Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Mind-Body Connection and the 'Inner Smile'

"The mind-body relationship is bidirectional - the mind can influence the body, and the body can influence the mind." - Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness (2010),  p43.
"...the psychologists Fritz Strack, Leonard Martin and Sabine Stepper asked a group of people to watch cartoons and then rate how funny they were. Some were asked to hold a pencil between their lips so that they were forced to purse them and mimic a scowl. Others watched the cartoons with the pencil between their teeth, simulating a smile. The results were striking: those who were forced to smile found the cartoons significantly funnier than those compelled to frown. It’s obvious that smiling shows you are happy but it is, admittedly, a bit strange to realise that the act of smiling can itself make you happy." - Professor Mark Williams, Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), p21.
"Even something as simple as curling up the mouth into a half smile can produce feelings of happiness and relaxation that weren't present before the facial muscles were mobilized to mimic the smile. [...] Every time you intentionally assume a different posture, you are literally changing your physical orientation and therefore your inner perspective as well." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p102.
"While following your breathing, you have been able to stay fully conscious for some time. You have succeeded a bit, haven't you? So why not smile? A tiny bud of a smile, just to prove you have succeeded. Seeing you smile, I know immediately that you are dwelling in awareness. Keep this smile always blooming, the half-smile of a Buddha." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart (1988), p20.
"Research shows that smiling has many beneficial physiological effects. It lowers blood pressure, enhances the immune system, and releases natural painkillers (endorphins) and a natural antidepressant (serotonin). People who smile in a wholehearted way live, on average, seven years longer than those who do not have a habit of smiling." - Jan Chozan Bays, How to Train A Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulnes (2011), p217.

Professor Mark Williams of Oxford Mindfulness Centre demonstrating how easily the physical posture of the body, or parts of the body affects one's interpretation of experience - in this case how a pen is held in one's mouth.

The every-day experience of modern humans, when not intoxicated, appears to be summed up by the following diagram:

Basic mindfulness practice begins with one becoming more aware of this situation. As Professor Mark Williams writes in Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), p102:
"Soon you’ll notice that the body... creates tension in the mind in a self-sustaining loop. Awareness of this is a major discovery."
As we habitually and instinctively judge our experiences and react to them, we get caught up in reacting with aversion to any necessary discomfort, or clinging on to sources of comfort, both of which cause our general levels of tension to increase. By understanding how aversion and clinging - non-acceptance of necessary pain and impermanence - cause us to double our discomfort in life, we can begin to take action which significantly reduces our stress. As Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes in Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994), p224:
"...we have to stop making those things happen that cloud mind and body and color our every action. [...] It means aligning yourself with the way things actually are. It means seeing clearly."
In order to bypass the emotional reactions which can so easily colour our perceptions, we can practice remaining calm and peaceful when potentially intense situations arise. Kabat-Zinn writes of this in Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p179:
"To bring calmness to the mind and body requires that at a certain point we be willing to let go of wanting anything at all to happen and just accept things as they are and ourselves as we are with an open, receptive heart. This inner peace and acceptance lie at the heart of both health and wisdom ."
This peacefulness can allow us to accept and skilfully interact with difficult situations, as Kabat-Zinn elaborates, p280:
"The way of mindfulness is to accept ourselves right now, as we are, symptoms or no symptoms, pain or no pain, fear or no fear. Instead of rejecting our experience as undesirable, we ask, "What is this symptom saying, what is it telling me about my body and my mind right now?" We allow ourselves, for a moment at least, to go right into the full-blown feeling of the symptom."
This peaceful witnessing is all that is necessary to allow impermanence to carry one from intense suffering to a place of increasing joy. Professor Williams illustrates this, in Mindfulness (2011), as follows, p28:
"...tension, unhappiness or exhaustion aren’t ‘problems’ that can be solved. They are emotions. They reflect states of mind and body. As such, they cannot be solved – only felt. Once you’ve felt them – that is, acknowledged their existence – and let go of the tendency to explain or get rid of them, they are much more likely to vanish naturally, like the mist on a spring morning."
Once one begins to experience this process first-hand, then it can become a relatively simple lifelong practice, opening one up to more and more happiness, as Williams states, p106:
" may begin to smile at the way the mind works so cleverly to get back to its own agenda! And in the smile is the awakening, the coming back to a direct sense of what it is like to be fully alive in this moment."
Remaining constantly open to the fluctuations of the mind within the broader container of one's awareness is the key to maintaining a long-term and rewarding mindfulness practice; utilising an inward smile to befriend those aspects of our being which tend to pull us off centre. Kabat-Zinn mentions this in The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007), p85:
"It's very common to have a feeling that we've "got it" in certain moments, that "this" must be what I am really supposed to be feeling, only to feel at other moments like we've "lost it," maybe even in the very next moment. This too is a very common experience when beginning a meditation practice, and not a problem at all, especially if we can be aware of it and smile inwardly at the unending antics of our own doing mind."
The American zen teacher Jan Chozan Bays also refers to utilising this 'inner smile' in her book How to Train A Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulnes (2011), p215:
"When you meditate, try a soft “inner smile” like the smile on the face of the Buddha."
Just before this, she states:
"This does not have to be a wide smile; it can be a small smile, like the smile of the Mona Lisa."
The Mona Lisa's smile has been discussed at length across the world - is it because it taps into a peaceful contentment we are aware lies within all of us?
Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is probably one of the biggest advocates of using the half-smile as part of formal mindfulness practice, as he writes in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness (1987), p80-81:
"Let go entirely, keeping your attention only on your breath and half smile. Think of yourself as a cat, completely relaxed before a warm fire, whose muscles yield without resistance to anyone's touch."
As one smiles in this barely visible way, one can feel an internal physical response which amplifies one's ability to accept things as they are. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, in Anger - Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (2001), that this internal physical component of one's smile can be directed to one's whole body, p226-227:
"Smile to your whole body as you breathe in, and send your love and compassion to your whole body as you breathe out. Feel all the cells in your whole body smiling joyfully with you."
He adds to this in Peace is Every Step (2010), p34:
"It’s useless to fight. Sit back and smile to yourself, a smile of compassion and loving kindness. Enjoy the present moment, breathing and smiling... Happiness is there if you know how to breathe and smile, because happiness can always be found in the present moment."
He mentions that this is not some kind of attempt to control and manipulate the situation, but instead it is a recognition of our civilised dimension, p40:
"When we smile to ourselves, that smile is not diplomacy; it is the proof that we are ourselves, that we have full sovereignty over ourselves."
The author in front of one of the large smiling heads at a Buddhist temple, part of the Angor Wat complex in Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2009.
Kabat-Zinn writes at the very end of the chapter titled Keeping up the formal practice in Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p436:
"...just sit, just breathe, and if you feel like it, allow yourself to smile inwardly."
It can be difficult to feel the impulse to smile when formal mindfulness meditation feels heavy, but understood in the context of self-compassion and how that self-compassion limits one's own stress, as well as the transfer of one's stress onto others, then an inner smile can become a heart-felt dimension of mindfulness practice - approaching the world one experiences as a friend rather than an adversary. As Professor Williams states in Mindfulness (2011), p102-103:
"As you spend more time observing these tensions, you will gradually realise that the simple act of awareness helps to diffuse them. You’ll have to do nothing more than observe with friendly curiosity. All else follows."
He supports the oft-reported experience from mindfulness practitioners that with practice, discomfort is replaced with more joy, p126
"Many people say that, in time, initial discomfort ebbs away and is replaced by soothing, almost therapeutic, sensations."
The following diagram seems to sum up the potential that mindfulness practice holds to meet all experiences with neutral judgement - with acceptance, and the resulting lessening of tension within the body. This releases one from the emotional reactions that the build-up of internal tension can trigger, opening one's life to a natural state of peaceful joy no matter the situation:

This neutral stance - not attached to positive sensations, but accepting life's necessary pains as they arrive, and inwardly smiling to ourselves as we meet the world with compassion, is the essence of mindfulness practice, as Kabat-Zinn relates in Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994), p106:
"When your mind and body collaborate in holding body, time, place, and posture in awareness, and remain unattached to having it have to be a certain way, then and only then are you truly sitting."
This is more easily said than done, of course, but as the saying goes "practice makes perfect", and motivation can be gained when one considers that one can never stop acting and that one's actions always influence one's inner experience, as well as the world outside. Kabat-Zinn has the following to say on this, in Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p440:
"Your life is already doing itself. The challenge is whether you can see in this way and live in accordance with the way things are, to come into harmony with all things and all moments. This is the path of insight, of wisdom, and of healing. It is the path of acceptance and peace. It is the path of the mind-body looking deeply into itself and knowing itself."

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