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. 

Mindless

Ellen Langer, the Harvard Social Psychologist, has been studying the application of mindfulness in controlled experiments since the early 1970s. I was, until this week, ignorant of her work. Of the several mindfulness practitioners I’ve encountered, Langer’s is the most distilled and, for those who fear that discussions about mindfulness are perpetuated by some bug-eyed cult, emphatically no nonsense. Langer isn’t even a proponent of meditation, which separates her from the other science-based scholars of mindfulness, such as Jon Kabat Zinn.

No, for Langer, mindfulness is as simple and as difficult as ‘noticing.’

As a writer, I find Langer’s attention to the words and the labels that we place on the difficult events in our lives especially intriguing. By the time we reach adulthood, our words and thoughts are so intertwined, the interplay of our inner-dialogue and our thought-stream so ingrained, it’s difficult to use new words or fresh labels (or no words at all) to describe our unique brands of tragic-comedy.

Acknowledging that I’m the author of various fictional works of varying quality is one thing; acknowledging that I’m also the author of my own life—that its spin is completely dependent on the labels and definitions I apply to it—is somehow daunting and terrible and, I guess ultimately, a relief. What if when shitty things happen, rather than bemoan an unjust cosmos specifically engineered to screw with my life, I instead acknowledge that difficulties are part of everyone’s life, including mine, and at those times, I am closer to my fellow humans because I am partaking in the same struggles they are?

It’s a pleasant idea, but one I find excruciating to practice.

My natural inclination, when confronted with life’s many conflicts—and the challenges are multiplying in both complexity and severity the older I get—is to hide away and to ponder and to noodle until I feel like I’ve got the damned thing figured out. This is in part to save face (I still view the fact that I’m having problems or difficulties as a problem and a difficulty in and of itself.) And it’s also a way to stem the flow of interaction, to quiet down the noise, so that I can focus. So that I can hold my breath until my life is less conflicted in order to go public again.

And guess what? The problems never go away. Every quandary solved yields several new difficulties. Chaos and calamity are the new normal.

Since the birth of my second son, who is a wonderful addition to our family, derailed my wife’s health and decimated our finances, I’ve tried to figure out how to fix this. We’ve run into the same struggle so many families with young children face: how do you juggle the time needed to care for your children versus the need to work outside the home versus the obscene cost of child care versus the desire to spend time with your children when they’re young versus being sick to death of not being able to afford even the smallest of luxuries?

The answer is: you can’t. The only response is to live while in crisis mode, to take joy in what is happening now even when it’s as scary and unknowable as any period of my life. To notice the world around me, to notice my wife and my children, to take in what is here right now because this is life and hyping the ‘good’ times while hiding away during the ‘bad’ times is a ridiculous approach that ultimately gets me nowhere.

See? I know what the answer is, but acting on it, changing the words and reframing the thinking, is as painful as it is difficult.

If We Ever Get to Toshi Station: Keeping It Together When Things Are Falling Apart

I am best at practicing mindfulness when my life is going well. In those rare times when existence surprises me by bending to my exacting standards, I’m calm, patient, at ease – basically all the states that often elude me.

Yet, as Yoda reprimands Luke Skywalker in Empire Strikes Back:

'All his life he has looked away…to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was…What he was doing.'

Yeah, normally I behave just like Luke Skywalker bitching about going to Toshi Station for those power converters. And that’s OK. I accept that being present in the Now is often an endeavor at which I will fail.

Lately, though, there’s been turmoil rumbling through my life at a stupefying velocity, and my ability to maintain anything like equilibrium by practicing mindfulness has proven more fail-worthy than normal. Although on a rational level I can accept that existence will never remain stable enough so that I can first get skillful at centering myself before being confronted with difficult times, at my default emotional response setting, well, I whine just like Luke Skywalker.

Toshi Station, Uncle Owen! Toshi fucking Station.

The promise at the turn of this new year—that some of the stressors in my life might ease or lighten—hasn’t materialized, and I’m falling into old patterns of needing this conflict resolved or that problem settled before I can feel present. What I need to acknowledge is that, yes, my present is challenged, and I should not turn away from the discomfort, or wish it gone.

It is difficult to be here in this uncomfortable now, and even though I’d rather be anywhere else, I know that I need to stay put (good dog).

There are grace notes to be sure, flashes of realization that there is much to be grateful for. When I am able to be present in a given moment, to still the rage of thoughts, I can find strength, reassurance even. Right now—at this moment–everything is as it is. Not as it should be, nor as I want it to be. But as it is.

I’m trying to be open, striving to be present, even as Yoda reprimands me,

'Try not. Do…or do not. There is no try.'

A little tidbit I found at the On Being website. A good reminder about approaching the moments we have with present-mindedness, openness and vulnerability.

Six - The Kid Just Keeps Getting Older

My oldest son turns six this weekend.

Certain ages are watersheds—well, as a pretender in this often awkward role as parent, every age is a watershed—and I can well remember being six. It was the year my parents split up, the year my dad moved from place to place until finally leaving town. I was one of those kids who was certain that I’d done something wrong to drive my father away, and the high-water line of that adult-level guilt left a mark right here.

Six.

One of the first lessons you learn as a new parent—and my friends warned me about this, but I didn’t or couldn’t acknowledge the fact until I was in it—is that your child arrives as her or her own being. You can look for yourself in your child, and you will certainly unearth scraps of you and your partner’s components, but the essential mix—the core design—is already in place the moment you embrace your child for the first time.

Yes, the nurturing that you will apply will certainly shape and evolve this child, but that’s the best you can do or hope to do. Shape. Guide. 

My son has inherited from both his parents a vibrant, all-consuming imagination, and along with that voracious creative energy is a corresponding self-doubt and anxiety (not to mention a quick-trigger anger and a habit of cursing…yep, guilty). It’s heartbreaking to see a child in battle with himself when he has barely gotten himself out into the world, and yet, the challenges are already lining themselves against him. Already.

Some days his resilience is shocking, some days his frailties are wounding. As one of his fierce protectors, it’s often difficult to know how to coach him when I dealt so poorly with the same challenges when I was his age.

To grossly over-generalize: You can break parents into two large groups – the first is the group who had children as a natural extension of the familial love and support they themselves received as children. The second group feels drawn to this endeavor because their own childhoods were fraught with discomfort and pain and there’s a wrong to be righted there somehow.

Being part of the second camp (surprise), I was one of those who contemplated not having children at all. I didn’t want to fuck it up. I didn’t want the burden. But falling in love with someone can open portals that never opened with anyone else, and the choice to have children just became a certainty. You soon realize that the love you have for your partner is nothing like the love you have for your children, which is such a basal, feral creature that there is no separation between your love for your kids and yourself.

Amidst that churn and swoon of intoxicating irrational feelings, you are supposed to stay calm and lead by example. Right.

But that’s the task. Whether he and I want to acknowledge it or not, my son looks to me as an example (an example for how to be, or an example for how not to be, but an example nonetheless). As I (still) struggle with an overactive imagination, a tendency to be anywhere but in this present moment, a sometimes debilitating fear of…well, what have you got?, I am a model for how my son will comport himself in this world. God help him.

Six. Only six. Already six. For what it's worth, son, I’m here. 

What We Write About When We’ve Got Nothing to Write: aka ‘Pop, I’ve Got the White Page’

As a term, Writer’s Block has never worked for me.

I struggled this week to strike upon a topic for this blog until I realized with my typically slow-motion little-brain big-DUH way of cogitating that I’d had my topic in front of me the entire time.

Perhaps of only interest to me: I struggle more often with Writer’s Block when prepping the blog and rarely, if ever, with my fiction. Not sure why that is other than the simple reality that when I’m writing fiction I almost always have chunks of text (no matter how terrible) that I can revise, and revision almost always gets me drafting again.

With the blog, because it is topical, the struggle is more in finding the topic than in the writing itself.

And this is my problem with the term Writer’s Block, which no matter how you parse it, evokes constipation.

When I’m stumped for a direction or a topic, I feel…un-blank. My busy mind the exact opposite of the empty page before me. Given my interest in how creative activities cross over with exercises in mindfulness, I can’t help but wonder if what’s daunting about the blank page isn’t that it’s empty, but that I'm not empty, that I'm not quite yet in the moment with that blankness, that I've not yet allowed body and mind to give themselves over to this creative moment.

More than a few of us have noted that when we’re in the Writing Zone, we’re almost taking dictation from sources unknown and mysterious. Allowing that take-over isn’t easy, especially when the many niggling worries and concerns of the rest of our lives are interrupting in a constant knock-knock-knocking upon our skulls.

Or perhaps we’re egoistic enough to forget that writing isn’t about us, but about the writing itself. Nothing will kick your ego’s ass faster than serving the muse. The sooner you get OK with surrendering, the sooner you can get to writing. And surrender, as any artist or religious practitioner will tell you, is often the most difficult of tasks imaginable.

That’s a lot to ask of we mere mortals faced with the blank page. No wonder there are some days we just can’t get the words down. Some days we just don’t want to be present or to bow down or to surrender.

So rather than calling it Writer’s Block, maybe we just acknowledge that we’re feeling a bit too much Big I, too much me me me, to get right with our writing selves. Let’s call it Embracing the Blank Page.

For the less esoteric among you, I humbly submit some of my strategies for embracing the blank page.

Go revise an old piece of writing. Any old piece of writing.

Switch media. If you typically write by hand, spend a few minutes typing, or if you typically type, grab a pen and paper.

Read something.

Give yourself permission to write anything. Set a timer and just…go. The physical act of writing often kick-starts the mental act.

Switch art forms. Go play the drums. Get dancing. Go draw.

Switch writing forms. Writing poetry (no matter how awful it may very well be) does wonders.

Give it up for the day. This is the scary one. We all know that one missed day can often begat another. But skipping a writing day can often gain you distance and alter your perspective about your current project.

Those are a few exercises I use. What are your strategies for embracing the blank page?