Reflections on the Face


Have you ever observed a baby as it finds the face of its mother? How intent it is as it lingers there, drinks deeply with its eyes the eyes of her, the smile of her? The tone of her voice, her gestures, her smell and heartbeat are all part of what constellate her face. If things go well, the mother’s face becomes a dwelling place for her child.

In Hebrew, there are many words for the name of God. One of them is ha makom, the place. The place of its mother’s face becomes for the baby its first portal to a felt sense of the sacred; its first sanctuary in which to take refuge, in which to find that there is goodness within the self and within the world since, for the child, the mother is the world.

Winnicott describes the mother’s face as the child’s first mirror.

Betty, who grew up with an alcoholic mother tells me that her mother’s face would change, that every day was like Halloween: what face would her mother wear this morning, when Betty returned from school, when dinner was done? Betty lived in a state of anxiety waiting upon the weather of her mother.

Winnicott talked about how the child who cannot find a mirror in mother’s face becomes a weather forecaster: how can I predict what the weather will be when I awake this morning, go to bed this evening? What will its face be? How can I find a way to predict so that I can create even a minimally constant world?

In his older years, Winnicott wrote a poem about his childhood memory of his mother:

“mother below is weeping, weeping, weeping.

thus I know her.

once, stretched out on her lap

as now on a dead tree”.

In this poem, Winnicott poignantly conveys how he watched over his depressed mother who is likened to a dead tree. A dead tree is cold and unresponsive and upon it, as upon the lap of the deadened mother, a child is likely to feel exiled from the warmth of belonging to the living, of not having a place.

Betty would read the nuances of my face like a weather forecaster: “Judith, where have you gone? I can tell you are not here.” Meaning: “Have you too left me suddenly? Was I not enough for you to stay? Are you judging me? Has your face left me because you are bored, angry, disgusted with me? Do I still have a place in your face like I did in our last session? I feel frightened by the cold aloneness I feel, a cosmic aloneness chill.” I explain “No, I did not go, I was just mulling something that you said over in my mind.” Over time, the fear about my disappearing became more of a questioning: “You look like you are thinking about something? Are you?”

Betty’s concern about my absence transformed from an initially anxious to a later lively curiosity about the content of my reverie. She came to know that in my reverie, I was holding her in mind. She came to know how that was different than abandonment.

Alan Schore tells us that in a secure attachment, a child and a mother each feel the freedom to look away, to become absorbed in both the inner and outer world, away from one another. Schore explains that during disengagement, the mother needs to be sufficiently attuned so as to reengage with her baby when the baby signals for her return. Thus, a secure attachment is not one in which mother and child, therapist and client, are always connected. Indeed that kind of attachment would bespeak the vigilance Winnicott talks about in his poem, an anxious and preoccupied reading of the mother’s presence and absence. This leaves no inner space for the child to venture into the outside world in an open and resilient way.

Betty talks about everyone she knows going on, one away to law school, an other to be closer to her children, while only she remains close to home. She says: “I grasp on to the unchanging…it gives me security…but then I am stuck in a quagmire, cannot take a step forward.” What would a step forward into the world mean for you? “Being alone in an empty room”. As we talk, we come to understand the significance of Betty’s thinking about reducing our meetings because she ‘wants to explore other things’. Now we understand that what she wants is a reliable place of connection that she can trust returning to as she turns to face the excitement that calls her into the world. She says “I feel fear in my body” She can place one hand on the fear and the other on the freedom and breathe them both.

Winnicott defines play as a capacity to become fully absorbed in something in a relaxed way with one’s whole body and mind. He tells us that the opposite of play is not work. It is, rather, compliance by which he means being alert to what is needed and adapting in order to maintain security. When I am at play, I am in my ‘true self’, in psychosomatic unity, in direct sensory experiencing, living in the alive moment. This state can be thought of as a precursor to the experience of Zen awareness, of beginner’s mind, alert and relaxed. When I am compliant, I am in my ‘false self, anxiously reading the face to meet its needs and doing so with a nervous system that is on alert.

When Betty arrives late and finds me seated in my chair, I can see in her face that she is surprised and touched as my face greets her, has waited for her; that my eyes welcome her. I can see and hear her breathing relax as she sits down and takes a long look into my face. Once rooted there, she yawns and looks down, able to turn inward to gather her thoughts.

In this face-to-face experience, Betty experiences a ‘new beginning’. Slowly she is coming to trust in what Winnicott calls a ‘holding environment’, one in which a person can begin over again, pick up the dropped stitches of growth and reweave a whole cloth of connection with self and other.

This process of weaving and reweaving is a creative one. The child and mother (and the patient and therapist) do not simply find the face. They are creators of the face. This is one of the paradoxes that Winnicott so loved: the face is there all the time and, at the same time, the face is created in mutual attunement. What is mirrored is not just the smile or the sadness that appears on the face but the inner state of being. This sense of “I am one who creates presence and response” is especially true if a mother or therapist is enlivened by her child or her patient. Out of the reciprocity of two faces reflecting one another, there is a bathing of two energy fields amplifying and creating a field that is greater than the two.

Buber in talking about the I- Thou relationship, speaks of the ‘third’ that appears through a genuine meeting of the two. A third that is neither you nor me but rather the creation that arises out of the two. Buber call this ‘the between’ which gives a sense of the ‘real’. This is perhaps the first creative act of a young child, that of seeing the resonance kindled in the deep self of the mother, emanating from her face. When we look at the first drawings of young children, we more often than not find a large circle representing the face with two lines coming off it for arms and two for legs. These drawings of the face are mandalas, first symbols of wholeness and centering.

For real meeting to happen, the face that is created needs to reveal spontaneity. If I plan my face, prepare my face to welcome Betty as she enters my office, the aliveness of spontaneous resonance will not be there.

Buber tells a very touching tale of his childhood:

Buber’s parents separated when he was three. Brought up in his grandparent’s home, he would spend summers on their farm. He recalls that when he was nine years old, he would steal into the stable and gently stroke the neck of his dapple-gray horse. He describes these moments: “it was not a casual delight but a great, deeply stirring happening. If I am to explain it now, beginning from the still very fresh memory of my hand, what I experienced in touch with the animal was the Other, the immense otherness of the Other…that let me draw near and touch it….the horse very gently raised his massive head, ears flicking, then snorted quietly…and I was approved”

Buber goes on to explain that one day it struck him as he was stroking the horse: what fun it gave him, and how he suddenly became conscious of his hand.

“The game went on as before, but something had changed;, it was no longer the same thing. And the next day, after giving him a rich feed, when I stroked my friend’s head he did not raise his head….”

Buber tells how this experience seeded within him a sense of the I-Thou which is one of direct experiencing, as opposed to what Buber calls the I-It, in which one scrutinizes one’s actions and those of the other. In direct experiencing, as in a shining forth of face to face mirroring, there is no agenda, no technique, no preparation. One, therefore, never knows when such meeting will occur. Both baby and mother, patient and therapist, will be surprised and will feel the grace of being blessed by meeting in the space of creation.

When we see a baby and mother, sit with a client, or behold another in a moment of what Buber calls the ‘between’, we cannot help but sense a pulsating aliveness, not just lighting the faces but streaming through the whole body, truly a unity of psyche and soma. Winnicott calls this state one of ‘indwelling’, being at home in the wholeness of both mind and body. Receiving the blessing of having a place in the face and inner space of my mother, I come slowly to develop a dwelling place within my own being, a sense of home, a center of wholeness to return to when things fall apart.

Sometimes I wonder why we have been formed needing to locate our self in the mirror that is the face of the other. How vulnerable this makes us to the face of the other and how vulnerable the other is to our face.

There is a coffee shop in my town. Sometimes I stop there when I have a break in the day and go into town to shop. Usually in a rush to get back to the office, I find myself frustrated waiting in line or my cappuccino. I look at the server at the coffee machine, see how slow she is in preparing the drinks and find myself staring at her with my impatient face. I see her seeing me looking at her. I become suddenly aware of how my face must be affecting her and I fill with regret for how I have violated her Otherness with my face. I find myself reciting a line from the psalms. It goes like this: shiviti shechina lenegdi tamid: I place God before me always. This means to me: I see the holiness in your face. I see your face with God’s eyes. Now I stand in line and repeat this mantra as I look at the server’s face. I am no longer rushing. I am grateful for this time. Now I look forward to coming to town, to stopping at the coffee shop. These become moments for me to practice the spirituality of how the face is a portal into the holy and this becomes more important than my cappuccino.

I think of Bion who advised therapists to ‘let go of all memory and all desire’ when they step into a session space, meaning: having no agendas, being present for moments of meeting, each with himself and with one another. Out of such meetings evolve the capacity for connection both with the other and with one’s self, the hallmark of secure attachment.

Winnicott wrote about the face of the mother being the child’s first mirror in the 1960’s. Since that time, the advent of neuroimaging techniques has revolutionized the capacity to gain knowledge of the human brain. Alan Schore has been in the forefront of brain research related to the effects of face-to-face contact between mother and child upon the development of the child’s brain. This research provides evidence for what Winnicott understood from the depths of his intuitive and clinical wisdom. I can only imagine how thrilled he would be if he were alive today!

Schore underscores how positive face to face interactions of mother and child directly affect the development of the right social brain. The right brain is activated in early infancy to respond to emotional cues. The infant early on has the capacity to process information from faces. In fact, neuroimaging shows that the right brain of the mother is also activated when she responds to her child’s cries. The smiling, joyful, soothing and calming face of the mother actually grows the social right brain of her infant. The roots of empathy and loving kindness for self and other are formed in the face to face, right brain to right brain, limbic dance between mother and child. Here is the beginning of our capacity to look at one another with eyes of compassion. These experiences of deep knowing are embedded in our body memory, long before language and verbal memory.

Emmanuel Levinas, a European philosopher who spent time in not one but two concentration camps during World War II, writes about the human face. Given that he was a survivor of the Holocaust, he makes an astounding statement. He says that if we truly look into the face of the other, we would find it impossible to make war. We see the Other, the infinity of the ineffable mystery of life itself shining forth from the face of the other. Not only would we be incapable of making war, of killing the other; we would be called to take care of the other as we witness his vulnerability. Levinas and Buber each has a philosophical appreciation of what Alan Schore understands at the level of neuroscience and what Winnicott comprehends at the clinical level. In the spontaneous gesture of meeting another face, we breath in the presence and dwell in the between that sustains connection to all living things.

Most of us know that our faces change over time. Our face when young is not the face of our ageing. Sometimes we meet someone who looks at our face and does not recognize us. Or we look in a mirror and are surprised, even shocked, not to recognize our own face. What abides of our face in the face of all that changes? I believe it is that still point that the Buddhists call our ‘original face’, the one that is held in love past all changes, first by our mother and then by our relationship to the trans-personal Atman, God, Love, Breath of Life.

I recently saw the film of a Neil Young concert, called Heart of Gold. It was a wonderful experience except for one thing. The face of one of the singers who sang along with Neil Young was deeply disturbing to me. It seemed that she had either had cosmetic surgery or botox treatment. Her face did not move, seemed expressionless. I responded as I imagine Winnicott would have to a ‘dead’ mother. We need the expressions of our face for connection, to touch and be touched. This means that we need to be open to our faces changing even in ways not condoned by our youth focused culture. To live in an individuated way, beyond collective values, one needs a personal ground to stand upon. The foundation stone of this ground is set down in earliest childhood and blesses us with an inner strength and faith in the abiding of an unchanging love beyond all changes.

The day after seeing Heart of Gold, Sonia a woman in therapy with me, in her seventies, recounted a recent experience:

I was driving a young nephew in his twenties to an appointment. He was sitting quietly beside me. Suddenly, I felt his finger on my face, tracing the lines that run so deep on it. When I turned to look at him, I saw him staring at my face with wonder. I was touched to tears. I felt so loved. It felt like that finger reached from his soul and was walking the song lines of my life.

May we touch one another’s faces

May we, at the beginning of life.

May we, through all the changes,

behold the original unchanging face.

May we, at the end of life.

May we touch with our eyes.

May we touch with our hearts.

May we touch those beloved to us.

May we touch the stranger.

May we bless the song lines on all

the faces of our common humanity.

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