Dr Rashna Taraporewalla, History Teacher and Mindfulness Facilitator
A yearning characteristic of the modern age is the desire to be more tranquil and focused. The wish to be calmer is almost universal. The age in which we live is wonderous in many ways, but also potently and tragically calibrated to predispose those living in it to low-level depression and a high level of background anxiety.
Having been born into such an era, perhaps we should treat ourselves, and those around us, with a measure of gentle care. What can we do to alleviate our stress? There are ancient antidotes to the problems that beset modern humans, as simple as they are effective. Most cultures possess some form of contemplative practice, and these, adapted for a modern, secular world, lie at the core of mindfulness. One simple practice, taught to students throughout the School as part of our mindfulness program, offers a clear path to peace and calm. It involves three simple steps—Pause, Breathe, Smile.
In our busy society, it is of great value, from time to time, to stop doing and simply be. It may feel counterintuitive, when busy and pressed with deadlines, to sit still. Indeed, it contravenes the values transmitted to us by the society in which we live.
In anthropological terms, ours would be classified as a doing culture. Every society asks of itself the fundamental question, ‘How best should we spend our time?’ The anthropologists Florence Kluckhorn and Fred Strodtbeck (1961) suggested that cultures that answer this question by emphasising that people should continually complete tangible tasks—doing cultures—may be distinguished from those that value pause and reflection—being cultures. While much may be accomplished within a doing culture, much may also be lost.
The human body possesses only one stress system, and it cannot discern between tasks to be accomplished and the threat presented by predators our biological ancestors may have encountered. Cortisol, the hormone that surges in response to stress, can be useful when needed to prime our minds and bodies to face an immediate and sudden threat, but becomes more problematic when endured for a sustained period. Cortisol activates our sympathetic nervous system, one of the two components of the autonomic nervous system, the bodily network through which signals and instructions are transmitted. Our flight-or-fight response is triggered. Within our modern society, we are stuck constantly in this mode. When the body generates cortisol, it does so at the expense of other hormones, diverting resources from other processes. As a result, ineffective digestion can lead to weight gain, sleep disruption can leave us feeling constantly drowsy and our immune systems can become exhausted.
There is, however, an ‘off’ switch—the parasympathetic nervous system. Responsible for the rest-and-digest response, this system, when activated, increases saliva production and releases digestive enzymes, drops our heart rate and allows our muscles to relax. Put simply, when the neural pathway of the sympathetic system is activated, the corresponding pathway of the parasympathetic system is deactivated. When the neural pathway of the parasympathetic system is activated, the corresponding pathway of the sympathetic system is deactivated. For this reason, the best medical advice recommends pausing for 15 minutes each day—more, if possible—during which we allow our bodies the time and space to hit the ‘off’ switch on cortisol production. It must be time spent alone, it must not involve a screen and we must not feel guilty. It should not be delayed until everything has been done, for there is always something else to accomplish.
With the full stop at the end of this sentence, pause—sit and feel your feet on the floor and your legs on the chair—stop doing, and just be.
The breath provides a stable anchor in the present moment. It is something that happens continuously, in every moment, for our entire lives. Regardless of our internal thoughts, emotions and perceptions, our breath is always with us. From the time we are born, to the time we die, our breath punctuates every moment of our lives.
The rhythm of our breathing quickens with physical strain or emotional upset, and slows during periods of relaxation and sleep. While we have little voluntary control over many processes of our body, we can, to a degree, control our breath, varying its rate and depth. Still, slow or rapid, controlled or left to itself, the breath continues, through all our experiences. And yet, we are often too busy to notice it.
For this reason, the breath plays an extremely important role in meditation. Conscious breathing can serve to collect and anchor our mind. So often, our mind is in one place while our body is doing something else. Paying attention to the breath can offer a way to access great calm and stillness, even in moments of turmoil. The breath can remind us that we are alive, and that being alive is wonderful.
With the fullstop at the end of this sentence, notice how enjoyable it can be simply to breathe. There is no need to control your breath. Simply watch and observe, feeling the breath as it actually is—long or short, deep or shallow. Feel the flow of air coming in and going out, and say gently to yourself, ‘Breathing in, I know I am breathing in; breathing out, I know I am breathing out.’
The pleasure that can be triggered by a smile is immeasurable. As Nat King Cole’s 1954 hit ‘Smile’ would have it, ‘When there are clouds in the sky/you’ll get by/If you smile…’. Science would agree that there is, indeed, value in the idea that we can put on a happy face. Charles Darwin was the first to propose that facial expressions can influence our emotional experience in his 1872 work The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal. There, he posited that ‘the free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it…Even the simulation of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds’ (p.366). This theory, subsequently developed into the facial-feedback hypothesis, has found experimental confirmation in modern studies.
In one study (Strack, Martin & Stepper, 1988), experimenters instructed participants to hold a pen in their mouth in one of two ways. The first group held the pen between their upper lip and nose, forcing the orbicularis oris muscle to contract—that is, making them frown. The second group held the pen between their teeth, contracting their zygomaticus major or risorius muscle, resulting in a smile. Thus poised, and presumably equipped with a second pen, participants completed a questionnaire, the final question of which asked for a subjective assessment of the comedic value of a cartoon. As predicted, those whose facial muscles were contracted in emulation of a smile reported significantly higher amusement at the cartoon than those whose face bore a frown.
With the full stop at the end of this sentence, try it—let a gentle smile curl on your lips.
Any time you need to, take a moment to pause, breathe and smile, spending as much time on each step as you may need. You are living in the present moment, and whatever else may be happening, it is a wonderful moment.
Chaterrjee, R. (2017) The Four Pillar Plan: How to relax, eat, move and sleep your way to a longer, healthier life, Penguin Books, Great Britain.
Darwin, C., & Prodger, P. (1998). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. Oxford University Press, USA.
Kluckhorn, F. and Strodbeck, F. (1961) Variations in value orientation. New York: Harper Collins.
Strack, Fritz; Martin, Leonard L.; Stepper, Sabine (May 1988). “Inhibiting and Facilitating Conditions of the Human Smile: A Nonobtrusive Test of the Facial Feedback Hypothesis”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 54 (5): 768–777. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2068. PMID 3379579