Down a sleepy neighborhood alley in a busy part of Saigon, there lives an old man by the name of Dr. Tran Dung Thang. In all the street-side cafes and throughout the neighborhood he is well-known and held in high esteem, for over the years he has brought relief and healing to many thousands of people. On a busy day he may treat up to one hundred people. This is despite the fact that he is well into his 90’s. His wizened face, kind eyes and long white beard lends him the air of an immortal sage straight out of a Taoist faery-tale. His bright mind, energy, and powerful voice all support this impression.
However, he is no mountain hermit and does not espouse any magical teaching. He is a man of the people and has lived in hectic Vietnamese cities all his life. He achieves his healing success with an unusual type of therapy- a unique system of Vietnamese facial reflexology called Dién Chân. From appearances, the way he works is by pressing and massaging different points and areas on the faces of his clients, using a variety of massage tools and a type of heat therapy called moxabustion.
On any given day, there is a queue of a dozen or so people waiting for treatment with him or one of his assistants. His studio is fully open to the street, which gives the whole atmosphere one of welcome and friendliness. The people coming to see him are of all ages, from the very young to those his own age, and they suffer from every illness, pain, and disease you could imagine. The treatments are unique to each individual and last anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes, at which point he playfully pretends to slap each patient, chuckles, and sends them on their way. Treatment is all on donation, a gesture which reflects the ethos and compassion at the heart of both Dr. Tran and of Dien Chan.
Having heard of his renown, I had searched the gentleman down with the help of local friends, and when they discovered who he was they opted to receive treatment themselves. After three days of treatment my friend was greatly surprised to find the nagging and painful ‘tennis elbow’ he had been suffering from had completely disappeared! With some translation help Dr. Tran welcomed me into his clinic to observe his treatments, where I past many days absorbed in fascination and learning. This experience was persuasive enough for me to enroll on one of his Dien Chan teaching courses. I was amazed by his boundless energy and deep compassion, but equally puzzled by how he was doing it. This compelled me to search deeper into the nature and mechanics of Dien Chan which in turn led me to delve into the holistic philosophy at the roots of traditional Asian medicine, the subtle dynamics between the face, emotion and the nervous system, and to ground-breaking neuroscience that stands to shift our entire understanding of health and healing.
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 entirely unique and tells a complex story of who we are, where we come from, and who we want to be. The face has incredible nuance in its expression and functions both as a shape-shifting mask of communication and as a conduit for expressing our deepest delight.
The more you analyze the nature of the human face the more layers are revealed. Our ancestry, our upbringing, life’s hardship and emotional trauma, our temperament and character, our kindness, hope and wisdom, all of this can be read at a moments glance, for one of our most innate evolutionary skills is to read others faces. We are all experts at it, for our very survival depends on it. This skill is part of what is called the ‘social nervous system’ and operates mostly below our conscious thinking mind. It is an instinct we are born with, and gives us a split-second sense of who and what feels safe or dangerous. In turn, this cues our body to shift into a state of being at ease (essential for health and healing), or into a state of caution and alertness (essential for survival). Also known as the ‘orientation mode’ of our nervous system, this very human ability is both so intrinsic that we are mostly unaware of it and so patterned into our sense of self that it forms the bedrock of our worldview.
Our habitual facial expressions form the emotional template which govern whether we have 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 layer 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- 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 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 and depression. It is like a layer of emotional armoring has been created to buffer any future interactions that could potentially be painful. This armoring also hampers our ability to mirror other people and develop positive nourishing relationships. We actually all carry a degree of armoring; it’s a natural human behavior 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.
We now know that there is a direct link between emotional pain and physical pain- they light up the exact same part of the brain. Dien Chan seems to be tapping into these pathways where physical and emotional healing are intertwined. Indeed, regardless of whether we suffer physically or emotionally, the expression on our face is of the same dynamic. One could go further and say that in actuality, there is no suffering that is purely physical or purely emotional, that this is a theoretical distinction that does not match our actual experience. All disease, illness, and suffering effects us on both physical and emotional levels. It is only a matter of degree. To accept and appreciative this basic truth draws us to a more profound realization- that our consciousness and material body are deeply, deeply connected.
If we re-assess our relationship with our face and draw on these understandings of the interconnectivity between the nervous system, emotions and consciousness, we will create an opportunity for significant personal change. We can change how we relate to our body, how we perceive and use emotion, how we interact with other people, and how we perceive the world around us.
The methods and techniques of Dien Chan give us a way to plot out and rediscover all the intricacies and dynamics of our expression and how to tap into our innate power of self-healing. With Dien Chan we can wake up and refresh our senses, giving us an opportunity to change our perception of the world and our relationship with it.