The Power of the Smile in Our Meditation and Lives

At my first retreat with my heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, I was struck by how many times Thây talked about smiling and its importance to the practice he was teaching. Of course, it was so wonderful to be in the presence of this living Bodhisattva, and his loving, compassionate monks, it was hard not to walk around grinning from ear to ear sometimes!

But, Thây, was actually talking about something more profound than just forcing a smile on the face or a kind of positive thinking. And it took years of practice to see and begin to understand the depth of the teaching on smiling and how a smile can help release tension and anxiety.

If you read many of Thây’s books, you’ll find this smiling teaching come up again and again, and I think its way more than a “frill” or “add-on” to our “serious” meditative practice. Taken in the deep way intended, mindful smiling—and mindful is the key—can be very transformative. Here’s a short teaching by Thây on how he views the smile as integral to practice:

I always say that a smile can be a practice, a kind of yoga practice. Yoga of the mouth: you just smile even if you don’t feel joy and you’ll see after you smile that you’ll feel differently. Sometimes the mind takes the initiative and sometimes you have to allow the body to take the initiative.

Sometimes the spirit leads, and sometimes the body can lead. This is why when you have joy, you naturally smile. But sometimes you can allow the smile to go first. You try to smile and suddenly you feel that you don’t suffer that much any more. So don’t discriminate against the body. The body also can be a leader, not only the spirit. I propose that you try this when you wake up during the night. It’s totally dark. Breath in and smile, and you’ll see. Smile to life. You are alive, you smile. This is not a diplomatic smile, because no one sees you smiling. Yet the smile is a smile of enlightenment, of joy—the joy you feel of being alive.

So smiling is a practice, a yoga practice. Don’t say, “I have no joy, why do I have to smile?” Because when you have joy and you smile, that is not practice, that’s very natural. When you don’t have joy and you smile, that is a real practice. You know there are something like 300 muscles, small and big on your face. Every time we get very angry or worried all these muscles are very tight. When people look at you with that tension on your face, they don’t see you like a flower. People are afraid of you when all the muscles on your face are tense like that. You look more like a bomb than a flower. But if you know how to smile, in just one second, all these muscles are relaxed and your face looks like a flower again. It’s wonderful.

So we have to learn to smile and then we’ll look presentable right away. Look into the mirror and practice, and you’ll see that the practice of the smile is very important. It brings relaxation and you can let go. You feel that you are released from the grip of the anger, of the despair.

Another wonderful teacher who emphasizes the importance of the smile is Bhante Vimalaramsi. Bhante V, as he is affectionately known, teaches “Tranquil Wisdom Insight Meditation,” an approach to meditation that he shows to be much, much closer to the Buddha’s original teaching on meditation in the Pali canon. I consider him a kind of pioneer, or revolutionary, taking us back to our roots and helping us get closer to the heart of the Buddha’s teachings. As he says:

“The act of calming the mind and relaxing the tightness in the head before coming back to the breath makes a huge difference between ‘Concentration Meditation’ and ‘Tranquil Wisdom Insight Meditation.’ A meditator who practices ‘Concentration Meditation’ over-focuses on the object of meditation and thus, they have the tendency to close or tighten the mind until there are no more distractions. This practice leads to deep absorption of mind where hindrances are blocked.

On the other hand, ‘Tranquil Wisdom Insight Meditation’ has the tendency to open one’s mind and to allow the mind to become calm naturally. One does not suppress or force their mind to stay focused on the object of meditation. Instead, the mind is always aware of what it is doing in the present moment. Whenever any distraction arises, one lets go, opens, expands and relaxes the tightness in the head before coming back to the breath and calming the mind.”

In teaching Tranquil Wisdom Insight Meditation, the smile is an important step of release in the process of maintaining open, calming mindfulness. Here is a page from a wonderful 12 page short introduction to the process. As you can see, in the cycle of establishing mindful, the smile is an essential step:

SIMPLE, EASY TO UNDERSTAND MINDFULNESS - The 6 R's - Bhante Vimalaramsi

And here is what the “smile” step of the cycle involves:

SIMPLE, EASY TO UNDERSTAND MINDFULNESS - Re-Smile - Bhante Vimalaramsi

You really will want the whole PDF, which you can download from the Dhammasukha website here:

Simple, Easy to Understand Mindfulness by Bhante Vimalaramsi

I always keep these wonderful, skillful diagrams close at hand when I’m meditating.  And often, if I get bound up or find myself struggling with my meditation, I will stop and review the steps and then start up again.

The Dhammasukha Website, by the way, is an absolute treasure trove of skillful teachings, not only on Tranquil Wisdom Meditation, but on metta, or loving-kindness practice. I highly recommend the skillful teachings of this truly great-hearted teacher, Bhante Vimalaramsi. I think many will find in his teachings the “heart” that may have been missing from their meditation practice.

However hard our practice, or the challenges we face, may we all find our way back to the “smile” that is at the heart of the Buddha’s teachings!

♥♥♥

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About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

14 Responses to “The Power of the Smile in Our Meditation and Lives”

  1. I love the Thay’s words: Sometimes the mind takes the initiative and sometimes you have to allow the body to take the initiative.

    A smile can really make us feel more calm….

    • Raj, thanks for stopping by and commenting. I like how you put it…”sometimes the mind takes the initiative and sometimes you have to allow the body to take the initiative.” Because mind and body “inter-are” we see one in the other.

      With warm metta,
      Steve

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