by DT Strain
Often we tend to think of our thoughts as our own private little world. There we feel free to do what we like. Especially in the West, our philosophical, ethical, and religious systems tend to look at matters in a very external, third-person manner, and focus on behavior. We imagine, as long as we do the right things, and do not do the wrong things (according to some logical set of ethical dictates) then we are okay – and, what we think internally doesn’t really matter. This perspective can even lead us to next focus only on the major behaviors: did I thank this person, did I refrain from hitting that person, etc. Therefore, we might tend to disregard minor or ‘insignificant’ behaviors like our facial expression, tone of voice, body language, and so on. We might consider these neutral or of little significance to our ethics or our well-being.
With such a view, when any system tries to tell us how to think, we might start to think of ethics as being about following commandments; an authoritative approach. So, direction on thoughts might seem intrusive or oppressive – we begin to entertain notions of ‘the thought police’ and become offended.
However, in a naturalistic sense, real ethics is not a top-down authoritative restriction. Rather, ethics are a road map to peace, well-being, and happiness. Therefore, such concepts should be helpful advice coming from a compassionate motivation.
With this in mind, it is worth noting that how we think, and our mental attitudes and motivations, are of great significance to our development of character and internal habits, which is where all action begins and what will ultimately determine our ability to experience deeper happiness in life.
A large portion of our communication with others is non-verbal (body language and expression), and this would be reason enough to consider our demeanor. But Demeanor Practice is based on the recognition that our ‘little behaviors’ not only represent our internal mindset, but they can even help to shape it. In Demeanor Practice, we attempt to stay mindful of how we are carrying ourselves and how we are interacting with others. It involves paying constant and close attention to our body language, our facial expressions, our breathing patterns, our volume, our tone, how deliberative we are being in our motions, whether we are being patient in letting others speak and listening to them carefully, how we are phrasing our communications, and other such things. In all of this, we want to present ourselves in a mindful, deliberative, joyful, and most of all, compassionate manner.
At first, there may be a feeling that we are ‘faking it’. However the common phrase, ‘fake it ’till you make it’ doesn’t really capture the fullness of what we are trying to do in Demeanor Practice. More than simply an outward performance, when we act with a patient and compassionate demeanor, we are also attempting to get into that place mentally; internally; deeply. This kind of attention to our outward actions forces us to also stay mindful of our inward disposition. If there is a conflict between the two, that discomforting feeling of faking it will be an alert to us that our inner disposition is not what it could be, and so internal habits of thought and motivation can be built. In meditation we learned the practice of returning to the breath whenever we veer, without discouragement. This is an example of a practice where we can apply that developed attention capacity to other tasks; in this case staying continuously mindful of our demeanor and returning to our Demeanor Practice whenever we veer.
Over time, we will notice that smiles are not merely the product of a happy or kind attitude, but a happy or kind attitude can also be the product of smiling more. As with meditation, this is a skill that can be improved over time, through continued practice.