Smiling our way into a good mood
by Visu Teoh
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Smile a lot.
Smile often to your beloved.
Smile to others.
Smile to yourself.
Make smiling a habit and see the difference it will make to your life!
Smiling keeps you in a good mood which, in turn, will help you move more breezily through the day.
It is a simple and skilful strategy to help you live lightly, peacefully and cheerfully. The smile is a statement of your intention to live in that way.
Every time you smile you immediately feel good or better. You cause the brain to release endorphin, a neurotransmitter, which lowers stress levels and makes you feel good.
In fact, the world always looks brighter from behind a smile. So why not cultivate the habit of smiling? It costs nothing and requires no great effort. Just a little lift of the facial muscles but, ah, the difference it makes to your mood!
A mood is important as it is something that persists and lingers. It is wise to cultivate and maintain a good mood throughout the day. Life is much more manageable when the mood is light and cheery.
There are many good reasons for us to smile. Let us look at some of them.
A smile is a sign of friendliness and goodwill. It puts people at ease. They find us more approachable. It is the opposite of haughtiness. The moment we smile at another we unconsciously brighten up their day. They are liable to perk up and flash us a smile in return. So, in this way, we are actually propping up each other’s mind state.
Be in the habit of greeting others with a smile. Cultivate a warm and friendly attitude towards beings. That is what the practice of metta (lovingkindness) is all about. Let your smile be accompanied by words of good cheer and friendliness.
Life is hard. People are struggling daily to cope with all the stress, responsibilities and challenges in life. A kind, warm and friendly attitude will help cheer others up. A kind word can, as the proverb goes, keep a person warm for many winters, while a harsh word can cut to the bone and be rued for life.
Smile often to your spouse and loved ones as they are the closest to you. My wife Barbara and I are smilers. We are in the habit of smiling at each other, being affectionate, and keeping our mood light and cheerful through humour and good natured teasing and bantering. We always want to be loving and kind to each other, not to hurt but to make each other happy and to bring out the best in each other. We are grateful for and appreciative of each other. Not taking each other for granted, we are respectful and courteous to each other, often saying, “Please,” “Thank you,” “I appreciate your doing this for me,” “I am sorry,” and “I love you.” It is also easy for us to pay each other compliments, to support and encourage each other.
I believe our love that has deepen and grown over the past 16 years of our relationship and the happiness of being loved and cared for, have brought about a certain transformation in me, softening the hard edges and making it easy for me to smile and laugh and generally to be joyful and happy.
It is great to begin your day with a smile. The moment you wake up, smile to welcome the new day and you have already got on to a good start. How wonderful it is that you can begin the day in such a positive way! Then continue to think positive and motivating thoughts to help you set the mood for the day. Exercise mindfulness and radiate metta (lovingkindness) as you walk to the bathroom and go through the daily rituals of brushing your teeth, washing your face and answering the calls of nature.
Then, throughout the day, smile to yourself every now and then or from time to time for no reason at all, except to condition the mind to stay in a good mood and to remind yourself of the way you want to live – lightly, calmly, peacefully, cheerfully, happily and joyfully.
I can say that I speak from experience, for I have been practising smiling to myself. I smile as I walk along the road, as I lie in bed, as I look into the mirror, as I wash the dishes, as I sit on the toilet bowl, as I am under the shower, as I am making a phone call and as I am typing on my laptop now - anywhere and everywhere, at any moment, whenever I remember, in any and all kinds of situations and scenarios – and I can see the difference it makes to my life and to my mood.
I was not always like this. In fact, I could be pretty grim when I was a monk, especially in the eighties. To give an example, when being photographed individually or in a group, taking a cue from our teachers, we would look rather seriously or sternly into the camera. We were not encouraged to smile. We had the impression that as monastics, it would be frivolous or unbecoming to smile or grin into the camera.
True, the Buddha’s first noble truth proclaimed that life is suffering and that living is no laughing matter – we are all doomed in samsara unless we can make that leap into Nibbana, the state of utter cessation and relinquishment of the craving and ignorance that perpetuate the rebirth process.
But still while here in this valley of tears, we can make the most of our existence, we can create lots of happiness by our cheerful way of being and the kindness and goodwill we show each other. And when we have to face the vicissitudes of life, we can still put on a brave smile, uncowed and undefeated, ever determined to soldier on and overcome all obstacles.
I am reminded of an American meditator I met while leading a ten-day retreat in a meditation centre in the Blue Mountains in Australia in December 1999. I noticed that he often had a smile on his face while sitting with the group. During one of our interview sessions I commented on his smile. I thought it was a little odd or out of place. I can’t remember his reply then but later he wrote me a letter in which he explained, “Of course, you know that Dhamma brings joy to me - it's why you often saw me practising with a smile. Somehow, when one is aware of the truth, even sorrows remind me of Dhamma and can be the cause of joy, if only for this.”
I was struck by his answer. It was beautiful, I thought, as I made a note of it. These days when I lead a retreat, I encourage meditators to smile often. We don’t have to act like zombies. If we happen to make eye contact, we can still smile at each other and send a thought of metta, “May you be happy. May you meditate well and attain good samadhi. May you attain your goal of Nibbana.”
A gentle and balanced effort is conducive to gaining concentration. If our effort is too hard or tense, it will be counter productive. I was delighted when I read the respected scholar monk Ven Analayo’s latest book on Satipatthana meditation and found that he, too, recommended a smiling approach.
“Whenever we forget about sati and get caught up in some sort of distraction,” he wrote, “what is required is just a moment of smiling recognition. No need for disappointment or a sense of failure, no need for getting upset with ourselves. A smiling realization that the mind has wandered away is quite adequate.”
“It is possible to realize that a defilement is in the mind and smile,” he continued. “We smile at the tendency of the mind to do the opposite of what we want it to do. We smile in the knowledge that we are walking a gradual path and that it would be unreasonable to expect that, as soon as we sit down to meditate, the mind just does what we want.”
Ven Analayo is the author of the groundbreaking book, “Satipatthana Meditation: The Direct Path to Realization,” first published in 2003. Since then he has written many well researched Buddhist studies and tracts. His latest work published in July 2018 is “Satipatthana Meditation: A Practice Guide” from which the above quotations were drawn.
I am happy that a very serious and well respected scholar, practitioner and teacher such as Ven Analayo has emphasized the importance of a light-hearted and smiling approach to practice. It shows that one can be a serious meditator yet light, nimble and cheerful, able to flash a smile with ease, even when facing obstacles.
In fact, even when we are suffering, feeling despondent and heavy hearted, we can still smile. Even though we might not feel like smiling, even though we are sad and there is no cause for smiling, we still smile because that smile is a statement of our intention and determination to be undefeated, to summon up our inner strength and to lighten up and not let the suffering totally overwhelm us.
We smile because we realize the underlying cause of our suffering. As the Buddha said, all suffering stems from craving and ignorance, from our attachment and inability to let go. When we reflect on the Buddha’s teachings and realize this underlying cause, we start the work of letting go of whatever we have to let go of in order to ease our suffering.
It is our expectations and unskilful response that give rise to suffering. When we realize this we start the inner work of letting go. We see the truth and beauty of the Buddha’s teachings. There is no perfect, lasting happiness in samsara, this sojourning from life to life, undergoing again and again birth, sickness, aging and death together with all the attendant suffering in life.
The root causes of our suffering are craving and ignorance which perpetuate our suffering in this life and lead to rebirth and the continuation of our predicament and entrapment, the repetition of this suffering process. Realizing this, we focus on chipping away at the root causes of suffering, diminishing greed, hatred and delusion and all unwholesome states of mind that fuel suffering.
We spend more time meditating, practising contentment, radiating lovingkindness and cultivating wholesome mental factors that are conducive to peace and happiness. With wisdom we can live more lightly, peacefully and happily.
And naturally we continue to smile as we know its efficacy and value and there is wisdom behind that smile. To live lightly we also cultivate a sense of humour, being able to see both the irony and the lighter side of things and laugh more often and easily. Even black humour helps: “Cheer up. The worst is yet to come!” Underlying such humour is the determination to remain calm, even under the most trying of situations and conditions.
We can always look on the bright side. Looking at the bigger picture, we consider ourselves still lucky as things could have been much worse. And even if we have to face a worst case scenario, we can still find the blessing, even in the suffering. For we can take everything, including challenges and difficulties, as practice, as just more grist for the mill, and come out all the wiser, stronger and kinder.
Here we should make a note of the difference between a genuine smile and a false one. A genuine smile is one that comes from a heart of goodwill while a false smile stems from ill will. A person may smile at you and appear to be warm and friendly while harbouring all the while some ill or untoward intention towards you, such as wanting to deceive or cheat you. Much as we would like to trust people and give them the benefit of the doubt, we should also exercise due care and caution as we know there are charlatans, conmen and dishonest people in the world. While our smile is genuine and we want to be kind and friendly towards all beings, we also exercise wisdom and prudence in our dealings and interactions with others.
Another point to note is that while we encourage and promote smiling we also acknowledge that there are occasions when a smile may not be appropriate and a more serious or sober countenance is more befitting or apt. We know how to exercise discretion and conduct ourselves accordingly.
Here are some sayings that will keep us smiling, followed by instructions on how we can do smiling meditation.
A smile is a window through which you can see if the heart is home.
The world always looks brighter from behind a smile.
A smile is the universal language of kindness.
Everyone smiles in the same language.
A smile is the shortest distance between two persons.
I have never seen a smiling face that was not beautiful.
Smiles are always in fashion.
A smile is the prettiest thing you can wear.
You're never fully dressed without a smile.
A smile is an inexpensive way to improve your looks.
Be the reason someone smiles today.
When all else fails, smile!
For this meditation, we shall use metta to bring forth our smile.
While sitting in your usual meditation posture to radiate metta, smile at the person you are sending metta to. (For instructions on metta meditation, see here.) You can also imagine the person smiling back at you.
Keep smiling at the person for as long and as much as you can. When you want to switch to another person to send metta to, again smile at this new person. In this way, you keep smiling even as you keep changing from one person to another as you send metta.
After all the smiling, you will find yourself in a great mood at the end of the sitting. The mind feels light, pleasant and cheerful.
It is interesting to note that happiness (sukha) is given by the Buddha as a cause of concentration (samadhi) during meditation. Thus, all the happiness that we generate during metta meditation is conducive to the further strengthening and deepening of concentration.
No doubt the initial effort to maintain the smile may seem contrived. But with practice, the smile becomes habitual and effortless. Though effort may still be needed from time to time to sustain the smile, it is minimal and comes easily.
Of course, we do not always have to practise this smiling meditation. We only have to do so when we want to exercise smiling and give a boost to the mind.
Mostly, when we meditate, we already have a tendency to smile to lighten up the practice and help the mind to attain absorption in the flow of metta or in vipassana (insight) meditation. Then when absorption is attained, we are already in a pleasant state of mind and have then no need to make any conscious effort to smile.
May we be smilers and smile all the way in our journey from samsara to Nibbana. Even on our deathbed, may we smile our sweetest smile yet as we depart this body and take on a new form in a new existence while we have yet to reach that further shore of Nibbana, the peaceful cessation of the five aggregates.
"The world always looks brighter from behind a smile."
"A smile is the shortest distance between two persons."
"I have never seen a smiling face that was not beautiful."
"Smiles are always in fashion."
"A smile is the prettiest thing you can wear."
"Be the reason someone smiles today."
"When all else fails, smile!"