Letting go: tension

I want to use my daily writing discipline to focus on letting go. But is that a contradiction?

Years ago I told my Chinese philosophy teacher that meditation tended to make me more tense.

“Relax harder, dammit!” he laughed.

I’d love to find better ways to let go of the tension I’m used to holding; and I’ve been noticing lately that the tension really is intentional.

Like most long-standing yet unwanted conditions, the thoughts creating tension in me have a lot of momentum to them, from a time when I very intently sought control over my physical body.

An intentional state

That’s the other way tension is intentional: it’s a state of stretching or reaching for something. Longstanding physical tension isn’t arbitrary, it’s informed by an effort that uses the body in a taxing way.

Expecting criticism and attack from others, I intentionally tried to control my gaze, my facial expression and my observable physical reactions.

I had this ideal of always looking implacable and unperturbed.

But the only way to maintain such tight control is to prime those muscles with tension, inhibiting spontaneous and natural responses.

Have you ever tried not to laugh or smile at an inappropriate time? You can do it if you clamp down on your expression, clench your jaw and look away as if concentrating elsewhere.

Or what about trying to hold back anger? Again, clench your jaw, stare straight ahead, set your face like stone and seem impassive.

But the worst is being ridiculed, criticised or mistreated on account of your natural expression. “Wipe that stupid grin off your face”, “watch out, the wind might change”, “what are you looking at?” “Don’t just stand there looking like an idiot” These kinds of comments teach you that you are judged for your expression and body language, fairly or unfairly, and imply that there is something to be gained from monitoring and controlling it.

Letting it go

Self monitoring and control are a recipe for chronic tension not only in your face and head but likely your neck and elsewhere as your body’s natural balance is inhibited.

But as we have seen, such tension is a consequence of anxious, fearful, and negative thoughts about how we are seen and perceived by others.

The antidote to such thoughts are simply thoughts that feel better.

As children we took harsh comments at face value, but as adults we know that people who offer unsolicited criticism like that are typically full of s***.

Looking back, the people who criticised me the most turned out to be the least pleasant people to be around, and their rampant negativity and even harsher self-talk is now obvious.

As an adult I’ve seen so many different faces, some anxious and uptight, many profoundly oblivious and relaxed. There are no rules to how we should look and carry ourselves and be. No one goes around, taking people aside to warn them against being too ugly, too stupid-looking, too arrogant looking, too anything.

If you can retell the story around physical tension in whatever form you inflict it, you will be able to let it go.

Our aim should be to soothe those thoughts in a direction of security, trust, and letting go.

Ultimately, people have all kinds of faces, expressions, and body language. But we know from our own observation that what is inside each of us will shine through. For us that includes tension and resistance and fear at the moment. But it doesn’t have to, and it won’t forever. As we soothe and soften our negative thoughts, we will inevitably find the ease and relief we desire.

Melancholics and inhibited body language/facial expressions

Aquinas took from Aristotle a cool view of the emotions…

Basically the underlying emotion (or ‘passion’ because they can be viewed as external objects causing us to have a ‘passive’ response or undergo change…like the ‘patient’ who suffers…)

The underlying emotion is love which is our natural response to things that appear good (or are good).

Which is pretty cool, because it means love is the root of all our responses to our experience.

So it goes something like:

I perceive something good in the distance -> desire  (distance can be time or space.)

I perceive something evil/bad in the distance -> fear

I attain the good thing -> joy

The bad thing arrives -> sorrow

— I think about getting rid of the bad thing -> anger

How I feel about good things finally -> I love them

How I feel about bad things finally – > I hate them

I think good things are attainable/ bad things can be overcome -> hope

I think good things are unattainable/bad things can’t be overcome -> despair

Pretty cool, huh?

All of these passions/emotions have an effect on our minds and our bodies, because we are psychosomatic beings.

The old system was  a bit vitalist, so they would talk about heat and life in your body.

Eg. when you feel love the heat expands in your body. Love is expansive, and makes you actually feel warm. Fear makes your heat retract inward, which is why you may feel cold when afraid. In anger the heat rises up into the head. Sorrow is the worst because your heat shrinks right back inside and you feel lifeless and awful.

These passions have corresponding facial expressions. They effect your posture, your gait, your movements, and your face. That’s how people can learn to read “body language”.

So let’s say you feel happy. You’re experiencing joy, and your face shows it. You’re beaming joy naturally without any effort.

But then someone shouts at you “what the hell are you grinning at, you look like an idiot!”.

Being yelled at is scary, being told you look like an idiot is bad. These produce feelings of sorrow and fear, which change your expression immediately. But you might also be confused, not sure why they are saying these things, not sure why your joyful feeling would cause a bad reaction in them.

You might also feel anger, and your expression changes again.

That’s still fairly natural. Your face is responding automatically to the emotion you are feeling.

But what if someone yells at you enough times that you realise your automatic expressions are going to get you into trouble again and again? Then maybe you decide that you should hide your joy, or your anger, or fear, or whatever it is you think will get you into trouble. You become afraid to express your feelings naturally in your expression.

But the only way to stop your face from automatically expressing is to give it a different task to do. So you practice holding a facial expression, or you stay really mindful of what emotion you might be feeling, ready to dampen it down with “serious face” or “polite face” or “happy face”.

The problem is that these faces are not natural. they aren’t expressing your authentic emotion. Instead they are expressing a complicated internal conflict, based on a fear of how people will react to you.

Holding that kind of tension in your face, and monitoring your expression, is very taxing and stressful. It sucks. It’s inauthentic.

I think Melancholics are especially prone to this because we do have strong emotions that are often out of sync with the people around us.

People might think you’re sitting grinning at nothing, when you’re reliving a past experience in your mind. Get told off enough times…get told it’s disrespectful or that you look like there’s something wrong with you, and yes you probably will internalise that message and learn to inhibit your natural expressions.

The way out of it is not easy, because you need to actively resist the impulse to control your expression. It takes more effort to overcome this effort-laden habit, but the effort has to be careful and light.

You might need to relearn intentionally how to let your face express your feelings automatically without fear of other people’s negative reactions.

One place to start is noticing that there is actual muscle tension in your face at this very moment. The weird, constant feelings of tension or tightness aren’t imaginary, they’re caused by tight muscles reacting to your fear of having the “wrong” expression.

If you can be aware of that tension as something the muscles of your face and head are actively doing, then that may help you ease off the tension a little.

It’s not just facial muscles, but also the muscles that control the eyes and the eyelids. Looking at the individual muscles of the head and face might help you understand the strain you’re creating in trying to keep your face unresponsive to your natural internal impulses.

The melancholic posture


Melancholics are said to be prone to ailments, and Conrad Hock notes that “the gait of the melan­cholic is slow and heavy“. We no longer believe in the Greek medical theory from which the four temperaments originate, yet there are some physiological elements that correspond to the otherwise psychological descriptors of each temperament.

For the melancholic, introversion, fatigue,  anxiety, depression and fear of humiliation all contribute to postural problems that in turn exacerbate the psychological aspects in a kind of psychosomatic feedback loop.

Common defensive or submissive postural cues include internal rotation of the shoulders and forward head posture. Forward head posture is a common complaint, regardless of temperament, for people who spend a lot of time at computers. It puts strain on the upper back muscles, which must work harder to hold the head stable at such a distance from the body.

Fatigue in these muscles feels terrible. Yet for many of us these muscles are chronically fatigued and overburdened. In addition, such a posture subconsciously projects a lack of confidence, disengaging and suppressing the chest and the powerful muscles of the lower back and abdomen – the ‘core muscles’ that provide postural support and strength in everyday life and which are increasingly viewed as indispensable in good athletic performance.

Exacerbating this bad posture are the gut-related symptoms of anxiety. Stomach pain, bloating, and nausea discourage the activation of core muscles which would put pressure on the abdomen. At the same time, anxiety can cause abdominal muscle tension, albeit not the kind of tension that would contribute to effective use of the core muscles.

So while the upper body slumps and collapses defensively, the lower torso is disengaged and unable to provide support. The upper and lower limbs my function fine in isolation, but lack the appropriate grounding in a unified torso.

Correcting postural weaknesses

It can be extremely difficult to correct these problems without good hands-on guidance. Part of the problem is that there are multiple variables and it can be difficult to correct elements in isolation.  For example, the instruction “put your shoulders back” is based on a difference in appearance between a good posture and a bad one. But the instruction is misleading in many cases because the appropriate correction to internally rotated shoulders is scapular retraction. Simply pushing your shoulders back will fix nothing and may even increase muscular tension. “Retract your scapulae” is better advice, but it still needs to be specified that the scapulae are to be retracted by tightening of the muscles between and below them, with the understanding that habit has left these muscles lengthened and weakened, so it will take time and practice to strengthen them.

“Suck your stomach in” is another good example. Sucking in your stomach is a part of the process that tightens core abdominal muscles, but the instruction is easily misinterpreted, with people sucking “up” the abdomen and lifting the rib cage, or failing to tighten the abdomen with the kind of “pushing out” that really activates the bracing effect of the core muscles.

Making corrections like these is an ongoing process, requiring careful research.  We’re fortunate that a number of exercise disciplines have come online with professionals and enthusiastic amateurs offering a range of insights.  I’ve found, for example, useful material on tightening the core from powerlifters. If it works for someone lifting hundreds of kilograms then it can’t be too far wrong for daily life.  Do your research across a range of resources, be thorough, and of course be careful.  There might be only one “right” way to do it, but there are numerous ways to get it wrong, and the precise solution or correction may vary from person to person.  There’s also some flat-out contradictory advice out there.

Postural correction can also be frustrating to a melancholic because we love singular, all-encompassing solutions, and there are plenty of people willing to push an isolated exercise or postural element as the key to the whole puzzle of posture.  We’re also a bit afraid of hard work, and the idea of gradual improvement or slow retraining can frustrate us, especially when we’re not entirely sure that the instructions are adequate.

But the logic of posture does meet a kind of ideal in its own right, and the pleasure of stretching muscles that have, perhaps for decades, been locked in inefficient and exhausting positions makes this enterprise well worthwhile.  After all, we might never be completely free of worries, anxieties, and all-consuming existential despair, but breaking the physical side of the vicious cycle can provide a real sense of relief from the psychological side.  The term ‘body language’ is misleading in this sense: you can tell lies about how confident you feel, but a good posture feels ‘confident’ because it is strong, and a bad posture feels weak because it really is weak.