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Exploring the face

Sitting BearWhen I lead people through a body relaxation, I tend to spend a lot of time on the face. I am not sure why I started to do this, I just found myself talking more and more about softening and relaxing in the face. Perhaps it is because this is where we often see tension. It is the most public area of our bodies, where we are on display to the world.

We have a lot of control over our faces. We try to present a certain face to the world, and we are careful in case our facial expression gives us away. It is not only poker players who learn to control their faces.

However, it is hard to get the face to do what you want and to look natural at the same time. This is one reason why acting is a lot more difficult than it appears. It is hard make a smile convincing if the associated emotions are not there. So we might find we go through the day holding our face; we grin and bear it, as the expression goes.

  Think more of becoming aware of your face than forcing it to relax.   

We might find that we hold our face not only against the outer world, but also with regard to our own emotions, though perhaps this is a particularly English trait in the form of the stiff upper lip. The English are not the only ones, of course, as I found when I lived in California, although the required expression there is a little different. People involved in retail, especially, always seem to be smiling, which their customers may find pleasant, though for someone from England it can be a little disconcerting.

So the face is a very good place to begin the process of relaxation. Think more of becoming aware of your face than forcing it to relax. Tell yourself that at least in meditation you don’t have to put on a face. Zen people sometimes talk about “finding your natural face before you were born.” As with rather a lot of Zen sayings, it’s a bit hard to know what this is getting at, but I find it a useful idea. Imagining your face before it was born suggests a sense of freedom from the pressures of daily life. It’s an encouragement to let go of world-weariness and relax into a space in which you are not subject to the judgment of the ego.

More pragmatically, try exploring your face with your hands. Be quite firm. Feel around the eye sockets with your fingers, feel into the hinge of the jaw and give your temples a firm rub. Try to get a sense of the shape of your skull. Move the jaw around, from side to side and up and down. Use your hands to encourage awareness in your face. Then just sit and imagine the face letting go. Don’t tell your face that it must relax, just imagine it softening.

  It was like a scene from a zombie movie … their faces didn’t work properly   

Imagine your face naturally expressing how you feel as you sit there, just as you are now. See if you can let go of your jaw a little, and let the tongue rest gently on the roof of your mouth, just behind the front teeth.

I haven’t said anything about the modern visual obsession with the face, the trend towards the normalization of face-lifts, botox, and the like. One of the strangest experiences of my life was a night-time bus ride from a motel on the edge of Las Vegas to the Strip. The bus was brightly lit and full of what appeared to be relatively youthful passengers. But there was something wrong, a feeling that all was not as it seemed.

It was like a scene from a zombie movie. I started to notice that their faces didn’t work properly, they didn’t move in the way the human face is meant to move. Then I noticed that many of these faces where supported by necks that appeared some decades older. It was a bizarre trip among the eternally youthful. It is odd to contrast this with those wonderful old photographs you can find of Native Americans, their faces lines like riverbeds, and full of self-blessing.


Paramananda Paramananda has been a member of the Western Buddhist Order since 1985, and is a widely respected meditation teacher.

He was chairman of the West London Buddhist Centre 1988–1993, and chairman of the San Francisco Centre 1994–2002.

This essay is an extract from his 2007 book, The Body, published by Windhorse Publications.

Paramananda’s other books include Change Your Mind and A Deeper Beauty.

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Comment from Bill Buitendyk
Time: May 28, 2008, 9:51 pm

Thank you Paramananda. My face certainly shows some lessons, which I had to learn. And there is still room left for more.
Namaste. Bill

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Comment from Lucyoga
Time: May 29, 2008, 5:14 am

Just last night I was talking to someone about having a facelift or botox. The ethics of it trouble me – I’d like to think that I would not feel the need to spend so much money on me. On the other hand, the face and self confidence particularly amongst women are so linked. We need to replace the old, external forms of self confidence and self respect – those based around traditional religions, for example – with something else, something internally grounded, but just as meaningful as what we are replacing. This is what I’m working on now – a new meaning for self-respect. Shanti.

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Comment from Mariana Wilson
Time: May 29, 2008, 12:06 pm

I like my self including my face the way I’am; The wrincles and lines are there but that is part of nature, why should I try to look younger, different, I like look natural in every way in my inside outer as well the outside.
LLL
Mariana

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Comment from Jose
Time: May 29, 2008, 11:13 pm

From my personal experience, it works wonders if one just try to put up a Monalisa style smile on the face. I can feel
my whole body relaxed at the same time. We don’t have to work on relaxing other body parts individually.

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Comment from David Shalom
Time: June 4, 2008, 9:49 am

Interesting to add that (neurologically) the cortical representation of the face is disproportionally large.
(See an illustration of the “motor or sensory homunculus”)

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: June 4, 2008, 10:11 am

That’s a really interesting point, David.

For those unfamiliar with the sensory homunculus, here’s a classic image.

sensory homunculus

What this picture does is distort the human body to show how much of the brain in responsible for sensing each part. The size of each body part becomes proportionate to the amount of the brain involved in sensing that body part. So the hands and lips in particular have a disproportionate amount of the brain monitoring what goes on there.

The motor homunculus shows how much of the brain is responsible for moving each part of the body, and it’s even more distorted — the lips and hands in particular are enormously enlarged.

While I find that the face does become very important in meditation, I’ve also found that interesting things tend to take place in the hands as we begin to be more concentrated and as the mind calms down. Sometimes in fact the hands and lips do appear subjectively to become enlarged, just like in the illustrations of homunculi.

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Comment from David Shalom
Time: June 7, 2008, 4:09 am

So these somatic sensations may simply represent a growing awareness of ones own neurological structure through
meditation. I shall look out for this in my own practice and would be interested to know if this is widely reported.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: June 7, 2008, 6:33 am

That was what I was hinting at. In fact, prompted by Jill Bolte Taylor‘s account, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what the neurological correlates of meditative experiences may be.

For example, the five hindrances to meditation (negative affect combined with inner talk) presumably correlate with activity in the amygdala and elsewhere. As the hindrances cease, we know that there’s decreased amygdala activity and an increase in the activity of the prefrontal lobes, which are associated with self-consciousness and positive emotion. It might even be possible to correlate specific hindrances with activity in specific areas of the brain.

In second Dhyana onwards, to take another example, there is a cessation of inner talk, which presumably would correlate with markedly decreased left-brain activity. At the same time there’s an upsurge of “priti” (physical arousal) which may indicate increased right-brain activity.

There have been reports that a loss of the sense of physical boundaries (which we experience in the arupa-jhanas) correlates to the cessation of activity in a part of the brain that’s to do with spatial awareness.

The research on all this is just beginning, and I look forward to seeing where it takes us. I think the end result will be an appreciation that Buddhist meditative experiences are human and not “religious” events — they’re experiences open to any human being by dint of our “wiring.”

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Comment from David Shalom
Time: June 9, 2008, 5:55 am

. . . I can see I’ll have to revise my neuroanatomy . . .!

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Comment from Graeme
Time: January 21, 2010, 11:32 pm

I am neither pleased nor displeased with my face … I simply am with a face.

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