Ruth Ozeki

‘The pandemic has changed our experience of faces – our own faces and others’ – in radical and subtle ways. Masks disrupt what psychologists call holistic processing, our ability to see a face as an integrated, harmonious whole. Instead, we experience the face as fragments, whose meaning and value have been altered by politics and public health. In a subway or an airport, a naked nose poking out over a mask is not only a potentially lethal threat of viral contagion, but also a powerful signifier of social attitude and political stance. That nose tells me everything I need to know about its owner, and when it comes near me, I mutter darkly and move away.

As a film-maker turned novelist, I have been studying faces professionally for almost four decades. People-watching is part of the job description, and when I teach, it’s a skill I ask my students to practise. I look for distinctive features and facial tics, for signs of harmony and disharmony, and all the stories that a face can reveal…

[On Zoom] I lean into the screen. My eyes strain to meet my interlocutor’s gaze, but there is no way to make eye contact across this uncanny valley. If I tilt my head up to look directly into the webcam, they can look into my eyes, but I can’t see their face. I can see mine, though, boxed in the upper right-hand corner of my screen, and I try to keep from glancing up at it…

In Kamakura, Japan, there is a Rinzai Zen nunnery called Tōkeiji, founded in 1285 by an aristocratic samurai woman named Shido. Tōkeiji was famous as a sanctuary and place of refuge for women, and in the meditation hall, the nuns practised zazen in front of an enormous bronze mirror. There, each nun contemplated her reflected face, until she could see beyond her face, beyond her reflection, beyond the mirror itself, and directly experience her original nature.

In this hall of mirrors that is our socially mediated pandemic world, mirror zen seems like something we’re being forced to do whether we are aware of it or not. The challenge is not to get stuck on the surfaces or fooled by the reflections. The challenge is to go beyond, so I make another effort. Taking a deep breath, I shut off my camera and close my eyes, and instead of performing attention outwardly, I turn my attention inward. Little by little, I reconstruct my face, but from the inside: directing awareness to my forehead, my temples, my eyes; becoming conscious, from the inside, of my cheeks, my jaw, my mouth. Breathing and softening all the little muscles, until my face finally relaxes, rests, and rejoins my body, and I start to feel somewhat whole again.’ (from the Guardian)

I certainly did not relish the transition from sitting in real life to sitting on screen. There were times during sesshin, those full days of internal work, where catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror took me by surprise: so those were the dimensions and features around the infinite interior. Latterly, I have found myself facing the camera to lead meditations, and practising more like the nuns at Tōkeiji, though I usually got stuck on seeing how my posture was, rather than going beyond.

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