This is a interesting trick that I picked up from Sam Harris’ book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (Amazon).
If this works for you (and it may not), it can be a quick and easy route to realizing that there is no ‘you’; that there is no separate self inhabiting your consciousness and “experiencing your experience”.
What do I mean by this? If you’re not sure (or you’re thinking ‘What on earth is he talking about? Has Aaron gone off the deep end?’) then keep reading and be sure to try out the exercise described later on.
Before we get to the actual exercise, it’s useful to have some background. Harris describes:
Douglas Harding was a British architect who later in life became celebrated in New Age circles for having opened a novel doorway into the experience of selflessness. Raised among the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren, a highly repressive sect of fundamentalist Christians, Harding apparently expressed his doubts with a fervor sufficient to get himself excommunicated for apostasy. He later moved his family to India, where he spent years on a journey of self-discovery that culminated in an insight he described as the state of “having no head.”
Harding was led to his insight after seeing a self-portrait of the Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, who had the clever idea of drawing himself as he appeared from a first-person point of view: “I lie upon my sofa. If I close my right eye, the picture represented in the accompanying cut is presented to my left eye. In a frame formed by the ridge of my eyebrow, by my nose, and by my moustache, appears a part of my body, so far as visible, with its environment.” Harding later wrote several books about his experience, including a very useful little volume titled On Having No Head.
Here is Harding’s account of his experience:
What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animal-hood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories.
There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouser legs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in absolutely nothing whatsoever! Certainly not in a head.
It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been, was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything: room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world…
Here it was, this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void, and (and this was the real miracle, the wonder and delight) utterly free of “me,” unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence, body and soul. Lighter than air, clearer than glass, altogether released from myself. I was nowhere around…
There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden. I had been blind to the one thing that is always present, and without which I am blind indeed to this marvelous substitute-for-a-head, this unbounded clarity, this luminous and absolutely pure void, which nevertheless is—rather than contains—all things.
For, however carefully I attend, I fail to find here even so much as a blank screen on which these mountains and sun and sky are projected, or a clear mirror in which they are reflected, or a transparent lens or aperture through which they are viewed, still less a soul or a mind to which they are presented, or viewer (however shadowy) who is distinguishable from the view.
Nothing whatever intervenes, not even that baffling and elusive obstacle called “distance”: the huge blue sky, the pink-edged whiteness of the snows, the sparkling green of the grass—how can these be remote, when there’s nothing to be remote from? The headless void refuses all definition and location: it is not round, or small, or big, or even here as distinct from there.
Harding’s assertion that he has no head must be read in the first-person sense; the man was not claiming to have been literally decapitated. From a first-person point of view, his emphasis on headlessness is a stroke of genius that offers an unusually clear description of what it’s like to glimpse the nonduality of consciousness
What Harris means by the ‘nonduality of consciousness’ is that there is no ‘you’ that is separate from your experience – it only feels like there is. The sense of having a ‘self’ is an illusion brought about by the nature of the mind and the ego that thinking creates. I will (attempt to) explain this in greater detail below after the exercise.
Here is the exercise, which Harris calls “Look For Your Head”:
As you gaze at the world around you, take a moment to look for your head. This may seem like a bizarre instruction. You might think, “Of course, I can’t see my head. What’s so interesting about that?” Not so fast. Simply look at the world, or at other people, and attempt to turn your attention in the direction of where you know your head to be.
For instance, if you are having a conversation with another person, see if you can let your attention travel in the direction of the other person’s gaze. He is looking at your face—and you cannot see your face. The only face present, from your point of view, belongs to the other person. But looking for yourself in this way can precipitate a sudden change in perspective, of the sort Harding describes.
Some people find it easier to trigger this shift in a slightly different way: As you are looking out at the world, simply imagine that you have no head.
Whichever method you choose, don’t struggle with this exercise. It is not a matter of going deep within or of producing some extraordinary experience. The view of headlessness is right on the surface of consciousness and can be glimpsed the moment you attempt to turn about.
Pay attention to how the world appears in the first instant, not after a protracted effort. Either you will see it immediately or you won’t see it at all. And the resulting glimpse of open awareness will last only a moment or two before thoughts intervene. Simply repeat this glimpse, again and again, in as relaxed a way as possible, as you go about your day.
Now this ‘trick’ may or may not work for you. And it may work for you in a different way than it works for me. From my experience, the first suggestion – look for your head – does not work while the second one – imagine that you have no head – does.
The effect is difficult to explain. But with the hope that if you don’t see it, this may help you to, I’ll do my best here.
Imagining that you have no head brings you “out of yourself” and makes it so you are suddenly able to see that you are not “you”. Or, to be more exact, that there is no “you”.
It certainly feels like there is a “you”, in the sense that “you” are located somewhere in your head, looking out from behind your eyes, or that “you” are somewhere in your body (yet separate from it) controlling it from the inside.
However, this sense of having a separate self is an illusion, brought about by the mind and the ego that is created by identifying with thoughts. Thoughts are not “you”, they are transitory appearances in the field of consciousness. (There is no separate “thinker” of your thoughts, there is just the thoughts.) A thought, in this sense, is the same as a sensation you feel or a sound that you hear.
In consciousness there happen to be eyes (“your” eyes), that happen to be “seeing” what’s in front of them. (Seeing is in quotation marks because it implies that there is a “see-er”; something external doing the seeing—there isn’t.) There happens to be a body that moves and feels, and there happens to be a whole spectrum of other sensory perception. These experiences feel like they are “yours” but in fact they are just there.
“There is no you” simply means that there is no separate self that experiences your experience. There is just the experience. This is what suddenly becomes clear after doing the “imagine you have no head” exercise.
I hope this makes sense. It can be confusing at first, or hard to digest, especially if you’ve never been exposed to these kinds of ideas before. I suggest you approach it with an open mind, and consider that there may be an alternative to the way things “seem” or to the way that everyone thinks they are.
Sam Harris’ book goes into (much) greater detail about what he calls “cutting through the illusion of self”. If you liked this post, or are interested in spirituality and exploring the nature of consciousness, I would highly recommend you get a copy.
Again, I hope this was mostly clear and that it proves useful to you. If the exercises didn’t work the first time, scroll up and try again. Good luck!
What do you think? Do you find this sort of topic interesting? Does my explanation make sense? Have you read Sam Harris’ book, or do you have a recommendation for something similar? Let us know in the comments below.