I was recently introduced (by Akilesh Ayyar) to a form of waking meditation called self-inquiry. The gist of this technique is that you try and recognize your true self which can be described roughly as the self that is awareness (rather than the self that is entangled with your thoughts). I found fairly quickly that after some effort I was able to reach a temporary state of calm and peace using this technique. Time would seem to slow down and things felt still and peaceful. Given this early glimpse, I felt this was worth pursuing and so I continued to practice as much as I could over the next few weeks.
After a few weeks, one beautiful morning, I noticed something very interesting as I was performing the self inquiry. I had been instructing myself with words in my mind, trying to tell myself to for example “be aware of my awareness”. That day, I realized that I should try to find the aware state without words and attempted to do so. As I attempted to go wordless, I noticed that I had been frowning and I relaxed my forehead. Immediately I felt that I moved deeper into a peaceful state.
After playing with it for a day or so, I confirmed to myself that my frown had a huge impact on the quality of my meditative state. So I googled “depression frown”. A few studies came up showing that botox injections in the forehead had the unexpected effect of reducing depression. This gave me further motivation to experiment with this idea.
I’ve described below the physical cues that seem to give me the best results in terms of placing my mind into an aware state without any thoughts. The feeling I get is of hyper-awareness with a diffuse focus. You are not focusing on any one thing (staring into space) but you feel aware of everything simultaneously. I believe this is also what being in “The Zone” feels like while doing an activity or sport. You might find this useful for various purposes — to relieve stress or anxiety and feel very present, to improve your performance in an athletic or musical performance, or to assist you in achieving meditative states.
Note that these cues require muscular effort and are not fully relaxed. They require some minimum amount of tension. These changes can be described as the “anti-frown”, “anti-mutter”, “anti-slouch” technique. If you can imagine a depressed person, they walk around with a big frown, muttering to themselves, slouched over looking at the ground. I find that performing these techniques automatically moves me to a spacious aware present state with very few thoughts. In my opinion these physical cues are as important, if not more important, than purely mental effort.
This change relaxes any frown and then uses muscular effort to go further beyond in the other direction. So frown and then relax the frown and then try to continue moving further beyond the relaxed point. Try to use the muscles of the scalp to pull back the ears. If you were wearing glasses they might move slightly closer to your face. Next make your eyes slightly bigger both vertically and horizontally (you don’t need to go to the extreme here but maybe one-third of the way to the max — try not to frighten anybody). Raise your eyebrows slightly to make your eyes taller and pull back the skin at your temples to make your eyes wider. Finally, flare your nostrils in a way that expands your upper lip so that it pressures downwards onto the lower lip. It helps to allow your lower lip to jut out so that your upper lip can expand downwards.
After all these changes you might feel that you are giving yourself a face lift with the muscles in your face and scalp. You are stretching the skin away from your face. You should keep your eyes open and don’t forget to blink.
The key here is to feel that you are disabling your tongue or vocal cords. Imagine one of those wooden tongue depressors pressing the tongue down at the rear near my throat. This should make your mouth and throat feel cavernous. You should feel an expansion and tension in the muscle under your chin where your jaw meets your neck. These moves will tense up and disable your vocal cords. The point is to make it feel like you can’t talk. I believe this makes it more difficult for you to hear word based thoughts in your mind. You may also try to curl your tongue upwards so that the tip feels centered within your mouth without touching the roof of your mouth.
Ensure you have excellent posture by pinching your shoulder blades slightly together and feeling that your chest opens up. Straighten your spine at your lower back as well.
You will notice that if you take a deep inhalation through your nose, all these features of your face will naturally happen. Breathing in brings awareness and expansion. On the flip side, a deep exhalation through your mouth can bring a very different expression on your face. One of surrender and release.
The following photo is from Ben Hogan’s Life Magazine article in which he supposedly revealed the secret to his golf swing. I always thought this first picture in the article was very curious because it very clearly showed his facial expression at impact. Was he trying to show us something? In fact, these facial adjustments have a profound impact on physical movement in the body as well. See On Knudson, Hogan and Golf Secrets for a full perspective.
I suspect the configuration of your fingers is also important for encouraging meditative states. Examples of this historically can be seen in the unique hand positions of depictions of the Buddha. Also, the movement of the fingers in using the rosary for prayer may be interesting to investigate.