The Power of a True Smile

For the first couple of years of my meditation practice, each morning upon rising I recited the following version of a short poem by Thich Nhat Hanh:

Waking up this morning I smile.
Today is a new day, with 24 brand new hours before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment,
and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

In his little book of mindfulness verses, Present Moment, Wonderful Moment, Thay (as he’s known) goes on to explain: “If you really know how to live, what better way to start the day than with a smile? Your smile affirms your awareness and determination to live in peace and joy… The source of a true smile is an awakened mind.” (1990, p. 3)

These days, after more than twenty years of contemplative practice, I’ve been finding it more challenging to smile first thing in the morning. My heart is breaking a little every day: children and refugees locked in camps at our southern border; the ongoing climate emergency with its disproportionate impact on the global south and vulnerable, non-human species; the gross accumulation of wealth and widening gap of income inequality; the list goes on…

I want to be clear here: I’m not overlooking real strides of progress that are being made (like an overall reduction in global violence) or daily acts of courage, love and goodness that are all around us in spite of the media’s sensationalistic focus on violence and doom. The further I walk this path, the less rigid the boundaries between self and other seem, and the more deeply I feel both the pain and the goodness of this world.

How can we smile when the world’s on fire? Can meditation practice play a role in responding to the call of our times, or is it just a fancy distraction, another escape from reality?

In some circles, the pendulum of enthusiasm for the mindfulness movement has swung the other way. Some are levying incisive critiques about the commodification of spirituality and the dangers of “McMindfulness” being a tool of neoliberal capitalism to lull privileged sectors of society into becoming more comfortable with the status quo. Indeed, when mindfulness is taught as a feel-good technique or performance enhancer, outside the context of ethical integrity and compassionate action, there’s a lot of truth to these arguments.

How can we smile when the world’s on fire? Can meditation practice play a role in responding to the call of our times, or is it just a fancy distraction, another escape from reality?

Yet even as I agree with the spirit and general thrust of these critiques (see this Vox interview with David Forbes), they also can go too far and overlook the tremendous potential mindfulness has to play a role in radical transformation and collective liberation (see Purser’s click-bait article in the Guardian and this research-based response to it). When taught and practiced properly, mindfulness can offer healing and resilience to historically oppressed communities, and bring strength and courage to those in more privileged positions, supporting us to face the reality of our times and act in solidarity and compassion.

Photo by Monil Andharia

Photo by Monil Andharia

Meditation practice can heal our hearts and clear our minds, but not if we use it to retreat into a fantasy world of ease and calm, nor if we mistake its goal for getting comfortable. As Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Rather, we must use the calm of spiritual practice to replenish our inner resources and apply its clarity to challenge oppressive structures in our society and the deeply embedded views and assumptions that perpetuate them.

The goal of this path is liberation. That only comes from the hard work of looking into the nature of things and facing deeply uncomfortable truths—personally and collectively. Feeling uncomfortable is an appropriate response to what we are living through today.

There is an ancient story about the power of a smile in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. The Buddha stood on a peak before many hundreds of monks and nuns. Looking out across the assembly, he silently held up a flower. Of all the many present, only one person understood. The disciple Mahakasyapa smiled quietly, and the Buddha said, “Mahakasyapa has my teaching.”

What was conveyed in that moment of recognition? What was it that Mahakasyapa understood?

As I open myself to the truth of our current moment, and as I dig in deeper to the unfolding of the contemplative path, I am coming to realize the meaning of a true smile. To smile from hope and optimism can be energizing if one-sided and naïve. To smile out of joy is both natural and nourishing but also conditional and fleeting. A true smile comes from opening one’s heart wide enough to embrace both the delight and the devastating sorrow of our world. A true smile does not elide the pain or complexity of our lives. It includes rather the excludes, it turns towards that which is difficult rather than away from it.

A true smile sees things as they are: the beauty of the flower, and its evanescence.

It comes from deep within, from a full hearted acknowledgement of the task before us, a willingness to rise to the occasion, step into our power, and face the unknown. Then, rather than being based on changing emotions, tenuous ideas, or fragile hopes, our smile comes from a kind of inner wholeness, from a sense of clarity, integrity and purpose. Deeper still, it comes from letting go and accepting that we don’t get to write the end of this story. We just get to play our part.

It is to this knowing that I aim to return in the morning these days when I rise. Then, I can find a genuine inner smile from the willingness to be with all that is happening and include it all, one moment at a time.

As Mother Theresa once said, “Peace begins with a smile.” To look reality in the face and still be able to smile is the beginning of something new.   

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Nhat Hanh, Thich. (1990). Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living. Berkeley: Parallax Press.

Photo by Amanda Flavell on Unsplash