Adventures of a Third Eye
My first memorable experience involving that prime piece of facial real estate, the forehead, was going to church with my schoolmates on a certain Wednesday, where, as Catholic tradition would have it, we formed long lines leading to the parish priests who would dip their thumbs into cups filled with ashes and smear a dark cross between our eyebrows, murmuring in Latin, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.” This was meant to remind us of our impending doom and the need to repent – obvious priorities for children. Luckily the buoyancy of young hearts is not so easily squelched, and we had a good snicker watching our friends come back down the aisle with their black marks, calculating how we might avoid the priest with the fat fingers or the one who thought he was Picasso. One consequence of this ritual was an immediate, Hester-Prynne-like awareness of the center of my forehead. It felt like everyone was looking at it – and they were! Suddenly this place existed. My eyebrows turned to caterpillars, and the top of my face became itchy with all that attention until the ashes were washed away.
Things got quiet in the forehead area until many years later, when a different religious rite came my way. In Zen Buddhism, much time is spent sitting still; but after certain meditation sessions, there are ceremonies, and these ceremonies involve a lot of bowing. There are simple bows from the waist, but also the somewhat gymnastic sanpai: bending at the waist, then dropping to the knees, touching your forehead to the floor, and raising open palms to the sky, then getting up again as gracefully as you can manage – three times in a row. Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, and certain Orthodox Christians perform similar prostrations during their prayers, and at least one yoga posture – Child’s Pose – brings your forehead into contact with the ground. It’s a powerful gesture of surrender, and reverence; and while the object of that reverence may vary, the forehead seems to be an intersection of mind, body, and spirit in many traditions.
In eastern esoteric practices, this crossroads is known as the third-eye, or ajna chakra: the eye of intuition and insight that looks inwards instead of outwards. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the point is called the “Hall of Impressions,” or yintang. It’s considered to be the gateway to the pineal gland: a pea-sized, pinecone-shaped gland deep inside the brain that produces melatonin and controls your circadian rhythms and reproductive hormones. As part of the endocrine system, it interacts with the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus to affect sleep, stress, moods, libido, and energy levels.
So relaxing or contracting between your eyebrows can influence, among other things, the pineal gland and the secretion of vital hormones. The good news is, you don’t have to bang your head on the floor to work on this area. A little attention, and maybe some touch, will do nicely.
When you stop to notice it, you’ll find the forehead is actually quite a busy place. If you’re surprised or startled, the broad muscle covering the front of the head – the frontalis – pulls your eyebrows upward. You can feel it right now by looking way up without tilting your head, or by thinking about your latest electricity bill. Expressions of confusion, anger, disgust, and concentration usually involve the procerus, which sits like a small fan or clam shell between your eyebrows, ready to pull them inward and down. When the sun is in your eyes and you squint, you’re using your procerus. So far so good.
The problem arises when you contract these muscles continuously and unconsciously. For one thing, you may be creating a facial expression that doesn’t correspond to what you mean to communicate, so that people will “read” you as being grumpy, or suspicious, or impatient, or shocked, when you are in fact nothing of the sort. This misinformation goes inward as well: your facial cues are picked up by your brain, which will act accordingly, setting in motion the production of certain hormones, a particular way of breathing, etc. So you may find yourself stuck in a mood without quite knowing how you got there.
Notice, then let go
In my work I often find myself observing what’s going on between my clients’ eyebrows. It’s a popular place to tense up. I ask people to first identify the effort and describe what it makes them feel – which can be anything from deep-seated shame to unresolved anger to old fear. Sometimes it’s just an empty shell of a habit – one client told me he noticed himself contracting his forehead when he was chopping carrots. The next question is, what happens when you let go?
When I release the tension in the center of my forehead, I don’t feel like any existing emotion is erased; instead it drops down, as though I’ve swallowed it. There’s a feeling of something opening, or melting. It feels good.
Learning to relax these muscles and to stop contracting them automatically can bring a host of positive effects, including improved circulation of blood and lymph, increased production of endorphins, and relief from chronic fatigue, headaches, eye strain, sinus congestion, and insomnia. It’s also a quick and effective way to change your perspective.
Here are a few simple things you can try if you’d like to give yourself a little gift:
- Pay attention to the area between your eyebrows, and when you notice tension there, drop it and take a deep breath.
- Use the pads of your index and middle fingers to press on the spot as though you are pressing an elevator button; hold it for about 30 seconds; breathe.
- Massage the area by moving the same two fingers over the spot in a circular motion – whichever direction feels good; work the circle slowly up in a straight line towards your hairline; breathe.
- Do a nice face-stretching exercise, like Lion’s Breath.
Even if we are, eventually, returning to dust, for the moment you’re still here. Why carry the world around on your forehead? Let it go. Clear the road. Open your eye.
Elaine Konopka is the founder of The Attentive Body in Paris, offering private sessions in attention-based bodywork and pain management, and workshops on writing and conscious breathing. You can also find her on her YouTube channel dedicated to writing for wellbeing, The Write Thing to Do.
Motivating, thought-provoking, informative: The Attentive Body monthly newsletter. It’s free and your privacy is respected. Sign up here.