Some of the most profound lessons in life are the simplest, and thus, the most often overlooked. We humans like to make things complicated, don’t we?
Quite a while back I read this quote from the very wise yet humble Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile,
but sometimes your smile
can be the source of your joy.”
Smiling inside is a profound form of nourishment available in an instant, and completely free, but it seems so trite on the surface that we toss the concept away without giving it the chance to do its magic. I’m learning, though, that there is nothing trite about it.
For the past several weeks I’ve been wrestling with what felt like a river of dark emotions, with anger at the top of the flow, but with feelings of sadness, fear, and doubt gurgling underneath. As a sensitive and passionate person, I feel all emotion, both delicious and detrimental, pretty intensely. So when emotional storms arise, as they inevitably do in all of us, I go for quite a ride. But I’m a spiritual student, too, and I recognize emotional storms as great opportunities to learn and grow.
One of the many lessons that negative emotions offer is the opportunity to increase our compassion, both for others and for ourselves. We learn the importance of not becoming impulsively reactive and striking out, and we learn the value of not burying or denying what we feel, as a way to escape it. We come to understand that striking out and denying DO provide temporary relief from the painful emotion, but at the cost of reinforcing aggression and unconsciousness within ourselves. So we are taught to lean in to compassion instead.
What is that saying, though? “The distance between the head and the heart is a million miles,” or something like that. And in this case, the distance between the intellectual understanding of compassion and the ability to actually experience it in the midst of a locust swarm of negative thinking and feeling….well… that distance can feel galaxies apart.
So, how do we span the chasm? How do we move our focus from the sharp, spiky pain and reactivity of fight/flight…to a higher vibration of kindness and patience? There are many esoteric teachings on this, and I’ve been working with lots of them of late, but the one I’ve been experiencing over the past few days is Thich Nhat Hanh’s simple lesson.
I’m practicing smiling inside. Seriously!
Remember that old adage that it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown? I don’t know whether or not it is true, but the idea of it popped into my head during a yoga class a few days ago. We were being guided into relaxation, but my clenched jaw just would not let go. Smiling, though, became a way through my resistance. It was an action I could take, as opposed to a ceasing of action, sort of like massaging a cramped leg instead of telling it to stop cramping!
So I began to smile inside…to bring a smile to life in my mouth and cheeks and eyes. Wow. In the eyes I really felt it. And then I focused on letting the smile lift up into my beleaguered mind, and then down into my neck and shoulders and chest and tender heart. I carried it into all my organs and down my legs into my feet. My breath and my focus became a smile. And the more I physically smiled, the more the emotion of it grew.
The sensation was very subtle but palpable: a tiny sweetness, a softening. I didn’t experience it as a “lesson,” though, of course, it was. It was a small friendliness, not a cosmic, earth-shattering, orgasmic transformation, like we addictively seek. It was a few drops of rain on dry ground. But I felt it. And I knew I could develop this. I could make smiling inside into a drip system that could be sustenance.
Thich Nhat Hanh talks about “mothering” our anger, the way a mother soothes a crying child. A wise mother does not hand the crying child a brick and tell her to hit someone with it. Nor does she say, “Stop your damn crying. You have nothing to cry about.” A wise mother smiles at her child, soothes her, and helps her come back to herself.
A smile inside is like that. It is kindness in action, a simple, humble, instantaneous, small but significant action. Give it a try. If you can’t muster it toward yourself yet, or toward the person you think has made you angry (that’s a bigger leap than I’m suggesting as a starter)…find ANYTHING that makes you smile, (like the image of this precious baby, above) and let it. Then notice the mini-shift, the contrast, in your body, mind and spirit.
And I’ll be right there with you, practicing, practicing!
Sending each of you blessings from my heart!