my job, my roles) they are only relative, and so they fit into the same category as all the other passing content I experience.

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BrownVagabonder January 6, 2014 at 7:16 am

This ‘headlessness’ experience has been mine to savour several times in my life, but I never really put it in words before. It was really cool to see someone else describe this experience in simple language that was easy to understand. Sometimes you get so deep into an experience that you forget that you are not the only one experiencing the experience. It is nice to read your blog and others so that it confirms for me that I’m not the only one trying to live a unique life with different ‘abnormal’ aspirations (away from society dictated ones). Thanks for the post!

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:12 pm

It’s a good way to be abnormal!

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Charlie January 6, 2014 at 9:48 am

How do you feel the headless perspective reconciles with the attention you give to “personal growth”?

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:13 pm

I’m not sure what you mean, can you explain?

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Charlie January 7, 2014 at 4:37 pm

My question is, when you get ideas about how to improve your life (quitting your job or improving your posture) do those things just naturally arise in you from the headless perspective?

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Ryan January 6, 2014 at 9:57 am

I think that it is so hard to be grateful and to take enjoyment from all the things around you when your thoughts are occupied with trying to classify these events and how they affect you or how they affect others’ perceptions of you. I think a lot of people find “face to space” to be a very vulnerable and scary idea. Thinking about losing yourself to the present probably makes the overthinker contemplate their smallness instead of recognizing that going beyond those thoughts makes you far greater by connecting you to everything around you, no matter how grand or picayune it may be. Excellent post for a new year, especially for those of us who get suckered into the first person too much by resolutions and coming off of holidays!

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:16 pm

It may be a scary idea, yes. There is a sensation of being “gone”, because we’re so heavily identified with our worldly characteristics. I happen to like that feeling, but it is a little weird.

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John January 6, 2014 at 11:25 am

Thanks for the clarification on being headless/faceless! This is a fascinating topic that is making more and more sense as I observe the human experience . I remember you did a post on the fact that we only have to deal with one single moment at a time. It doesn’t matter that we have to deal with XYZ on a given day as long as we take it in stride and learn to deal with things one moment at a time. Brilliant!

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:17 pm

This is what makes it so useful. It makes it much easier to confine the moment to its truly immediate details, and it gives you a stable “desk” from which to go to work on the present moment, if there is anything to do.

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The Good Luck Duck January 6, 2014 at 11:39 am

Thank you for returning to headlessness. Your take on it gives me something new to grip.

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:17 pm

I will keep coming back to it

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Jonny Hung January 6, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Mr. Cain,

Labels are fables that rob us from the cradle until we are able to once again be stable.

Names and fame cause shame, they tame and train us to play the game.

But we can return to the place before we learned we had a face, before we waste away in haste, thinking life is a race.

Life is a journey from womb to gurney, return to first person and pull back the curtain.

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Loved your rhymes Jonny! I wish there was a comment like this on every post

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Steve Mays January 6, 2014 at 12:38 pm

I didn’t read all of the comments so my apologies if I’m echoing someone. I could NOT grasp Douglas Harding’s On Having No Head. Your post does a much better job with this notion. Well done.

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:19 pm

In the reviews of On Having No Head a lot of people say that if you don’t get it in the first few pages then the rest of the book won’t do you much good. Everyone has to hear it differently, and On Having No Head is probably not the right approach for some people.

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Leigh Shulman January 6, 2014 at 9:58 pm

This post immediately made me think of two times in my life. The first, I was volunteering in a rain forest in Brazil. Beautiful place, but no mirrors. Then also Burning Man. Again, mirrors weren’t the norm.

They were the two times I have felt the most centered and focused.

It also makes me think about how technology fits into this. I mean, between selfies, personal branding, pitching and the constant sense of putting ourselves out there to be seen, it is no wonder that so many of us strive for that state of being you describe but don’t seem to reach it.

Lovely, thoughtful post. At which point, I should perhaps learn and log off for the night. Perhaps a bit longer even.

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:22 pm

Hi Leigh. There are certain activities that bring us into the present, and traveling to new places is definitely one of them. Also, participating in sports or other physical activities that require high levels of acute attention. I’m convinced it is the exhilaration of being in the moment that attracts people to all their joys, whether they know it or not. People jump off cliffs wearing wingsuits for a reason.

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lalit January 6, 2014 at 10:25 pm

this post is about to change my life i swear to god. Thnx David.

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:22 pm

Run with it!

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theFIREstarter January 7, 2014 at 3:16 am

David… I just had a random thought. Have you ever seen or heard of the TV series Peep Show? It’s a UK comedy/sit-com. It’s ridiculously funny for starters but why it is relevant here is that a lot of the show is shot in first person perspective. When you mentioned the hilarity of eating cereal it reminded me of many scenes from that show, where day to day activities they are participating in just look damn funny. The weirdest is when one of the characters goes in for a kiss, or even have sexual relations. I’m sure the effect has been used in TV/Film before but I can’t recall anything that uses it this much or to this effect, it really is a brilliant show. Another funny aspect is that you can hear what the characters are thinking when they are in “first person mode”. Check out an episode if you ever get a spare half hour!

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David Cain January 7, 2014 at 1:24 pm

I haven’t but I will check it out. The first-person camera angle does give a strange effect for some reason, and we don’t see it often. I’d like to know more about it from someone with film education.

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derzafanistori January 7, 2014 at 5:27 am

Ah, here we meet again – in having no head :D
I’m so pleased with the road you took from there (https://www.google.hr/#q=derzafanistori+raptitude+on+having+no+head) to here ;)

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Tim January 7, 2014 at 4:01 pm

Well done David…until I read this post I had no idea how unusal I am. I spend a disgusting amount of my time in first person (like ~50%). I think perhaps it falls out my ability to hit at state of flow so easily when I’m working on something that I’m used to the idea of my face falling away I consider it a normal state of being. To me its so ordinary that I don’t consider it anything important until now. Thanks for the reading material suggestions, I’m curious to learn more and how this impact my interactions with others.

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Matt Williams January 8, 2014 at 11:20 pm

It’s most inspiring to see/hear that others are truly working at being present in the here and now.

I’m fascinated by the idea of ‘oneness’ or ‘enlightenment’, and I’ve had rare days in the last year where I was blown off my feet by the wonder of everyday experience.

What I’ve noticed/felt recently is that the state of being present is most profound when you work towards an intuition of what we label time. The notion wherein we’re beholden to perpetual becoming, and where at scale, life is as a play never before conceived, unfolding with each consecutive moment. When I play with ideas of time in my mind… when I really ruminate (and discuss with others) the novelty of raw reality, I find myself thrust into a state of presence and wonderment… very similar to the mindfulness I more often experience, but higher fidelity, more ‘wild’.

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Agon January 9, 2014 at 12:31 pm

David – thanks for writing this.

It can be so easy to lose this feeling and get caught up in our own unfulfilled desire and our suffering. This is a good reminder that when things get painful, sometimes the solution is just to come back to the present.

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Dan January 9, 2014 at 3:06 pm

Wonderfully articulated, and I agree it’s one of your most fundamentally important topics. Recently came across another great article (long-read, but definitely worth it) that aims to facilitate a shift in one’s sense of self using very practical terms (very much in the Harding “see for yourself” spirit):

The Bearable Lightness of Being
http://www.learningmethods.com/bearablelightness.htm

That guy has two other articles on there worth reading (especially “Confessions of a Do-er”…thanks goes out to another commenter on this site for originally bringing that one to my attention).

Also recommend trying to get your hands on an essay from Alan Watts called “This Is It”. It can be found in his book by the same name, or as part of an anthology by John White called “What is Enlightenment?” (featuring additional essays by Richard M. Bucke, Aldous Huxley, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and many others).

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George January 15, 2014 at 2:20 am

Yeah, it’s a good article! You might like to check out the author’s original blog; he’s got interesting ideas on lots of topics. The original tensegrity articles can be found there, for instance:

http://doorsausage.blogspot.co.uk/2009/09/what-fetching-suit.html

And on open awareness:

http://doorsausage.blogspot.co.uk/2009/02/open-focus-space-1.html

http://doorsausage.blogspot.co.uk/2009/02/open-focus-space-2.html

Worth checking out Les Fehmi’s books on that, ‘The Open Focus Brain’ and ‘Dissolving Pain’, if you are interested. Basically amounts to a step-by-step process for expanding your awareness into the gaps, ideal for those for whom Harding’s direct, instant method doesn’t work.

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SB January 9, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Your post inspired me to write a post on living in the moment during my wedding http://thesbthoughts.blogspot.com/2014/01/a-wedding-as-first-person-experience.html

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Ashwini January 10, 2014 at 10:07 pm

Hey, Nice post!
Coincidentally stumbled upon your site today – Just about to finish reading “The power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle – same message :)

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Dave January 11, 2014 at 5:00 pm

David – you commented about remembering to do this when you’re upset. I too find this very challenging! In the post you mention how “Almost everyone is adorable when you’re face to space with them.” But especially when someone is getting “in my face” – being very angry or challenging – they appear to me as anything but adorable. I find myself very prone to accepting the third person conceptualized realm – where we form and judge ourselves and each other as being good or bad, a threat, or in need of correction or whatever – as actual reality, and I find myself reacting in kind – usually making the situation worse. But once recently I was able to catch myself and not react so much (“Stop pushing!” is my current reminder to my mind). I didn’t have to have a face that needed to be gotten into. I didn’t need to be the person being judged or judging – leaving me free to simply see the situation for what it was. I was faceless (selfless?) enough to see the suffering behind the other person’s anger. Later after things cooled down, I was amazed at how much compassion I felt for this person that I’ve been fighting with all these years!

Sincerely, thank you for introducing a new way for me to practice getting out of my own face!

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Carter Smith January 12, 2014 at 2:51 pm

Wonderfully written David. I admire your courage in even talking about headlessness. I teach meditation and recovery folks and find it a challenge to teach or even talk about true non-duality.
However I do teach “Pause when agitated or doubtful” — when in negative emotion to come back into balance — and use tools like “every expression of anger is really a call for love” (ACIM), — and for myself to come back to headlessness.
While poets and artists and programmers are headless while creating/concentrating, the key to a good life is to do it when starting to fall into a addictive sewer of egoic negative thinking. Thanks again, Carter.

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Tom Southern January 13, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Interesting post! I suppose what it comes to is that our obsession with ourselves makes us blind to the realness of the world around us.

If we could step out of ourselves, or even forget ourselves at times (in the true sense of the term), we might be able to connect more with our surroundings.

Self-obsession is blinding.

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George January 15, 2014 at 1:18 am

Harding’s experiments are definitely one of the easiest ways into this, if you’re one of the lucky ones and get it – which means you get that “looking” means directing your attention, or rather including something in your attention, and isn’t to do with your eyes or thinking about anything. Saves you a lot of self-inquiry and pondering, although you still need to ponder the meaning afterwards really.

I recently re-read his other book, ‘Head Off Stress’, and that expands his thoughts on the application of Headlessness, but I really recommend Rupert Spira’s books ‘Presence’ Volumes I & II for a more step by step approach to exploring direct experience afterwards. Really well written. There’s a sample of the first book available:

http://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0125/1442/t/2/assets/presence-sample.pdf

My thoughts now are that, just as approaches such as the Alexander Technique are about ‘leaving ourselves alone’ physically and letting our body movements and responses happen by themselves, so, more subtly, we should be leaving our attention alone as well. If we stop interfering with our attention, our awareness naturally opens out to include everything, including the space where our heads aren’t, occasionally briefly narrowing in response to events around us but opening out again.

Most of us ‘hold onto’ our attention and concentrate too hard against distractions. (In fact, if you experiment a bit, you’ll find concentrating is what creates distractions. If you simply include that background noise in your awareness along with whatever you’re doing then it stops being a problem; the attempt to exclude it is what makes it an issue.) This means we get lost in details of experience and forget who we are.

Attention isn’t like the beam of a torch illuminating part of what’s happening; it’s more like a filter which narrows awareness from its default natural openness. Harding’s experiments are a great way to remind ourselves to wake up from narrow focus, but in the end we should be aiming to stay ‘open’.

Basically, I think we’re not meant to be trying to control ourselves and our experience in a direct way at all. It’s not about doing something, it’s about refraining from doing something, but since most of us probably don’t think of attention as something we ‘do’ in the usual way, since it’s non-physical, it’s trickier to get a handle on!

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Dave January 16, 2014 at 3:48 pm

Thanks George for adding some clarity to ‘looking’ – and ‘seeing’ as well. Also ‘pointing’ in this context is better understood metaphorically. Thanks too for the additional linkage!

Another way to frame this age-old problem about the difference between first- and third-person experience is in the distinction to be made between the experience itself and our interpretation of it. The first person has the experience and the third person interprets. The actual experience just happens to include the interpreting, but so much more, and problems arise when the third person wants the interpreting to be all there is to consider. The “space” (also metaphorical) David talks about is the “room” available for consciousness to safely experience what it does, without commentary, and the potential for even more to be safely experienced. This space is far too large to be filled (experienced) by the first person – let alone be explored and explained by the third. And as David points out, it’s a wondrous space, and the only reliable place to have any experience at all.

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George January 17, 2014 at 3:07 am

Nicely put! There is definitely a tendency to ‘think-about’, imagining ourselves as a third person, which obscures what’s actually going on.

The ‘space’, though, should be taken as real: if you explore your actual, direct experience in this moment, you discover that it takes the form of one big open space of awareness, in which sensations and thoughts spontaneously arise and dissipate. But you have to directly explore experience, rather than thinking about it.

You can approach this, for instance, by imagining turning your senses off one by one. Don’t think about this though (third person); act it out (first person). First sight, then sound, then bodily sensations, then thoughts, and see what’s left. Are you still there? What’s left of your experience? You find there is still the experience of ‘I AM’. That is what Harding’s pointing is trying to get you to, by indicating when you pay direct attention, you see that there is a vast empty space behind you that goes on forever.

The problem is, thought appears in the same space as the rest of experience and obscures direct sensory experience, and we have a tendency to narrow focus on thinking. Plus we tend to identify with long-lasting experience (the sense of the body; our self-image thought) and see everything else as ‘external’, so the jump to saying all experience is equal and transitory is initially difficult. In fact, everything appears within this experiential space; we have no access to an external world, we just make up stories about one.

Common analogies are that experience is like Star Trek’s holodeck (but you are the holodeck, and the first thing that arises are bodily sensations for you to experience, then the world) or a dream (you are the dream itself, a dream-space taking on the shape of the dream content and experiencing itself).

More fun reading (although the latter makes the ‘external world story-making’ error in the end, it’s an interesting journey):

http://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0125/1442/t/2/assets/standing-sample.pdf
http://www.cogsci.uci.edu/~ddhoff/ConsciousRealism2.pdf

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George January 15, 2014 at 1:46 am

Also, Stephen Robbins’ little book on ‘The Science of Having No Head’ is worth a look, for a deeper exploration of the philosophy behind the experience, based on Henri Bergson’s ideas.. You can read it here:

http://stephenerobbins.com/Other/SR%20NoHeadBook%20v2.1.pdf

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Wan January 21, 2014 at 9:16 am

Insightful post.

I still need to let my mind digest it.

I realize that living in the present is important but your perspective is different than the typical proponent of living in the now.

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