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.
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.
Photo by Anders.Bachmann