Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Face Knowledge

Watching Wimbleton has offered a wide range of facial expressions to feel inside. That was one of the big attractions when I first started watching tennis. It felt like such a privilege to observe so closely as the camera zoomed in on the face of someone in a pivotal moment. This opportunity to access the attitude toward a significant event felt like it was tuning something powerful inside me. Because we build new circuits to accommodate new experience, I’ve benefited from resonating with the faces of champions. Paul Eckman says we can recognize 10,000 different facial expressions. That’s an incredible spectrum of variation. There are good versions of ferociously determined and bad versions. The best reveal someone at one with their purpose. The expressions I find unpleasant seem dominated by self and something to prove. In a class discussion of beauty one student brought up a television program he’d seen that connected beauty to symmetry. I suggested that symmetry often depends on the purity of emotions beneath it. If there are contradictions or fear beneath the surface, that can twist the features to one side. Feeling more balanced as a person, more focused on a goal without contamination of egotism and the features reflect that inner order.
When we recognize a particular expression it’s because it’s familiar to us. What we notice in the world reflects something we’re trying to understand in ourselves. When I hear people blaming or criticizing someone, I always feel they’re talking about themselves. They know the trait from the inside. It’s not that the label is wrong. But we use what we see in the outside world to illuminate the inner world. What today’s psychologists label “projection” is a human trait that’s been observed by philosophers and writers for thousands of years. Marcus Aurelius said “evil is in that part of us that points to evil.” The I Ching says to look in yourself for the faults you brand in others, and that being a “superior person” depends on the parts of the self one chooses to cultivate. Cultivating your better qualities makes you a better person. Expressions that attract us are leading us to those better qualities. We feel pleasure looking at joy or concentration as we experience the endorphins that are stimulated to encourage us to seek out the positive. What facilitates growth creates pleasure.
My husband has recently gotten into watching Guy Fieri on the Food Network. As he says repeatedly, ”It’s a pleasure to watch him eat.” He has so many version of enjoyment of his food, that it probably adds dimension to our own. We don’t necessarily think about learning from the looks on other’s faces but whether it’s the determination of an athlete or the joy of the beagle that won the big dog show, the range of our own experience is enlarged by witnessing others’ reactions. Facial expressions provide real information about another person’s inner world. When what we see on a face contradicts what a person says about a situation, we tend to believe the face and are thrown into conflict when the other insists on the truth of the verbal statement. Recognizing the importance and persuasiveness of visual knowledge can enhance our ability to understand ourselves and others and stimulate our better selves as we recognize the attitudes that propel us forward.

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