Why is it so important to smile?
Smiling brightens and lightens the mind so it can see more clearly. This allows insights to emerge more easily. It also loosens up the sense of self. And makes the world around us feel friendlier.
As a recovered depressive, I resisted using smiling as part of a spiritual practice. “Spirituality is serious,” I told myself grimly. But spirituality is about lightening the spirit. Buddhist practice is about an uplifted mind.
In the West we emphasize the content of the mind: what we’re thinking, seeing, and sensing. In the East, they emphasize quality of the awareness: clarity, breadth, and depth of seeing. When the mind-heart is light, bright, and relaxed, useful insights are more likely to arise. Content is still important, but when awareness is tight, clouded, or distracted, wisdom is harder to come by.
Smiling brightens and clears the mind. From studies of the brain, we know that smiling intentionally tends to lighten our mood. A relaxed mind is more perceptive.
Smiling also loosens our sense of self. It’s hard to take ourselves too seriously when we’re smiling or laughing. The Buddha said that the root of all suffering is taking our experience too personally. A relaxed sense of self helps us see more objectively and less reactively.
Smiling also changes our perception of the world around us: people seem friendlier. This struck me after my first retreat with Bhante. After two weeks of smiling, it had become an unconscious habit. I was not aware that I was smiling more. Then, walking through the airport on my travels home, I noticed most people passing by were grinning. Being surrounded by smiling strangers in an airport was a new experience for me. They seemed so friendly. Gradually I figured out that they were responding to my lighter mood.
Smiling is contagious because of mirror neurons in the brain that cause us to experience internally what we see externally. When we see someone yawn, we tend to yawn. When we see someone crying, we tend to feel bad for them. When we see someone smile, we tend to smile and feel lighter.
There are limitations to the power of smiling. If our deep unconscious mood conflicts with our surface mood, the unconscious wins in the long run. So forcing ourselves to smile when we feel miserable is not as effective if it merely pushes our suffering underground. When we see forced smiles on department store clerks or used car salesmen, we sense they’re insincere. It makes us wary more than happy.
The first three of the Six Rshelp avoid this kind of fakery. First we Recognize what’s going on (rather than denying it or pushing it under). Then we Release the experience (let it be what is by relaxing our grip on it). Then we Relax any tension in the body, emotions, or mind. Then we smile (or Re-smile to make it the 4th R).
Smiling at this point is not in service of denial or suppression because we’ve already seen and acknowledged what we had felt. We’re not trying to hide anything. We’re just looking at it from a brighter clearer space.
In everyday life, it helps to smile whenever we think of it: bring the feeling into our hearts, into our minds, into our eyes, and lift the corners of our mouth into a half smile. This encourages us to see more clearly, lightly, and objectively what’s going on inside and around us. And it helps us take ourselves less seriously.