Let’s look at a powerful meditation exercise you can use to discover your original face – the Self beyond the self.
Often the Original Face sounds like a philosophical idea. Sure, we’re not who we think we are. You are not your thoughts. There is no little you in there. But do you really see it? Can you contact who you really are beyond the mirage of self, or is it just a cute idea?
Let me ask you a question: Who is reading this article?
Well, duh. You are, aren’t you? But wait, who are you? What is that thing that you are?
Can you locate it? Is it behind the eyes somewhere, looking out at the screen?
Original Face and Our Experience Of Self
Our typical experience of self is a combination of sensations in the head, mental chatter, mental images, and emotions. It feels like we’re in the head somewhere, right?
Let’s take a look at your experience of your head. How do you know you have a head, in your direct first-person experience?
Here’s another way to frame the issue: imagine you didn’t have any mirrors or reflections and no photos – how would you know you have a head? What in your direct experience tells you that you have one? And where are you in all this? Can you see this thing called you somewhere inside?
If you look carefully at your first-person experience, you’ll realise that it feels you are “in there” somewhere. It’s almost as though your head were a big empty box with this little thing called you knocking around inside. It feels like that is the case. This sense of self appears early in life and becomes solidified with time.
But think about that for a moment. Isn’t that completely absurd? What on earth does this little thing called You look like, exactly? Have you ever seen that You?
It is the sense of having a solid head that creates the feeling that we are lodged in there somewhere. It brings the impression that we are separate from everything that’s going on around us. We forget who we really are, our Original Face.
In this mindfulness exercise I want to show you that this feeling of rigidity is an illusion, as is the sense that you are behind it all, peering out on the world.
Sure, other people also look at your eyes, reinforcing the sense that you are there somewhere as a permanent thing. You look in the mirror, and it certainly feels like you are looking back at yourself. It is a carefully construted illusion, all right, but an illusion nonetheless.
The Original Face and Your Experience of The Head
An easy way to test if you have a head is simply to touch it with your hands. And sure enough, we bring our hand to our head and confirm there is something there. But notice that you constantly experience many sensations in the head: from the feeling of your nose, your eyes and your forehead, to emotional sensations like tiredness, sadness, subtle irritation, joy and so on.
And more broadly, your head has a rough sensory outline in your direct awareness. There is also a sense of centrality – it seems you are in the middle of everything going on around you. The physical sensations of your head play a huge role in creating this sense.
Beyond just sensations, though, you have mental images of your face and head. These appear and disappear constantly in your first-person awareness. If you’ve never practiced mindfulness before, this discovery might shock you. That’s normal. Past a certain point in life, we forget that those mental images of ourselves are merely images, mirages, and we come to identify with them unknowingly, forgetting the Original Face.
And we also have our mental talk: the internal monkey chatter that is continually commenting, criticising, calculating, planning, remembering and fantasising. This is a huge contributor to the sense of the head. Notice too that these thoughts arise in the middle of your awareness, right about where your head is.
These sensations, images and thoughts are undoubtedly real. We experience them more or less constantly throughout the day.
But here is the kicker.
It turns out that when these are experienced together without presence, they weave together and create the appearance of both a head and of the little person living inside it – you. It is an appearance, a mirage, a magic trick. It is like an optical illusion in your first-person experience. Experience that, and you’re getting closer to realising the Original Face.
Meditation for Discovering the Original Face
Let’s get to the core of this article, then: using mindfulness meditation to weaken and ultimately unravel this tangled web of sensations so you can discover. This is a self-inquiry practice that relies on Unified Mindfulness, so it is crucial you read my article that introduces the UM system.
I’ve called this practice “Focus on Head”. This is because we apply mindfulness skills to our first-person experience of the head.
Let’s first categorise our “head-related” sensory experience. Which categories do we include in our practice?
See Head: Mental images of face in relation to environment.
Hear Head: Mental talk you experience (when I practice this, I include all mental talk because it is so prevalent and so tied to sense of self).
Feel Head: All sensations associated with face, whether emotional or purely physical.
You then run 3-step cycles on these three categories while allowing all other sensory experience to come and go. Now let’s look at the three skills of mindfulness and how to cultivate them.
Concentration: Here we are attempting to maintain our attention on the sense of the head. When your attention wanders, return it. Use labels to help maintain concentration. Tip: you can practice maintaining concentration for a sustained period on lots of short-lived phenomena, or keeping it fixed on long-lasting sensations, or a mixture.
Sensory Clarity: Really try to parse mental images of self (See), from mental chatter (Hear), from body sensations associated with the head (Feel) . This is crucial for seeing through the illusion of separate self. Labelling helps you to do so.
Equanimity: Allow sense of self living inside the head to be there. Don’t repress it, don’t grab onto it. This is tricky and in reality you may well notice a tendency to grab onto the sense of self. It is like a baby with a dummy or a dog with a bone. Eventually the baby grows up and needs to abandon the dummy, but it doesn’t want to. It’s too comforting. Here’s a quick tip for inducing equanimity on demand: consciously relax the muscles in the face.
Organising the Practice
I highly recommend splitting the practice session into periods as so:
Period 1: See Head, Hear Head, Feel Head
Period 2: See Head
Period 3: Hear Head
Period 4: Feel Head
Period 5: See Head, Hear Head, Feel Head
5 periods x 3 minutes each = 15 minutes session time
5 periods x 6 minutes each = 30 minutes
5 periods x 12 minutes each = 60 minutes
A powerful alternative is to single out one category and spend an entire session working with it.
Tips For Practicing When Sitting
I would highly recomend doing this practice every day for 30 days while sitting before practicing it in movement. Let me share some tips for practicing this Focus on Head exercise.
- You will experience the sense that you are in the middle of the room. Penetrate that sense using the 3-step process.
- If you practice with eyes open, you will see images of yourself with your eyes open; if you practice eyes closed, it is likely you will have your eyes closed in those images.
- When sitting still, it’s easier to go really deep into the sense of a head – try to detect the most subtle head-related mental images, thoughts and body sensations you can. This tests and strengthens your sensory clarity.
- Practicing in stillness with eyes open prepares you for practice in motion, and it helps you understand how your self sense is located in relation to your surroundings.
Tips For Practicing In Motion
After some practice with sitting, you can begin to practice this as you go about your daily life. You can do this when walking outside, during conversations, when cooking and cleaning, and so on. Get creative! Applying this when your sense of self is strongest is a powerful way to accelerate your progress.
Here are some inside tips on doing this exercise in motion:
- You’ll notice as you walk around that your sense of self is centralised. It seems that you are somewhere in the head, looking out on the world as it moves around you.
- It is easier to get lost in the self sense when practicing in motion. This is a huge test of your concentration abilities.
- If we apply this exercise, we see that this sense of separation from the changing sights, sounds and sensations around us is basically an illusion.
- Presence of others can inflame this sense of self. Use this practice to penetrate the appearance of separation from them
The Power of this Exercise
This is a powerful exercise for untangling and freeing all the habitual patterns in ourselves that give rise to this sense of self. When you don’t fully experience the head, it feels like you observe with your head. It feels like the world is bumping into you, and your thoughts and emotional reactions reflect this sense of alienation and distance. You literally identify with your head!
This practice goes right to the heart of the matter. It goes right to the heart of the sensations you have been identified with for your entire life. It might sound ridiculous to say we are identified with sensations, but seasoned meditators contact the truth of that. This sense of a separate self comes on very early in life and becomes so habitual that we forget that it is a construction, an amalgamation of sensations, rather than a solid thing.
This practice helps us to find the Original Face, or develop witnessing mind, untying us from the Gross state of consciousness and helping us experience The Witness state.
In the Witness state, You see that these thoughts, sensations and phenomena create the sense of the head with you behind or within it. These sensations are very real, but what they appear to create is not real. The phenomena themselves, even the dense physical sensations of the face, are actually ephimeral and transparent, and we become aware of this when we bring CCE to them.
What’s left? Your Original Face, your True Self – the empty, blank, personal-yet-impersonal, transparent awareness that Sees everything come and go.
But this exercise can even take us beyond the Witness state and into Non-Dual.
To do so, try to detect the sense of meditator. Whatever you detect it to be is merely another sensory experience. What See, Feel, Hear sensations create this sense of there being a meditator?
If we do this enough, we realise that there really is no meditator. We penetrate through all the sensory noise and realise it all to be part of a Oneness.
Our head collapses, our sense of sense “spills out” into our senses. We merge with whatever we are experiencing – we see another person and they’re no longer separate from us. Instead, they are right where we thought our head was. We look at a tree and its leaves move within us.
Our head becomes our entire sensory field, all sitting “on top” of us, where our head used to be. This can reach stunning levels, where sense of self expands to all phenomena you are aware of, a profound oneness of your awareness and sense of self with everything in your awareness.
Sound crazy? Go and practice this Head Deconstruction exercise, and with time you will come to experience what I am talking about here.
Again, before trying this Original Face practice yourself, make sure to visit my introductory post on Unified Mindfulness. You might also like another post explaining the major states of human consciousness, which include Gross, Witness and Non-Dual. That article puts this practice into a bigger framework.
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