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Freeing Yourself from Self-Consciousness: 

Brentyn J. Ramm

Douglas Harding and Jean-Paul Sartre on Being Authentic

This article first published on Daily Philosophy

Feeling awkwardly self-conscious is something that we’ve all experienced. For many, this feeling is so prevalent as to be debilitating in social situations. This is known as morbid self-consciousness. In some situations, like public speaking, pretty much everyone feels anxious. There is even a commonly cited study showing that people fear public speaking more than death![i]  The reality is actually a bit more complicated[ii] but the fact that public speaking is up there with death as a fear really says something about the extreme dread which this prospect can invoke. 

On this, I would like to introduce an experiential approach developed by Douglas Harding which can be helpful for freeing oneself from self-consciousness. Harding was a philosopher and mystic. Up to his late 20s/early 30s, Harding suffered from morbid self-consciousness. He was brought up in a fundamentalist Christian sect, the Exclusive Plymouth Brethren, in which he wasn’t allowed to read literature, newspapers or watch films. Any books other than the Bible and a few school books were liable to be burnt. Laughing out loud was actively discouraged if not outright forbidden.[iii] When he broke away from the sect at the age of 21, as far as his family were concerned he was dead to them and was destined for hell. No wonder he felt self-conscious and ill-at-ease in the world. He particularly didn’t like his nose. He felt that it was too big.[iv] He was shame-faced around other people. But all of that changed when he had a radical shift in his conscious experience of himself. It happened when he noticed that he couldn’t see his head. 

The young Douglas Harding was suffering from a particularly bad case of what the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre called bad faith. According to Sartre you are radically free. You cannot be pre-defined. You are continually inventing yourself whether you recognise this or not. For Sartre being self-conscious, thinking of yourself and acting as if you are a mere object is a form of false consciousness. You aren’t really an object at all, you only think that you are. That’s just how you appear to others. You are actually a pure consciousness, a kind of 'nothingness', that cannot be constrained or predicted – a form of pure spontaneity. 

Sartre spent much of his time smoking his pipe in cafes and observing life. That was how he did philosophy. To illustrate bad faith he gives the example of a waiter he observed in a cafe: 

Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton… We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe.[v] 

Sartre, as with the other phenomenologists like Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, was concerned with how one encounters others in personal relationships.[vi] Why aren’t I a solipsist with the sense that everyone else is just a picture in my consciousness? Sartre’s answer was that in a sense you have no choice. In particular, in human relations I encounter other’s subjectivity directly when they look at me, or what Sartre called 'The Look'. To illustrate this he gives a famous example of being caught looking through a keyhole.[vii] Whilst I am there immersed in the scene, I am completely free. But then suppose another catches me in the act. I suddenly experience myself as an object for the other. This profound experience of shame is inseparable from seeming to be a mere object for the other. For Sartre this means that human relationships are primarily based upon conflict. They are an unstable dynamic in which you are either subject or object. No wonder he thought that hell was other people. We could say that hell is being constantly aware of how you look to other people.

This raises the problem of how we can deal with problematic feelings of self-consciousness in our social interactions. Sartre criticises our tendency to think of ourselves as mere objects in the world, but he gives little advice on how exactly to overcome this inauthenticity. How do we recognise being an absolutely free consciousness if indeed that’s what we really are? Do we have to religiously study his notoriously difficult 800 page philosophical tome Being and Nothingness? Instead, let’s return to Douglas Harding and how he overcame his own acute self-consciousness. In particular, I will guide you through some of the simple experiments he developed for recognising your essential non-thing-like nature. 

The shift in Harding’s self-perception came when he noticed that he couldn’t see his face, instead he saw the world. Try looking down at your own body and notice that you see your feet, legs, hands, arms and torso, but not your head. As the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty described it: ‘In the matter of living appearance, my visual body includes a large gap at the level of the head’.[viii] ‘So, what?’ you might ask. Why is this significant? 

For Harding this was profoundly significant. He saw that in his direct first-person experience he was looking out of a kind of nothingness here, not a head. But rather than a mere void, this space was aware and contained the given world. He wasn’t a mere thing in the world up against others, but in reality he was radically open to the world and others. He described seeing this as having ‘dropped an intolerable burden’.[ix] To notice this for yourself please carry out the following experiments. Try to set aside beliefs, memory and common sense and just go by what you see, as if for the first time: 

Experiment 1: Exploring the Gap

You know what it’s like for someone to put their hands past their head, but what is it like from your perspective? Hold up your hands in front of you as if you were holding a basketball. Notice the gap between your hands, and how it contains part of the room. Now very slowly bring your hands back. Notice how your hands grow larger and the gap between them also grows. They begin to blur and finally disappear altogether – into what? For me they just disappear into a void. Is it like that for you? Bring them forwards again and watch as they reappear. Repeat this a few times to get a sense of what this seemingly empty (yet full) region is like.

‘But I can see my nose!’ You might say. What about Douglas Harding’s nose that he was so self-conscious of? The best way to answer this question is to investigate what your nose is actually like for yourself:

Experiment 2: Nose Blurs

Try opening and closing one eye to see what your ‘nose’ is like. I call it my nose, but remember that we are setting aside common sense. Is what you see like what is in the middle of someone’s face? I find that it seems to be a large pink translucent blur that stretches from the top to the bottom of the scene.  In fact, there are two of them, and they switch from side to side. Are they attached to a head in your current experience or are they floating in space? When you look straight ahead perhaps the nose blurs disappear or perhaps there is a slight blur. In any case, it’s what is behind the nose blurs that we’re interested in.

Experiment 3: Holding Your Ears

Gently take hold of your ears with your hands. Focus on the hand-blurs in the periphery of your vision. Now please consider the following questions. On present evidence is there a head between these blurs? Are there any eyes? Are there any colours or shapes? Is there a head? Now attend to your ‘ear’ sensations. How far apart are they? Is this a head sized gap or is it world-wide? Is the gap visually bounded by anything or is it boundless? Is there on present evidence a head between your ears or the world itself? Are the head sensations between your ‘ears’ currently forming an opaque head-box in which you are trapped or are the sensations transparent and in the same space as the scene? Isn't this 'nothingness' here also awake to itself and the scene?

What has this to do with the true or authentic self?[x] One way of understanding what this means is to consider an analogy – first-person shooter video games. One might not think of these games as containing any profound philosophical insights, however they are a rather accurate depiction of what it’s like to be you from the first-person visual perspective. What they show is not the head of the character, but the scene. Perhaps it shows some arms holding a weapon and occasionally some legs. So in the analogy, you are like the unmoving screen on which all of the action happens. When you play these games the scene always moves, not the screen. Just like in first-person shooters, you as the first-person are the unmoving screen on which things happen – at least this is the claim to be tested. Your first-person stillness is particularly noticeable when you are driving and you see the road opening out and trees, houses and light poles moving past. (Here is a video that makes the point about your first-person stillness even more salient).

According to Harding root of the human condition is that we ‘thing’ ourselves. We do it by habitually imagining ourselves from the outside, but this habit can be unlearned. Harding applies this to the case of Sartre’s waiter:

Let us take up the story. If, instead of playing at being a waiter in a café, he were to see that in his own immediate experience he is the café itself, along with all that is going on there (including those limbs of his, going about their own business), why, this phony and ineffectual waiter would turn into the opposite sort. If, instead of pretending to be a thing, he were to come off it and be no-thing: if he were to be himself for himself, he would be for others one of the best waiters in Paris instead of one of the worst. True to his reality, he would appear false to none.[xi] 

This practice of noticing your first-person facelessness has applications to the problem of being overly self-conscious. In particular, notice that the lived experience of talking to someone is not of being face-to-face, but face-to-no-face. You can't help but disappear in favour of others. For Harding it took a few years to stabilise this new form of self-perception, after which it became a lasting cure for his problematic feelings of self-consciousness.[xii] Freed from imagining a face in the middle of his world, he could once again take an interest in the people before him, just like he did as a child.

This perspective can also be applied to cases where you might reasonably be expected to be highly self-conscious – when you are speaking from a stage. Here the remedy is noticing that from your perspective the audience is really looking at 'nothing'. You are just space for the audience, your voice and any jitters that arise. In fact, the sea of faces are the ones that are on display. They are how you are currently manifesting. Of course, self-consciousness will still naturally arise. The goal of the 'headless' practice isn’t to try to inhibit this or to try to forget what you look like. But rather to notice that you are space (capacity) for those feelings and imaginings as well as the world. At least that is the claim for you to investigate.

For Sartre, the look of the other almost inevitably makes me into an object for them. Harding, however, pointed out that this process can be short-circuited by noticing your first-person facelessness. This can be noticed even when someone is looking directly at me. How effective this is as a remedy for self-consciousness is of course something to test out for yourself. It’s been immensely helpful for me.

Taking notice of this perspective doesn’t mean losing sight of the fact that for others from over there (and for yourself in the mirror) you appear as a person. This is your third-person identity. Developing this identity was a profound developmental achievement and something you needed to be able to function in the social world. But what are for yourself? The claim for testing is that you are not merely a person. Your true authentic nature, your first-person identity, is not a person at all, but a space for everything that is happening, including all of those lovely people.[xiii]

[i] Watson, P. 1973, October 7. What people usually fear. The Sunday Times [London].

[ii] Dwyer, Karen & Davidson, Marlina M. 2012.  Is Public Speaking Really More Feared Than Death? Communication Research Reports, 29 (2), 99-107.

[iii] Harding, Douglas E. (1992). The Trial of the Man Who Said He Was God. London: Arkana. p. 361-262.

[iv] Harding, Douglas E. (2000). Face-to-no-face: Rediscovering Our Original Nature. Carlsbad: Inner Directions Publishing. p. 4-5.

[v] Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1978). Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York, NY, USA. p. 59.

[vi] For more detailed comparison of Harding, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty see my article Body, Self and Others Harding, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty on Intersubjectivity (freely available here).

[vii] Sartre (1978), p. 259-265.

[viii] Merleau-Ponty, M. (2002). Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge Classics. p. 108.

[ix] Harding, Douglas E. (1986). On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious. London: Arkana. p. 3.

[x] Of course, Sartre who thought of the self (or ego) as an object of consciousness would have rejected calling this non-personal consciousness our 'true self' (see Sartre's, The Transcendence of the Ego), but I take this to be merely a terminological difference.

[xi] Harding, Douglas E. (1999). Head off Stress. London: The Shollond Trust. p. 11–12.

[xii] Harding (2000), p. 15.

[xiii] Ramm, B. J. 2021. Body, Self and Others: Harding, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty on Intersubjectivity. Philosophies, 6(4), 100. Section 9.




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