Words: Alex Scrimgeour
The human face is our most familiar image, it’s the first thing we see when born and in time, the faces we come to love are the deepest sources of joy and connection with the world. Unless we are twinned, the face we are born with is unique and tells a complex story of who we are, where we come from, and who we want to be. The face is a symbol of our humanity and reflects both who we are as a person and as a species. We have incredible nuance in our facial expression as a shapeshifting mask of communication and as a conduit for fully expressing and embodying our deepest delight. The more you analyse the nature of the human face, the more layers are revealed. Our ancestry, upbringing, hardships and emotional trauma, our temperament and character, our kindness, hope and wisdom― all of this can be revealed through the face. For one of our most innate evolutionary skills is to read one another’s faces. To a greater of lesser degree we are all experts at this, for our very survival depends on it.
This innate skill is part of what is called the ‘social nervous system’ and operates largely below our conscious thinking mind. It is an instinct we are born with, and gives us a splitsecond sense of who and what feels safe or dangerous. In turn, this cues our body to shift into a state of being at ease, which is essential for health and healing, or into a state of caution and alertness, which is essential for survival. Also known as the ‘orientation mode’ of our nervous system, this distinctly human ability is so intrinsic that we are mostly unaware of it, yet so patterned into our sense of self that it forms the bedrock of our worldview. Our habitual facial expressions form the emotional template that governs whether we experience a healthy ‘orientation response’. The face carries an emotional weighting, which tilts our internal compass for navigating the dangers of life. Because of this, it also plays a key role in health and wellbeing. What was once thought of as just a superficial aspect of the body, like an antennae to the world, is now known to be intimately connected to the deepest layers of both our physiology and psychology. The face does not just reflect the mind, but it is a physical parallel to our state of consciousness, so if our face is tense our mind will be tense too. This is a symbiotic relationship- when we relax our mind the face also relaxes and when we release tension from the face we also release the mind from tension and emotional stress. Conversely, when we see people with a habitual flattening and hardening of the expression, particularly around the forehead and eyes, this very often correlates with a history of suffering from trauma or depression. It is like a layer of emotional armouring has been created to buffer any future interactions that could potentially be painful.
As the neurobiologist Stephen Porges says, “faces become blank or flat when people become scared or challenged or are in pain.”  This armouring also hampers our ability to mirror and empathise with other people and develop positive nourishing relationships. We actually all carry a degree of armouring; it’s a natural human behaviour to wear different masks to handle different situations, but unfortunately these masks sometimes become fixed, inhibiting our freedom and growth. If we physically wake up the face and re-engage all the physiological structures and pathways, we can create a window of opportunity to break out of emotional patterns. This can be achieved through self-massage alongside using our mind to internally engage and release tension in our face and around our sense organs. In Vietnam, a unique form of therapy has been developed called Dien Chan (facial reflexology), which specialises in releasing the patterns of tension in the face.
It also works on the subtle interconnections between the face and the rest of the body, frequently being used to treat pain and illness throughout the body. Since the 1970s the creator of this therapy, Bui Quoc Chau, has mapped out over 200 pressure points on the face, which correlate with different aspects of our physiology, anatomy, and mind.It is very significant that this therapy was developed in the aftermath of the Vietnam-American war. Dien Chan was developed with a community suffering from the trauma and extreme stress of war. It is my understanding that because of this, Dien Chan is especially suited for working with patterns of stress, trauma, emotional and nervous system imbalance. However, in Vietnam Dien Chan is primarily know as a therapy for treating physical pain and illness. This begs the questions, what is the relationship between physical health and mental-emotional health? We now know that there is a strong link between emotional pain and physical pain as they appear to light up the same pathways in the brain. The scientific study of pain, like emotion, is currently experiencing a paradigm shift, which is slowly filtering into mainstream medicine and therapy. Some researchers even describe pain as an emotion. Although I don’t believe the phenomena of emotional or physical pain can be entirely reduced to brain physiology, Dien Chan seems to be tapping into these pathways where physical and emotional healing are intertwined.
Regardless of whether we suffer physically or emotionally, the expression on our face is of the same dynamic, and this illustrates the deep entanglement between our physicality and our consciousness. Of course it is not just the face that is entangled in this dynamic, the whole body is too. Our emotions can be felt just as strongly in our chest or in our belly as in our face. It just so happens that the face is uniquely positioned to change our sensorial experience and also our raw perception of the world around us. It is for this reason that if we can change the relationship we have with our face we can in turn change the relationship we have with the world. Dien Chan therapists like to describe the face as a master control panel for all the physiological and mentalemotional processes of the body. I would take it further and suggest that the face contains a profound ability to reconfigure our entire relationship with the world around us. By increasing our moment-to-moment awareness of our face we can begin to map-out the layered connections that cascade through our nervous system, our breathing and heartbeat, our emotions and feelings, right down to the piezo-electric charge in our bones. This process begins with igniting a curiosity towards the nature of our sense organs and a willingness to question our senses. We form a question not with our words or even our thoughts, but at the most barenaked level: at the level of feeling. When we feel into the body, rather than searching for an answer, we are simply open to feeling what is there, a neutral listening under the skin. In meditation this is sometimes called ‘inner hearing’ or ‘inner vision’; in neuroscience this is called ‘interoception’ and refers to a very real sense we have that is distinct from the typical ‘five senses’.
By developing this felt sense of the body we are also developing our capacity to change our relationship with the body. If we remain in a state of calmness and safety as we explore the interoceptive space of our body this will sooth and re-pattern our nervous system. This can heal both chronic pain and emotional trauma. We cannot change what we cannot feel, or as James Baldwin said, “not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” If we can feel how the tension around our eyes or in our throat connects to the more subtle internal sensations of our emotions, our mood, and our temperament, we can start to grasp how much our biology drives us. We can start to see how our habitual reactivity and biological stance twists our perception of the world. If our ‘social nervous system’ is orientated towards being on the defensive, for instance, then this will change how we see and hear other people and what we notice in the world around us. However, if we can retain a curiosity and openness in our orientation, then we can initiate a type of inquisitive alchemy, wherein the very act of paying attention to our perception transmutes it. Henry Corbin famously stated that ‘alchemy is the sister of prophecy’.  The prophetic referred to here does not mean to speak of what will become, but rather is a pointing towards awakening, towards more awakened ways of perception. So by re-patterning our senses we engage in a type of alchemy, one that smelts down old patterns of self-deception, rewires our physiology and forges new ways of being in the world. The metaphorical ‘gold’ that we produce is the experience of perpetually awakening into a more vivid and truthful beholding of the world.
Self-Care Sequence for Emotional and Nervous System Balance
This is where the practice of Dien Chan connects with the meditative and contemplative arts. Not only does Dien Chan offer a system of wellness, radical self-care and healing, but it also offers itself as a kind of psycho-technology that can keep our senses lucid and clear. Dien Chan directly engages our sense perception and the structures of our social orientation system, and therefore offers us a tool for guarding ourselves from self-deception, as well as a way of learning to make sense of the world with more clarity and discernment. In the era of ‘post-truth’ and the ‘attention economy’ our senses are hyper-stimulated and over-strained. I believe the methods and techniques of Dien Chan can greatly support us in navigating the way forward. However, rather than frame it as some kind of ‘magic bullet’ that will solve all our woes, it is better seen as a single thread in a woven ecology of practices. Breath-work, yoga, diet, sleep hygiene, meditation, contemplation and the social nourishment of friendship, music, and ritual are just as important in an ecology of practice. The beauty of Dien Chan is that it’s like a keystone in this ecology- it can interface between our internal and external worlds, enriching all these life habits and bridging the embodied self with external world. It can help us feel embedded and in kinship within our community and within nature as a whole. In other words, it works on both the personal, communal, and ecological.
- Stephen W. Porges, ‘The Origins of Compassion: A phylogenic perspective.’ Lecture given at the ‘Science of Compassion’ Convention at Stanford University in July 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYXa_BX2cE8, accessed October 4th 2021.
- Kirstin Konietzny , Boris Suchan, Nina Kreddig, Monika Hasenbring and Omar Chehadi, “Emotion regulation and pain : Behavioral and neuronal correlates: a transdiagnostic approach.” Der Schmerz (October 2016), 30(5):412-420. Also see Steve Haines, ‘Pain is Really Strange’ (Singing Dragon, 2015).
- James Baldwin, “As Much Truth As One Can Bear”, New York Times, January 14th 1962.
- Henry Corbin, Spiritual Body & Celestial Earth: From Mazdean Iran to Shi’ite Iran (Princeton University Press, 1977), xi.
Alex Scrimgeour is a licensed acupuncturist and massage therapist, with a degree in acupuncture and a diploma in Tui-Na massage from the College of Integrated Chinese Medicine. He has studied Dien Chan (Vietnamese facial reflexology) extensively with Trần Dũng Thắng, Bùi Minh Trí, and other master clinicians at the Việt Y Ðạo Center in Vietnam. He is the author of Facial Reflexology for Emotional Well-Being. He gives treatments and teaches at many of the leading spas and wellness centers around the world and is based in London. https:// www.sensoryselfcare.com/