“It occurred to me that a face is a time battery, a stockpile of experience, and I began to wonder what my fifty-nine-year-old face might reveal if I could bear to look at it for three hours—a painfully long time, indeed.”
– Ruth Ozeki
To age can be to become more intimate with oneself, but to also potentially feel more estranged from the exterior form of one’s body. As Ruth Ozeki, who is a writer and a Zen Buddhist Priest, points out in this essay that opens her book The Face: A Time Code, there are times of our lives when scrutinizing ourselves and looking at our own faces is easier than others. Ozeki conducted an experiment where she sat and looked at her own face for three hours, and then documented everything that came up during this long – painfully long – session. She relates how this kind of practice might even point to Buddha’s recommendation that his students sit with the dead and observe minutely the process of decomposition in a human body to better understand the truth of the transience of our lives.
The experiment is simple: to sit in front of a mirror and watch my face for three hours. It’s a variation of an observation experiment I came across in “The Power of Patience,” an essay about the pedagogical benefits of immersive attention by Jennifer L. Roberts, a professor of art history and architecture at Harvard. In her essay, Professor Roberts describes an assignment she gives her students each year: to go to a museum or gallery and spend three full hours observing a single work of art and making a detailed record of the observations, questions, and speculations that arise over that time. The three-hour assignment, she admits, is designed to feel excessively long. “Painfully” is the word she uses, asserting that anything less painful will not yield the benefits of the immersive attention that she seeks to teach. Paintings are “time batteries,” she writes, quoting art historian David Joselit. They are “exorbitant stockpiles” of temporal experience and information that can only be tapped and unpacked using the skills of slow processing and strategic patience—skills that our impatient world has caused to atrophy. She’s trying to help her students develop their stunted skill set so they will learn not simply to look at art, but to see it.
My face is not a work of art. There is no reason for me to look at it other than to make sure there’s no spinach stuck between my teeth. I rarely put on makeup. My hair seems to take care of itself, more or less. But after reading Roberts’s article, it occurred to me that a face is a time battery, too, a stockpile of experience, and I began to wonder what my fifty-nine-year-old face might reveal if I could bear to look at it for three hours—a painfully long time, indeed.
“Fifty-nine is a difficult age for a face. Menopause wreaks havoc with a face’s sense of self, and the changes are rapid and cascading. It’s like puberty in reverse.”
My relationship with my reflection has changed over the years. As a young child, I was indifferent to my reflected self. As I grew a bit older, I turned shy and avoided my reflection, but by the time I was a teenager, I was spending lavish amounts of time in front of mirrors, scrutinizing every follicle and pore, and developing a minute and almost microscopic relationship with my surfaces. I don’t think I was different from most American teenagers in this way. The compulsive self-regard continued into the early years of my adulthood and then diminished as I aged. Now, although I still check my reflection in shop windows and glance at my face when I’m washing my hands or brushing my teeth, I spend very little time in front of mirrors. And yet, over a lifetime it adds up to…what? Hundreds of hours? Days or weeks or months even?
Three more hours should be doable, but I’m loath to start. Why? Is it vanity? Anti-vanity? How would I know? What does fifty-nine-year-old vanity look like, anyway? Fifty-nine is a difficult age for a face. Menopause wreaks havoc with a face’s sense of self, and the changes are rapid and cascading. It’s like puberty in reverse. At fifty-nine, I never quite know what my face will be when I wake up in the morning. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all? mutters the aging queen.
Our tales all tell us that an old woman’s vanity is, at best, sad and unseemly, and, at worst, ridiculous or even evil. As I approach my sixtieth year, I feel I should be moving away from the question Am I still fair? toward a more existential question: Am I still here? You’d think seeing myself in a mirror would be somewhat reassuring.
“As I approach my sixtieth year, I feel I should be moving away from the question Am I still fair? toward a more existential question: Am I still here? You’d think seeing myself in a mirror would be somewhat reassuring.”
And yet, recently I’ve noticed that when I catch sight of my face in a shop window, I’m quick to look away. When I brush my teeth, I’ll often turn my back to the mirror, or focus on a detail of my reflection, a blemish or a spot, rather than on my aspect as a whole. It’s not that I don’t like what I see, although that’s often part of it. Rather, it’s more that I don’t quite recognize myself in my reflection anymore, and so I’m always startled. Averting my gaze is a reflexive reaction, a kind of uncanny valley response to the sight of this person who is no longer quite me.
It’s not polite to stare at strangers.
In Zen teachings, impermanence is the first of the three marks of existence. Everything changes, nothing stays the same. The second mark of existence is no-self, which derives from the first: if everything changes and nothing stays the same, then there is no such thing as a fixed self. The self is only a passing notion, a changing story, relative to its momentary position in space and time. Suffering, the third mark of existence, derives quite logically from the first two. We don’t like impermanence, we want to be someone, a fixed self, and we want that self to last. Lacking that fixity, we suffer.
“Buddha’s strategy was to force his students to confront what scared and disgusted them so that they could see reality at work and thereby understand the truth of the three marks of existence.”
When teaching the three marks of existence, the Buddha assigned his students an observation exercise similar to Professor Roberts’s. He sent his disciples to meditate not in an art gallery but in a charnel ground, instructing them to observe corpses in their various stages of decomposition—
…one, two, or three days dead, bloated, livid, and oozing matter…being devoured by crows, hawks, vultures, dogs, jackals, or various kind of worms…a skeleton with flesh and blood, held together with sinews…a fleshless skeleton smeared with blood, held together with sinews…a skeleton without flesh and blood, held together with sinews… disconnected bones scattered in all directions…bones bleached white, the color of shells…bones heaped up, more than a year old…bones rotten and crumbling to dust….
You get the picture. Buddha’s strategy was to force his students to confront what scared and disgusted them so that they could see reality at work and thereby understand the truth of the three marks of existence. This dose of reality, he hoped, would liberate them from the suffering caused by their delusory attachment to what was not fixed, permanent, or real.
My face is not a work of art, but neither is it ready for the charnel ground, yet. Meditating upon it for three hours, however painful, is not quite equivalent to what the Buddha suggests, but then again my goals are more modest. I’m not looking for liberation or enlightenment. I’m just trying to write this essay about my face, and making a time log seemed like a good place to start. And since it is a meditative exercise, I decided to conduct the experiment in front of the small Buddhist altar where I meditate every day. I sat down on my cushion and looked at the mirror where the statue of the Buddha should be, feeling stupid and vaguely transgressive. Buddhism is a nontheistic religion. There is nothing inherently holy about a statue of Buddha. Buddha is not a god. Buddhism teaches that we are all buddhas because we all have buddha nature. This being so, replacing the Buddha with a mirror and gazing into it should, theoretically, be fine. A bit literal, perhaps, but doctrinally not a problem. So why do I feel so uncomfortable, like I’m committing an act of Zen sacrilege?
From – The Face: A Time Code