I have been practicing for many years and meditate daily. I am in general at peace and content and accept my life and the world around me as being as it is at this moment. I experience moments of happiness and joy. But every time I look in the mirror, I see a serious, almost frowning, tense face looking back at me. Even when I feel at peace, I feel a tension within me. I rarely feel truly relaxed. Can you help?
Want to Smile
Dear Want to Smile,
You are not alone. I myself, and I’m sure many others, have experienced what you are describing. When I first became aware of this years ago, I purposefully brought a smile to my face and found that this in turn brought an immediate uplift to my spirits. Just releasing the facial tension made me feel lighter and filled with happiness. This is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “mouth yoga.” But I found that the smile and its impact were fleeting because it was mechanical and I was quickly distracted.
Then one day while meditating, I realized that if I were able to be aware every moment of the wonderful things in my life right then at each moment, without attaching, I would smile mindfully and naturally every moment. Even if I was focused on some concern of mine, I would at the same time be mindful of the things that brought joy to my life.
That was my first effort. And this practice worked, at least as long as I worked it. And when I didn’t, the frown and tension returned.
Obviously, smiling mindfully was a bandaid; something deeper continued to pull me away from the path. This experience raised a question in my mind … if I was generally in a state of peace and contentment, then why was the default status of my face a frown or tense expression?
Generally we frown for various reasons … our culture is so focused on wanting what we don't have (not necessarily something material) and on proving ourselves through competition, and we are so attached to the past and obsessed with the future that most of us are in an almost constant state of some degree of frustration or concern, whether consciously or not. If we are frustrated, we are not happy, and that agitation shows in our facial expression.
Was my frowning a sign of deep underlying frustrations and insecurities in my gut that my practice had not yet touched? Were the troubles of the world and especially U.S. politics so overburdening and vexing? As a Buddhist I derive joy from the happiness of others, but the corollary is also true, I derive sadness from the pain of others and we are made aware of such pain every day.
Or was this default position merely a product of decades of negative muscle training brought about by my samsara-filled life? I know from my baby photos and family anecdotes that before I was burdened by my ego and learned experience I always had a smile on my face. My father called me his “sunshine.”
My hunch was, “all of the above.” But more recently as a result of my practice of being present in the moment free of the intervention of thought, I realized that the principal underlying reason for my facial tension is that while I may be present free of conscious thought, my subconscious is always thinking. It is indeed in an almost constant state of some degree of frustration or concern. And so long as my subconscious is in that state there would always be an underlying tenseness in me.
What to do? I reflected on the fact that when I am tense or upset, by focusing on my breathing I can quickly return to a space of peace and calm. The focus on my breathing takes me out of myself, meaning out of my thinking mind, my ego. That is also what we do during meditation. And that I knew was precisely what I needed to stop this background noise of subconscious thought.
And so I tried an experiment. One day, I tried to be constantly aware of my breath, and, at the suggestion of a friend, relax my body with each breathing out. Surprisingly I found this easier and more natural than anything I had previously tried to increase my periods of awareness. Regardless of what I was doing, I found I was able at the same time to be conscious of my breath for much of the day.
And by so doing, I was present free of not just conscious thought, but as the day went on, I felt that I was also free of subconscious thought because without question my facial muscles relaxed. I was not smiling, but my face was relaxed. And I felt deeply relaxed.
I have continued this practice for several days now and the results have been noticeable. After a lifetime of compulsively analytical thought about my life and everything around me, which was entrenched in my subconscious, focusing on my breathing throughout the day, together with relaxing my body on breathing out, has pulled me out of my ego-mind and allowed me to reach a new stage in my practice
The question now is whether I will have the discipline to continue this practice or, like other efforts I have made in this regard, become lazy and distracted, pulled away by my old habit-energies. Staying mindful throughout the day is always a challenge.