When 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 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.