Still face

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, March 5, 2020


Every March, when the world is born again, I feel compelled, like sap rising up my arm, to shoot a hand into the air, as if to ask some primal question, as if sitting in the first row of the classroom of life. 

I don’t know if it’s because it’s my birth month, or because a few local calves have already dropped with a thud to Earth, or because I hear a buzzing bug, or because some surprisingly brooding storm has shoved its way in to change the sky’s lighting around. My hand is up. There’s movement afoot and below and above and everywhere, like electricity. But what is the question? 

Just a few days ago, some close friends welcomed a new baby girl into the world. Because of this vicarious parenting moment, a heart filled with wonder and appreciation, I opted in on a new series on babies, which these new parents happened to be watching, I learned, at precisely the same time. What struck me from Episode 1 was an experiment, one that I continue to think about, called the Still Face Experiment. 

In this famous experiment, mothers were told first to act in a normal way with their babies sitting before them, to make their usual loving and engaged facial expressions, gestures and vocalizations. In short, to connect. Then, they were asked to suddenly disengage and become completely non-responsive — to have a still face, without a trace of emotion, acknowledgment or reaction. If you take a moment to really feel into this as if you were a baby (or into your child self, or even right now, right this minute), it is quite frightening. Fundamentally terrifying, in fact. 

The babies’ response was not surprising, but its instantaneity was. Mom’s stillness was noted and adjustments were made almost from the moment she ceased connecting. The babies would begin going through all their reconnection tricks, one by one, to get their moms back — smiling, pointing, verbalizing and flailing their arms. They might self soothe for a while, then they’d begin again, essentially screaming, “I’m here, where are you?!” Eventually, they would either break down and cry or wait until their mothers “returned” to have the break down. As if then to say, “Now that you’re back, I realize just how mad and sad I was, OK?” 

I was thinking about this, first, in relationship to how still the very face we often use is, especially when alone and in relationship to ourselves. When we walk around the house from one room to another, or when making a bed, or chopping onions, or, possibly worst of all, staring at our phones. Who are we with ourselves? Do we mirror that potentially still face back at ourselves over and over a thousand times in an auto-induced selfie hall of mirrors? And can we even know that face if we are lost in thought, as we often are? How does this still face energetically affect us and then ripple out into the plasticity of the world all around? 

Within the next 24 hours, in an online course I happen to be taking, what should come up? The Still Face Experiment, of course. In a lecture on communication and connection, the very study was referenced and a clip shown, with an ending comment relating that what the babies were doing over and over again (bless their limpid hearts) was simply trying to get back into relationship. 

The expert from my online course (Harville Hendrix, author of “Getting the Love You Want”) pointed out after the clip had ended that, actually, “the baby is us.” That the process of going back to this resonance of connection, the pure joy the baby feels in relationship, is a repair process that most of us spend our lives trying to retrieve. When we are not connecting, we are scared and anxious. When we are connecting, we feel joy. 

So, as the spring season worms its way boldly back into daylight, as it pushes up or burgeons out or scuds in, depending on which part of nature we’re talking about, it seems like the perfect time to be thinking about babies. About all the untarnished little minis potentially teaching us about so many things relative to the indomitable surging of life and power of relationship within it. In this case and for the purposes of my betterment, I see the perversion of the power of still face on my life, a recognition of what connection actually means to my health. 

I did not necessary know what the primal question was, but ready or not, I got my answer. In spring — thank you, roots, shoots, winds, thaws, birds and bright warm sun — I feel up for the challenge. 

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