All Those Smiling Buddhas

Although it is easy for me to forget, emotions don’t live solely in the nebulous and inner mindscape squirreled away behind my eyeballs. Emotions literally exist in my body; they manifest in tissue and viscera. There is an essential interplay between the physiological response to an event, and the feeling that generates from experiencing that event.

When I conceive of the mind/body/emotion connection, the ‘body’ component often defines itself as the movement of my limbs or the sensation of my deep breathing – you know, the typical practicing mindfulness stuff. Rarely, if ever, does the concept of ‘body’ translate specifically into the expressions that my facial muscles might make.

In Jonathan Kalb’s recent piece for The New Yorker, where he describes being afflicted with Ball’s palsy, a condition that paralyzes part of his face and prevents him from smiling, Kalb reminds us of the studies that charted how facial expressions feed our emotions. When the muscles in his face could no longer allow him to spontaneously form a smile, he states that he struggled to feel joy:

 “…emotions aren’t intangible phenomena traceable to an abstraction called the mind; rather they are responses rooted in physiology.”

In other words, if Kalb can’t smile, if his face can’t tell him what to feel in those blissful microseconds before his mind catches up and defines those feelings, then he has lost an essential aspect of the mind/body/emotion connection.

That flow always strikes me as intuitively wrong, that my smile or frown or grimace can tell me what to feel, but the studies Kalb cites in his article draw that exact conclusion – not only does my mind generate an emotion, my face can generate an emotion, too.

Kalb’s piece reminded me that I had actually been exposed to the science behind this idea more than a decade before. Where or how I read about the studies at the time is lost to the ether, but I remember conducting my own experiments. My first wife had left me, and although I wasn’t depressed in the clinical sense (my understanding of depression is a numbness, a lack of feeling, and I was feeling all kinds of emotions) I was definitely defeated, embarrassed, ashamed. As those who’ve divorced know, the public spectacle of a break-up is one thing, but the official nature of a marriage’s demise is profound – even if the divorce is the best thing for both people.

Anyway, while feeling generally unworthy, I decided to smile while I walked around town even when I wasn’t feeling the energy behind that smile. Doing this necessarily altered my normally slouching posture and forced me to move differently – more upright and with a more energetic step. Yes, I’m sure it was creepy for those who passed by the automaton with the forced grin, but the experiment did have an impact. Several, actually.

I paid closer attention to the expressions my face was making, and I discovered that most of the time if left to my usual inattentiveness, I was maintaining a furrowed, worried expression. Anxious lines were carving themselves into my brow and forehead. I hadn’t noticed that before. How often had that expression caused me to feel uncertain and afraid? How often had an anxious countenance told my emotion engine that I should feel, well, anxious?

Often, I suspect.

While smiling in times when I wouldn’t normally do so didn’t exactly translate to feeling happy, it did lighten my mood and it provided me with a steady sense of well being. In more recent years, as I’ve studied mindfulness meditation, several practitioners have recommended maintaining a slight smile while we breathe, while we allow our thoughts to flow past.

You know, like those many statues of smiling Buddhas.

I, for one, have focused much of my mindfulness practice on understanding how my thoughts distract and undermine me. Until reading Kalb’s piece, I had all but forgotten that the conduit flows not down but around; that my thoughts can be shaped by the responses in my body and, specifically, in my face - as much as by memory or preoccupation. It may be time to try that smiling experiment again.