Ruth Ozeki is a bestselling novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest whose books include My Year of Meats, All Over Creation, and A Tale for the Time Being. Her newest book, The Face: A Time Code, is a meditative reflection on the visage she greets in the mirror each day and an examination of attention and memory. The challenge: to sit and watch her own face for three hours, keeping a detailed log of the thoughts and observations that arise during the process. This experiment, issued by Restless Books to Ozeki and two other authors, was inspired by an assignment Harvard art historian Jennifer L. Roberts gives to her students. She asks them to spend three full hours observing a single piece of art.
“The artist makes the familiar strange,” Ozeki writes, and the inverse might be said just as easily: the artist makes the strange familiar. Ozeki manages to do both throughout the course of this slim volume, using her reflection as a way to examine culturally entrenched notions of female beauty, musings on aging and the body, and the ties that bind meditation, novel-writing, and the thinking mind.
—Marie Scarles, Editorial Assistant
If some intrepid soul were to approach this project on their own, what advice might you give them?
I would invite them to hold it lightly: to take breaks if they need to stand up, walk around, or get a cup of coffee, and to not be too rigid in front of the mirror. I wish I had thought to draw my face while I was sitting. It would have been interesting to explore [the experiment] verbally after starting with a drawing. People have told me that they are doing versions of this exercise in small groups, workshops, at home, and in classrooms. It seems to be catching on in a funny way. Several people have said they’ve incorporated blind drawing—where you don’t look at the page, but look at whatever it is that you’re drawing—and move your hands. My advice to people is to treat this as play: hold it lightly and have fun with it.
As you wrote your notes, did you allow yourself to wander down the reflective road or try to bind yourself to observation?
I was trying to stay focused on just observation. I would make notes if an association popped into my mind so that I would remember it later and come back to it. The idea was to use that as the spine of the essay. Then I stepped away from it for several months, which was useful, because when I came back to it, it felt fresh. I was able to look at it and to free associate based on observations I had during the experiment, then I allowed myself to wander and deviate. It had been awhile since I’d done the experiment. I think my mind was a lot freer.
In the book you wrote that Professor Roberts’s experiment was painful by design: anything less than painful will not yield the benefits of immersive attention that she wishes to teach. You then point out that slow processing and strategic patience are skills that have atrophied in our world. As a novelist and a Zen priest these are two skills you’ve honed throughout your life.
By nature, I’m a very impatient person. Patience has never been one of the virtues that came easily to me. I’ve had to work for it. Certainly, sitting zazen is a practice of patience. You could say that that’s what the practice is. I think [Zen teacher] Norman Fischer talked about [zazen] in a playful kind of way: he described it as the practice of waiting for nothing.
As a novelist, it’s absolutely vital to cultivate the practice of patience. If you’re as slow a writer as I am, or if you’re impatient, you simply won’t finish. You’ll give up. It’s really due to the practice of patience that I’ve been able to come back to novel manuscripts over the course of many years and finish them.
However, often as a writer and as a Zen practitioner I hear myself extolling the virtues of patience when I realize that while patience is absolutely necessary, impatience is also necessary. You wouldn’t want to get rid of all your impatience. The tension that exists between patience and impatience is so fertile. That’s where the energy comes from. That’s the momentum that moves you forward in a novel, for example. If you weren’t impatient to know the end of the novel, you could get stuck in patience and never finish. I think that’s probably true to some extent for spiritual inquiry. When you’re starting out, you’re impatient for insight. Your desire is what keeps you coming back to your seat, to your cushion, and to the study and practice of the dharma. This tension between knowing and not knowing is a generative energy. And it’s a generative force that arises between these two apparently oppositional forces. I think it’s important to be able to hold them both and work with that. As a writer, there’s the excitement that comes from wanting to know where you’re going. It’s true for life, too: you want to know where you’re going. If you didn’t feel that excitement, you might just sit down and never move again.
True, lethargy and complacency are different from stillness. It’s important to discriminate between them. From certain perspectives they can look similar, but they are very separate things.
Yes, exactly. There’s an energy to one and a lack of energy to the other. I think that energy is liveliness—it’s what being alive is about.
It could be said that there is a tension, too, between the act of writing and the act of meditation. For you, how do these activities relate to one another?
They’re different and they’re not so different. When writing, or while I was doing the face observation experiment, I am very focused on the object under scrutiny. When you’re doing breath meditation, for instance, you’re not focusing on the breath in that intense way. It’s a light attention.
Certainly while sitting zazen you’re attending to the breath, but then you let that go and rest in a spacious quality—thinking and not-thinking. You’re constantly letting go. Whereas in writing of any kind there’s an intermediary step. The thought arises, you notice it, you write it down, and then you let it go. There’s the intermediary step of writing it down, but it is followed by letting go as well. The act of writing it down, ultimately, is a kind of letting go.
There’s a feeling that happens when I’m writing well that is not dissimilar to the feeling I have in zazen when I become very still, when I really settle into zazen. Sometimes after a long and deep writing practice, for example, I’ll wake up the next morning and I’ll look at the manuscript that I’ve written and I won’t have any recollection of it. Or I’ll have a vague recollection, but I have to re-read it in order to remember what I wrote.
When sitting zazen, you meditate for hours. Later, when you’re lying in bed and casting back over the day, you have a vague sense of where your mind has been, but not really. You remember a few thoughts you had or something you noticed that was beautiful, or an opening of insight. You don’t have a concrete grasp of where your mind has been, exactly, over the eight hours of meditation. This is the kind of feeling that sometimes I have after an intense writing period.
The catch-22 of female beauty is something you explore quite a bit in the book. You write about our image-obsessed culture and the way we rely on youth and beauty to define our self-worth and the ways this entraps women. After writing this book, do you find yourself defining “beautiful” differently?
Very much so. Partly because of aging and partly because of practice, and certainly through doing experiments, like this observation. It was very profound to walk out on the street after spending a long period of time with my face. To walk out onto the street and look around, it was suddenly clear: all of these people have faces! We all have faces and we have complicated relationships and feelings about our face. Every face represents generations of other faces. The world seemed filled with the ancestors. It was like the ghosts of the past were all here in our faces. Beauty becomes something else: every face becomes stunningly beautiful in its own way because it is what it is. It’s exactly what it is.
This feeling is transient. A week later I was walking around scowling at people again. But sometimes I still do get hit with that insight. Sometimes I just look around and think: “Wow. Look at all of these faces. Isn’t it amazing that we all have them? They are both exactly what they are and not what they seem to be.”
There is this temple in Kamakura, Japan, called Tokei-ji, that was built in the medieval period by women of the aristocracy. Back then it was the only place where women could go and legally obtain a divorce. It became a very popular Rinzai Zen temple. Instead of requiring the nuns to sit zazen facing the wall as we normally do, the nuns would sit facing a mirror. They would sit in contemplation of their face for three years, at the end of which they would be granted a divorce.
What does this mean? I think two things are going on. One is that you reclaim the gaze, from a feminist point of view. From another point of view, you’re also loosening your attachment to your own physical face, to your appearance. There are two paradoxical forces at work at the same time. This was something that I just learned about and I found it to be very, very beautiful. It’s in new book called In Search of Buddha’s Daughters. The author, Christine Toomey, goes to Japan visits Tokei-ji. I didn’t know about this before I did my observation experiment and wrote this essay. I’m just fascinated by this idea that mirror Zen has been in existence for hundreds of years.
It seems like something that would be oddly beneficial, for women in our youth-and-beauty obsessed, image-obsessed, and self-presentation-obsessed culture. There could be something instructive there.
I think so too. Combined with the right context, [mirror reflection] could be a very profound way of teaching mindfulness. It might encourage women to learn where their attachments are. My hunch is that we cause ourselves a lot of pain and suffering because of our fears and concerns about our appearance. I’d guess that even the most beautiful young women are probably not all that happy with the way they look. This practice could help develop an awareness of the ways we make ourselves suffer as a result of our harsh analysis of our faces and appearance. It could be a useful tool.
In Buddhist teachings the three marks of existence are impermanence, no-self, and the existence of suffering. After doing this experiment and finding your parents and your lineage in your own face, encountering the memories that come along with that, were there any other marks that signaled to you, “I exist”?
Yes. Love. At the end of the three hours when I went out onto the street and looked at people’s faces, I felt this overwhelming sense of tenderness and love for the humans that we are the “time beings” that we are. After having gone through this three-hour experiment, feeling all of the pain of memory and thinking about my parents’ faces and my own, a lot of emotions came and went. Fear and sadness. Grief. Memories of hardship. But there was also a sense of love. There was a tenderness seeing my father in my face and feeling the connection, that deep sense of interconnectedness. It’s another way of talking about no-self and dependent co-arising. We are inextricably and radically connected with each other, and the sweetness of that is something I was left with at the end. In Zen, we don’t talk about love all that much. I think we should talk about love more. So, love. There: I said it!
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