Practice Circle April 3: Rick Heller and Face Meditation

Rich HellerHi! To avoid the holiday weekend, we’ll reschedule Practice Circle for Sunday, April 3, when author Rick Heller will join us as guest facilitator. Rick will share one of the practices from his book, Secular Mediation: 32 Practices for Cultivating Inner Peace, Compassion and Joy. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on the practice Rick will introduce, Face Meditation.

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I’d like to introduce you to a practice that I personally find to be the best way to quiet the inner voice. When your inner voice is quiet, when words are not at the tip or your tongue, it’s difficult to think about the past or future. You are anchored in the present moment. The practice turns down the volume of self-condemning thoughts.

The practice is to relax – deeply relax – the muscles you use while speaking. Surprising as it may seem, your inner dialogue involves the muscles of speech. Inner speech is not contained entirely within the brain. It leaks out into the peripheral nervous system and causes the muscles of the tongue, lips, and voice box to tense slightly. . . .

We know that movement of our facial muscles feeds back to affect our feelings and possibly our thoughts. One study found that saying the e sound in cheese, which forces the facial muscles into the position of a smile, is experienced by people as pleasant, while the German ü sound, as in München, is a downer, even for Germans. Researchers have also found an unexpected side effect of Botox injections, which are used to reduce facial wrinkles by paralyzing facial muscles. Injections that paralyze the muscles used in frowning not only make it harder to express sadness; they also make it harder to feel sad.

Facial feedback seems to be a specific, well-studies example of a general phenomenon. Tensing or relaxing muscles anywhere in the body can have an effect on emotions. Charles Darwin noted the connection as far back as 1872 in one of his lesser-known books, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. He wrote, “The free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it. On the other hand, the repression, as far as this is possible, of all outward signs softens our emotions.” The only dispute I have with Darwin’s statement is in the use of the word repression. Actively trying to repress an emotion can create tension. To relax facial and other muscles, what’s called for is gentle, loving attention.

To get technical for a moment, the signals from the brain to the muscles run in a loop. The brain sends nerve signals down to the muscles to tell them how to move. However, the muscles also send signals back up to the brain, telling them what they did, in a process called proprioception. There is good evidence that this feedback loop runs in a continuous cycle at a frequency of ten times a second or more.

It appears that when the muscles become less active, activity is inhibited in the brain areas that the muscles are connected to. In an experiment where people watching emotional videos were told to keep their faces motionless so as not to interfere with dummy electronic sensors, they reported feeling less emotion than when they were free to move their faces.

Facial feedback may thus explain why relaxing the muscles of outward speech quiets inward speech. Self-talk is accompanied by low-level activations of the muscles of speech. Relaxing those muscles inhibits inner speech.

Rick Heller