Revisiting the gentle half smile

This week we will revisit a post from a few years ago, about the gentle half smile:

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near.
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile what’s the use in crying?
You’ll find that life is still worth-while
If you do just smile.

Lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons

This famous song has no doubt brought a smile to many faces over the decades. From a mindfulness point of view, we may not agree with the line ‘hide every trace of sadness’, since we don’t want to deny our feelings. However, there is a practice which the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls a gentle half smile, which can indeed brighten our day, without needing to pretend that life is all wonderful.

When we look at advertising we are bombarded with ecstatic smiles, showing two rows of perfect white teeth, giving the impression of a fully realised human life. In the past we may have been told ‘come on, smile!’:) when we’ve been having a bad day, and we probably rather resented this! It’s quite galling to be told to smile when you’re feeling lousy. And we have all come across the compulsory professional smile, which depending on the person may still be friendly, but in the wrong hands can feel cold and arrogant.

The gentle half smile is a way of bringing positive energy into our day, of lifting our spirits without necessarily trying to radically change our underlying feeling state. We can feel sad, or anxious, and still find our outlook improves if we sit with those feelings while we have a gentle smile on our face. It’s quite easy to habitually frown without even noticing we’re doing this. It’s a good practice to start our meditation with a reminder to gently smile, but we can also bring this half smile to our face throughout the day.

The meditation teacher Tara Brach has a lovely way of extending this practice. During some of her guided meditations, she suggests feeling the gentle half smile behind the eyes, behind the face, in the heart centre. We can also send the half smile to parts of our body which may be hurting, or which feel tense. It’s easy for us to metaphorically frown at various parts of the body, either because of pain, or because of a sense there is something ‘wrong’ with our bodies. It’s so much more friendly to bring a gentle smile to different regions of our bodies instead.

When we are talking to other people, it may not always be appropriate to be beaming a wide smile at them. They may be talking about something which has distressed them, or criticising you, and a big smile would look out of place. But even in those situations, you can still imagine a gentle half smile behind your eyes, and you will look more open and receptive to the other person, and they may feel you are being warm and friendly towards them.

It is a wonderful habit to cultivate, and encapsulates what mindfulness meditation is about – not pretending that life is other than it is, but choosing small actions which will gradually infuse our days with more positive states of mind.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, try the gentle half smile, when you are by yourself and also with other people. Notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane

The wolf of love

There is an old American Indian story about a beloved Elder, a grandmother, who was asked one day how she’d managed to become such a wise, respected and contented woman. She replied that she knew that there were two wolves in her heart, the wolf of love and the wolf of hate, and that everything depended on which wolf she chose to feed each day.

We have evolved as humans with both of the wolves, and they actually each have a place in our lives if we think of the wolf of hate as trying to protect us, and the wolf of love as trying to connect us. We might rename the wolf of hate to ‘the wolf of protection’, and we can see how we can get caught up in feeding this particular creature. When we feel stressed or overwhelmed, it’s easy for the wolf of protection to assume a prominent role in our lives. We become more suspicious of others in case they try to encroach on ‘our’ territory, and might be less than kind in our responses. It’s like we lose touch with the kinder, more patient and wiser parts of ourselves, and so we might find ourselves snapping at a child who is a bit slow and befuddled; we might feel depressed and eat far more than we should; or we might bitch about a colleague although we know, in our heart of hearts, that this will do nothing to improve a difficult situation.

A regular practice of mindfulness meditation offers us the ability to have more choice about how we might respond to any given situation. Instead of reacting in the heat or exhaustion of the moment, we can pause, take a breath, engage the more empathic parts of our brain, and act in a way which is more aligned with our values and good intentions. We might notice that the slow child is caught up in some kind of stress, that his mind is elsewhere, and we might reassure him rather than snap at him. We might pause once or twice during a meal, take the time to enjoy the food, and notice that we’re actually quite full. We might bite our tongue even though another bitching session seems like a wonderful way to release frustration, and instead reflect on what some of the underlying issues at the workplace might be.

Next week, we will look at some practical strategies for ‘feeding the wolf of love’ in our lives.

Weekly practice idea:

Think of a current situation which is causing you some stress, and brainstorm a range of strategies for dealing with this situation, ranging from the sublime and wise to the awful and absurd. Where in that list do you currently see yourself, and where would you like to be?
Anja Tanhane

Enjoyment

I recently gave a presentation on the community choir which I conduct, and as part of this talk, I was able to show a slide show of photos of our performances which one of the choir musicians had kindly put together. What struck me when seeing these images, apart from the wide range of performances (nearly forty in just over two years!) were the many photos where people are smiling. We’re clearly having a good time, and when choir members talk about the choir, they often say things like, ‘it lifts me up, I always walk out with a big smile on my face.’

One of the pleasures of spending time with young children is their seemingly boundless ability to revel in enjoyment. Similarly, a dog chasing a ball, or a cat stretching out in the sun, is happy to be having a good time. There are no guilt feelings attached, no sense of ‘perhaps I should be more serious’. Some people go to the extreme of a hedonistic lifestyle, where the only thing which matters is how much fun they’re having. This is self-centered and immature, and often the hallmark of narcissistic personalities. Others go through life with a permanent frown, constantly anxious about not taking life seriously enough. This can be the glass half-empty phenomenon, where all we ever see is problems and things to worry about, rather than appreciating the gifts we have been offered.

Somewhere in the middle there is probably a happy medium, where we are not just chasing from pleasure to pleasure, but we’re still able to enjoy the blessings which life is offering us. Much of the time, these can be the simple pleasures – a cat purring on our lap, watching children play, hearing a favourite song, going for a swim in the ocean or a walk in the park.

Different cultures have very differing attitudes when it comes to the amount of enjoyment we’re ‘allowed’ to have. Sometimes, these can unconsciously make us feel guilty for enjoying life – perhaps it feels frivolous, or selfish, to be taking pleasure in something. We all have to find the point on the continuum between narcissism and excessive guilt which feels comfortable for us. Yet enjoying life is good for our bodies and our minds, it has a positive flow-on effect on those around us, it’s a way of appreciating our blessings – perhaps we could benefit from allowing ourselves to have more enjoyment in life?

Weekly practice idea:

Take the opportunity to watch a child or a pet at play. How does it feel for you, when you see their simple enjoyment?

Anja Tanhane

Hope

‘I just carry hope in my heart. Hope is not a feeling of certainty, that all ends well. Hope is just a feeling that life and work have meaning.’

Vaclav Havel

To lose hope is akin to despair, but sometimes it might also seem that being hopeful about the future is like seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses – pretty perhaps, but just not realistic. We might feel quite optimistic about our personal circumstances, but despair at where the world seems to be heading. Or we might feel trapped in our personal lives, unable to see a good way forward. Vaclav Havel was a Czech writer, philosopher, dissident, and finally the president of independent Czechoslovakia. During the communist regime he was under constant surveillance, and spent many years in prison. Like Nelson Mandela, his story has a happy ending of sorts, but neither Havel nor Mandela had any certainty, during their long years in prison, that they would ever be released and that their countries would move in a new direction. And of course, plenty of dissidents died in prison, or became broken by the circumstances.

It might seem flippant to ‘smell the roses’ when so much is happening in the world which concerns us deeply. And yet, what will riding along on the wave of despair achieve? There is a deep strength in cultivating meaning in our personal lives by being present, and authentic. It’s not about having our head in the sand, or never allowing ourselves to feel dismay or grief. But in our small, personal way, there is a lot of good we can achieve in the world. A friend of mine told me how she made an effort to smile at a Muslim woman at a café, to show her she was welcome here. A knitting club might decide to knit scarves for asylum seekers, and visit them in the detention centre to have a cup of tea with them and hand over their new scarves. A busy father might take out the bins of his elderly neighbour, and pick up milk and bread for him on the way home from work. Political activism has its place, but so do the many small and beautiful gestures which strengthen our communities and give us hope.

Sometimes, during meditation, I allow myself to feel dismay at what is happening in my country and in the world, to sit with these feelings rather than rushing around like mad trying to ignore them. I also make a conscious effort to be present in my body, to feel my breath, and to hear the morning chorus of birds outside. Our lives are complex, but we can cultivate meaning in our lives by being present, being compassionate, and by living with hope.

Weekly practice idea:

Write down three small acts of kindness which are meaningful to you. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try switching off the media for a day and practising these or similar gestures instead. Do it slowly, with presence, and notice how it feels.

Anja Tanhane