Posts by Paramananda

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.

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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“Gesture of Awareness,” by Charles Genoud

Gesture of Awareness, by Charles GenoudHow useful can books be in stimulating spiritual realization, when such realization must be grounded in experience? Paramananda takes a skeptical — yet appreciative — look at a new book attempting to pointing the way to non-duality.

It seems a little ironic that I find myself in two minds about Genoud’s book — ironic because this slim volume is all about “being” in one mind. It is not that I in any way disagree with what Genoud is trying to point the reader towards, which is the essential non-dual nature of reality. It is more that I am just a little skeptical that such “pointings” are of much use when they appear in a generalized form such as a book.

We all love those Zen stories along the lines of the Master giving the student a sharp whack and the student waking up from his deluded state. What we tend to forget is that the student has in all likelihood been sitting zazen for eight hours a day for the last ten years, with the Master observing him closely, before he administers the “enlightening” blow.

What concerns me then is the effect of such “direct” methods on those that are not ripe for the blow. Here I am of course risking being thought of as some sort of spiritual elitist, which particularly in our modern culture is often viewed with much disdain.

As I have started on this track I might as well nail my colors to the mast: I, for instance, felt the incredible popular “The Power of Now,” by Ekhart Tolle, probably sent people up the garden path. It might be that someone could attain “insight” if hit over the head with the book at just the right time but I do not think that they will do so by reading it. There is not only a paradox at the heart of spiritual “truth,” there is also one at the heart of such books, which is along the lines of: Those who think that they have “got it” have certainly not got “it.” Moreover I fear that what they have got is just a more sophisticated ego.

Genoud does, however, attempt to avoid appealing to its readers’ tendency towards inflation (a tendency we all have) and his approach is both subtle and intriguing. His book is probably as good as a book of this sort can be. In fact it is very good. It is elegantly written with a visual and poetic form. What is most appealing to me about it is that it attempts to help the reader realize the truth of “emptiness” through direct experience of the body. Here Genoud is, I feel, on to something very important.

As I feel that the majority of people in the West who take up spiritual practice are dis-embodied: that is they are not in an intimate feeling relationship to their own bodies. If I am only partially correct any spiritual approach that does not address the body is unlikely to bear fruit.

However there is an aspect of the book that I did find problematic, besides the general point I have made above, and this is to do the relationship between the body and the imagination. Genoud seemed to have no place for the imagination. It seems to me that it is the imagination that links the felt experience of the body to the “thought” experience of the mind. This being the case there is no spiritual life, no compassion, without the imagination, Our ability to feel compassion depends on being able to feel our own suffering and then through an act of imagination, put ourselves in the shoes of others. I am not sure where the imagination is in Genoud’s approach. For a book that displayed such imagination in structure and form I felt that Genoud too readily dismisses, or at least neglects, the imagination.

However the book did make me feel that a retreat with its author would be a challenging and worthwhile experience. The style of the book is such that I feel a little like I was on retreat I do hope that people read it and then go and sit with its writer, who is clearly a teacher worth experiencing further.


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.

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

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Death, dying, and the Dharma

Paramananda
As a hospice volunteer Paramananda gave himself to caring for the dying. When he left he was no wiser about death but more aware of life.

It is 10am on a Tuesday morning. I am standing on the steps of an elegant Victorian house on Page Street in San Francisco. Tod is taking longer than normal to answer the doorbell. Just up the street on the opposite side of the road stands an impressive two-story brick building. The majority of buildings around here are constructed from wood, so this one stands out. If you look closely you can see the Star of David in the wrought-ironwork of the balcony railings. This is the famous San Francisco Zen Center, which in former years was a hostel for young Jewish women. It is famous partly because of its founder Shunryu Suzuki, whose wonderful book Zen Mind Beginners Mind is regarded by many as a modern classic on meditation.

Zen Center is also famous for Richard Baker, the charismatic and controversial successor to Suzuki. Much of Zen Center’s success was due to Baker’s drive and leadership, although he is mostly remembered as the defendant in a Zen version of impeachment, which wrestled the leadership from him. It is famous because it was in the right place at the right time. Its history includes the Beats and the hippies, state governors and presidential hopefuls.

It is also an important part of the history of the hospice movement in the US. The house where I found myself every Tuesday morning for three years was the Zen Guest House — a four-bedded hospice that grew out of the Zen Center’s experience of caring for terminally ill members of its own community. It is a place to die.

Eight years before I moved to San Francisco partly because I felt exhausted by a decade of Thatcherite Britain. Both the actual and the social climate of England seemed gray, without the promise of a brighter future. After 37 years of living in London, it was time for a change. I was invited to San Francisco to help establish a Buddhist center, in cooperation with a group of Americans who had, by various and unlikely coincidences, become interested in the teachings of Sangharakshita. I had been ordained by this remarkable Englishman in 1985.

For me, San Francisco was a city I had seen in movies; it was also the city of the Beats, and a new way of living: the city of love, where flower power first blossomed. San Francisco drew many who felt alienated from the mainstream values of America, and it became a refuge for those who felt their sexuality made them outcasts in the vastness of Middle America. By the time I arrived the flowers had long since wilted. Out of the radical soil of the 60s had grown a vibrant gay culture, but AIDS began to devastate this community.

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