Why do we tend to be identified with the head area?

Most of us in the current western world are identified with the area where our head is. We have a general identification with or as the body and a slightly stronger identification with the head area.


There may be some physical and practical reasons for this head-identification.

Some of our most used senses are located in our head: Eyes, ears, nose, and tongue.

And others tend to look at our face and eyes when they look at us, suggesting that’s where we are mostly located.


At the same time, there is a cultural component here.

Our head-identification is not inherent in who or what we are. It’s not inevitable.

We happen to live in a culture where most people are identified with their head, so we naturally adopt it as well. We learn that’s what people here do, so we do the same, mostly without even noticing or questioning it. It’s natural and innocent and even sweet. (Our culture’s value on the intellect and, indirectly, the brain, may also play a small role here.)

We can imagine a culture where it’s different. For instance, a culture where we are most identified with or as the heart area. If we grow up in a culture that values the heart, and where people are mostly identified with or as their heart area, our main sense of self would likely be there as well.


How is this identification created? How does the mind create a sense of an I or me mostly in the head area?

If we explore this through the sense fields, we may find that the sense of self in the head area is created the same way the mind creates any other identification with a mental representation.

We have mental images, in this case of our head area. We have words saying we mostly are in the head area. The mind associates these images and words with certain bodily sensations, often in the same area. The sensations lend a sense of solidity, reality, and truth to the mental images and words. And the mental images and words give a sense of meaning to the sensations.

As we discover this, we can more easily recognize the mental representations as mental representations, the sensations as sensations, and we are less blindly caught in the temporary appearance of a sense of self in the head area – or the body in general.

And this allows us to more easily notice our more fundamental nature as capacity for the world as it appears to us, and as what the world to us happens within and as.


In general, what do we find if we explore this for ourselves through, for instance, inquiry or basic meditation?

We may find that any sense of an “I” or observer or doer in the head area (or anywhere else) happens within the content of experience. It comes and goes like any other content. Since it comes and goes, it’s not what we more fundamentally are.

It happens within and as what we more fundamentally are.


This typical head-identification is, I assume, why Douglas Harding created the Headless experiments and the Headless Way.

If we are mostly identified with the head, then pointing out basic headless nature is the most direct remedy.

In our own first-person experience, we don’t have a head so we cannot be a head. There is a pink blob where my mind tells me the nose is. If I am in front of a mirror, there is a face out there in the mirror behind the glass. If I look at my mental images of myself, I see a head but that’s just a mental representation. That’s not me. Others may tell me I am this body and head, but I cannot find that in my own first-person experience.

I know this can easily sound silly, childish, and just like an oddity to mention at a party.

And if we explore it for ourselves, with sincerity and diligence, and see how it is to live from it, it can be profoundly transformative. It shifts our deepest sense of identity. It transforms our perception. It transforms how we live our life. And it, over time, transforms our human self and psyche.

Drawing: Self-portrait by Ernst Mach, 1886.

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Douglas Harding: You are your own authority! Don’t believe a word that other people tell you about who you really are

You are your own authority! Don’t believe a word that other people tell you about who you really are, not even Douglas…. especially not Douglas!

– Douglas Harding

I would change this quote slightly. I would say….

Allow your own sincere noticing to be your authority. Don’t believe a word anyone tells you about who you really are, and especially not what your own thoughts tell you!

– Mystery of Existence

This means not indulging in wishful thinking, ideologies, hangups, and so on. And instead follow what we notice when we explore with sincerity, receptivity, discipline, and persistence, and perhaps the guidance of structured inquiry – including the Headless experiments.

Clarification: When it comes to discovering what we are in our own first-person experience, it’s good to not trust any story, including what our own thoughts tell us. In other areas of life, it’s more of a balance between a healthy trust in our own faculties, gut feeling, and experience, and receptivity to the validity in other views.


Transubstantiation is, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, “the change of the whole substance of bread into the substance of the Body of Christ and of the whole substance of wine into the substance of the Blood of Christ.


As far as I remember, Douglas Harding (Headless Way), mentioned transubstantiation. I hold bread or a glass of wine, I move it into my mouth, and it disappears. It becomes what I am, which is awake capacity for it all. It becomes Spirit.

It’s perhaps more accurate to say it never was not Spirit. To me, the bread and wine always is what I am, it’s awake capacity temporarily taking the form of bread and wine. It happens within and as what I am.

So the real transubstantiation happens within us. It’s the shift from taking bread and wine as only bread and wine, to recognize we are capacity for it, and they happen within and as what we are.

There is ultimately no real transubstantiation since it never was not that. It never did not happen within and as what we are. It never did not happen within and as Spirit.

Bread and wine here stand is for all of existence, they are metaphors for all there is as content of our experience. And Christ here stands for what we are, for our true nature and possibly the true nature of all existence. (There is also a unique quality or characteristic of the Christ energy/consciousness, which we can get to know through Christ-centered practices like the Heart/Christ Prayer and Christ meditation.)

Is this life an illusion?

In Ram Dass: Going Home, Ram Dass says that life is an illusion. For him, close to death, it’s natural that he looks on the illusion side of our perception. And I am sure he also took care of his life in all the ways most people do.

So is life an illusion?

The answer, as so often, is yes and no and it depends.


Yes, life and existence and we are not exactly as most people perceive it. Some of the most fundamental assumptions are not entirely correct.

Our world happens within and as what we are, it happens within and as consciousness. Our fundamental nature is awake space wide open for the world.

Our thoughts are questions about the world, temporary guides. There is some validity in each of them, and we often need some discernment and experience to tease out how there is validity in them. And there is no inherent or absolute or final truth in any of them.

So if we take ourselves to primarily be a human in the world, and if we hold thoughts and assumptions as the final truth, then that’s living in a kind of illusion, and it’s an inherently painful illusion.


And no, life is not exactly an illusion. Many of the conventional views have validity. Our actions have consequences and we have to live with and deal with these consequences. We need to be good stewards of our own life.

If we take “life is an illusion” as a belief, make up stories about it, and live as if nothing matters, life will give us feedback. And, hopefully, it will encourage us to take a closer look.


As so often, we have to use our discernment to see the validity in both sides of the “life’s an illusion” statement – how and when it’s valid and not.

For ourselves, it matters a lot how we perceive the world. If we find our true nature, it sets our whole life in a very different context. To the extent we see it and live from it, it can be liberating and healing.

As for our life in the world, many of the practical conventional views have validity and can be invaluable and useful for us, especially if we hold them lightly.


I often talk about who and what we are. What we are is what our experience – of the world and ourselves – happens within and as. And who we are is this human being in the world.

Another way to talk about this is from the Headless Way and Douglas Harding, where he differentiates what we are to ourselves, and who we are to others and in the world.

To ourselves, we are capacity for the world. We are this awake space our world happens within and as. Here, we see that many of the assumptions of our culture and most people are not entierly true. What we most essentially are is not what the world tells us we are. Many of the fundamental assumptions about the world and how we should live our lives are just that, assumptions, guesses, and based in fear and unquestioned beliefs.

To others, we are a human being in the world. And as a human being in the world, it works best if we do all the usual things to take care of our life: brush our teeth, get enough sleep, eat healthily, get exercise, be kind to ourselves and others, take care of our family, make enough money for a good life, save, plan for the future, find a way to live that is more likely to benefit the larger whole, and so on.

Both are valid and true. They are two sides of the same coin.

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How is it to say YES to what’s here?

I love the Headless Way, and I have tremendously enjoyed reading the graphic novel from 2016 called The Man with No Head: The Life and Ideas of Douglas Harding. The two pages above especially caught my attention.


How do we shift to actively welcoming what is and a wholehearted YES to what is?

There are several answers to this.

Here and now, how can we find this YES?

One way we can all explore it is through asking ourselves:

How is it to actively want what is here now?

Can I say YES to what’s here? Can I say YES to this feeling?

Can I say YES to the no in me?

This opens our mind to that possibility, we find some curiosity about it, and we may shift into the part(s) of us that already welcome it and say a YES to what is.

Befriending suffering parts of us

The suffering parts living in separation consciousness are what in us doesn’t welcome what is and says NO to what is. So befriending these help with finding our YES, as does inviting in healing for these parts of us.

This takes time and is an ongoing process, and it does prepare the ground for the YES to be more wholehearted, natural, and available in more and more situations.

Recognize as the divine

We can recognize all generally as the divine. And yet, when suffering parts of us surface, it may be easy to “forget” at some level that these too are the divine and get caught up in a no to the discomfort or suffering.

When this happens, I can ask the questions above.

I can ask: How is it to see this experience as a flavor of the divine?

And I can recognize that it’s all happening within and as what I am, and take time to take it in and let it reorganize something in me.

Maturing over time

Something in us shifts and matures over time – through seeing, living from it, noticing when we don’t live from it, and so on. It’s a kind of maturation process.

To the extent we stay involved with the awakening process and go beyond what’s familiar with us, it seems that we find a deeper and more sincere willingness in us to shift, to actively find a welcome for what is and a wholehearted YES.

Conscious commitment

Profound Declaration of Intent: My desire is that all shall be as it is since all flows from my True Nature.

Douglas Harding, quoted in The Man With No Head

Finally, we have conscious commitment. When we are ready, we may find and set a conscious commitment to actively welcome what is, and find a YES to it. This becomes a practice.


The two pages from The Man With No Head touch on some big themes in my own life, in addition to the YES:

There is a difference between seeing what we are and living from it.

There is a difference between generally seeing it and all our human parts being on board with it.

And there is a difference between passively accepting what is and actively wanting it and saying YES to it.

All these themes are connected.

Seeing what we are

First is the seeing. In some cases, that can be the easy part, especially if it comes through pointers and inquiry or if it comes spontaneously.

Living from it

Then it’s the living from it. That’s an ongoing and lifelong process. If all is ONE, how do I live in this situation?

What is it that makes living from it in all situations challenging? It may be that we “forget” and don’t notice what we are. And equally or more often, it’s because parts of our human self still operating from separation consciousness are triggered.

The way we perceive and interpret a situation trigger unhealed, unexamined, and unloved parts of us. A bubble of separation consciousness comes to the surface.

This is not wrong. It’s part of the process. These parts of us want to join in with the awakening. They want to reorganize – heal and awaken – within this new context.

The question is: how do we relate to these suffering parts of us when they visit? Do we try to slam the door? Do we join in with their fearful stories and reactivity? Or do we meet them as suffering beings that want healing? Do we meet them with kindness, receptivity, and understanding? Do we create a safe space for them to be seen, felt, loved, and heal?

How is it to say YES to these parts of us that say NO to what’s here?

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Wanting what’s here

I just (re)listened to the audiobook version of On Having No Head by Douglas Harding, mostly because it’s a relief to listen to someone taking such a simple, grounded, sane, and pragmatic approach to awakening (!)

Towards the end, he talks about actively wanting what’s here.

Why would we want what’s here?

We are capacity for what’s here – our human self and the wider world as it appears to us. It happens within and as what we are. It’s us in whatever form it happens to take here and now. So why not welcome it?

What’s here is here. It’s too late to do something about it. So why struggle with it? Struggle only creates suffering. It makes more sense to actively want what’s here. This also frees us up to be engaged and work on changing situations as needed.

The wanting-what’s-here pointer is a touchstone. It shows us how we relate to what’s coming up in us. Is it easy for us to genuinely welcome it? Or is there an impulse in us to avoid it or make it go away? And do we join in with that impulse or do we notice that it too happens within what we are capacity for? Having the pointer in the back of our mind can help us notice when suffering – unawake and unhealed – parts of us are triggered, and also whether we join in with it or notice ourselves as what it happens within and as – just like anything else.

How does it look in practice?

It’s a welcoming of what’s already here because we can’t do anything about it and struggling with it doesn’t help or make any sense. What’s coming up for our human self is already here. The situation our human self is in is already here. So why not join in with it and actively want it? Also, it’s what we already are so why not welcome it as another expression of the creativity of what we are?

It does not mean to be passive or resigned. We can still actively work to change the situation and circumstances we are in – or someone else is in. Often, wanting what’s here frees up our response. Instead of reacting we can respond a little more intentionally. There is access to more kindness, clarity, wisdom, and creativity.

How can we find this active welcoming?

When we notice ourselves as capacity for what’s here, including anything coming up in our human self, it’s easier to notice it all as happening within and as what we are and find a genuine and active welcoming and wanting of what’s here.

Said another way, the welcoming and actively wanting it is already here. It’s what we already are. So when we find ourselves as capacity for what’s here, we also find this welcoming and wanting.

Why don’t we always notice what we are?

Perhaps we haven’t noticed. Or we have noticed but don’t take it seriously. Or we don’t see any practical use of it.

Or we do notice and we take it seriously, and yet sometimes get pulled into old beliefs, emotional issues, and traumas, and “forget” for a while.

How can we notice what we are?

To have an initial glimpse of what we are, and to keep noticing in daily life, it helps to have some pointers. For me, the most effective one has been the Headless Way, Big Mind process (based on Voice Dialog and Zen), and Living Inquiries (a modern version of traditional Buddhist inquiry).

How can we train this noticing even when emotional issues come up?

There are two elements that stands out to me.

One is how we relate to what’s coming up in this human self. Do we get caught in it or do we notice it as happening within and as what we are?

The other is inviting in healing and awakening for any suffering parts of us surfacing, the one still operating from separation consciousness.

These two mutually support each other.

Noticing what we are while bringing presence into the suffering parts helps them relax and feel seen and loved. They receive what they need and want.

And inviting these suffering parts of us to heal and awaken makes it easier to notice what we are even when they are triggered. Some or most of the charge goes out of them.

I have written a lot about this in other articles so won’t go into it here.

What if we notice the shift is close?

If we are in a situation where we notice that the shift into actively welcoming what’s here is close, then a small pointer or question may be helpful. For instance:

How would it be to want what’s here?

Even if there are things coming up in my human self, I can often find this shift. And I can still notice what’s coming up in me and later get to know it better and invite in healing and awakening for it.

How does the overall process look?

Douglas Harding talks about seven stages or phases. I’ll just mention a very simplified version here.

First, there is an initial glimpse or noticing. This is always spontaneous although it can come without any apparent preparation or through inquiry or other spiritual practices.

Then, there is taking this seriously and wishing to continue exploring it and how to live from it in our daily life.

A part of this exploration is to investigate what happens when the mind gets pulled into old separation consciousness. We get more experience in noticing ourselves as capacity through more and more experiences, states, and life situations. And we invite in healing and awakening for the parts of us still stuck in suffering and separation consciousness.

As we keep doing this, the noticing becomes more stable and continues more often even when emotional issues surface.

Is Douglas Harding the only one talking about this?

Not at all, it’s common for mystics from all times and traditions to talk about it. Christian mystics may talk about God’s and my will becoming one. Byron Katie talks about loving what is. And so on.

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Douglas Harding: On Having No Head

I just started listening to the audio version of On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious by Douglas Harding, narrated by Richard Lang.

Although it’s several years since I discovered this book, Douglas Harding, and the Headless experiments, it feels fresh and new. And I am reminded of how much I enjoy and love this approach to finding what we really are.

The approach is simple, direct, honest, and pragmatic, and can be profoundly transformative for anyone sincerely exploring it.

The best way to begin may be with this book, or the Headless Way website.

Douglas Harding: I find that I am not a thing /person /Douglas at all

By turning my attention around 180° I find that I am not a thing /person /Douglas at all but pure awake capacity in which the world is happening. This insight is not remarkable or world-shattering , no pillars of light break from the heavens , no “peak experience” overtakes me. It is all very ordinary, OBVIOUS – and immediately accessible.

– Douglas Harding

For more information on the wonderfully simple headless experiments, check out the Headless Way website. They work very well for some of us. (For me, some work better than others although they all have a different angle which is helpful.)

The Man With No Head – Douglas Harding Documentary (video)

A documentary about The Man With No Head, Douglas Harding. I love the headless experiments and Douglas Harding’s way of talking about who and what we are. The documentary is created by Richard Lang.

Eyes of the World

I find it very beautiful – because it’s true, in my experience – how Douglas Harding puts it.

In the eyes of the world, as others see me, I am a man, Norwegian, of a certain age and so on.

In my own immediate experience, I am none of that. I am capacity for the world, I am that which all experience – including those identities – happens within and as.

And yet, those stories, those identities, are sometimes very useful stories and pointers. They enrich what I am. They allow me to function in the world.

Headless interview with Anne Seward

I was a yes, buter, I took a long time to accept it. Under pressure, I would admit it. I would often go over and there were lots of friends who were obviously high on this thing, and I couldn’t help thinking that what I saw couldn’t be it because it didn’t make me high, it was so banal, there was nothing to it. RL: So what happened? I was yes, buting yet again, and Douglas (Harding) said there is some resistance. And I said, or at least I thought, no, I am not resisting, I really want to see this, I really want to get this. And it was very shortly after that, maybe just a day or two, that I was hanging up the washing, and I noticed that between these two hands, there was no head, no face, no brain, nothing, except the washing and the world, so I just said to myself OK I see it, stop messing around, accept it. It was very low key. Then it had a chance to start sinking in.
– Anne Seward, 7:10 – 8:45.

See www.headless.org for more info and the experiments.