A 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

Friendliness

 

Are you your own best friend, or your harshest critic? If you were a team, would you be playing for yourself, or against? Or perhaps you are a capricious friend to yourself – perfectly civilised when life is rolling along smoothly, but transformed into a snarling viper whenever you make the slightest mistake.

Many of us struggle to find the right balance between being willing to examine our motivations and actions, and giving ourselves an unnecessarily hard time, often over quite minor mistakes. How we treat ourselves depends on complex factors, including our cultural background, gender, religious affiliation and personality.

When people begin a regular mindfulness practice, they often notice an increased friendliness towards themselves. In the words of Daniel Siegel, we can allow ourselves to become our own best friend. Fortunately, this seems to correlate with being less judgemental towards others as well, becoming more patient with their foibles and vulnerabilities.

There is a significant difference between being friendly towards ourselves and becoming narcissistic. Longitudinal studies of American college students have shown a marked increase in narcissistic traits over the past few decades. Related traits such as unrealistic expectations, materialism, low empathy, and less concern for others, have also increased. We might sometimes feel that being too friendly with ourselves will encourage our narcissism, that we’ll no longer care enough about others. Interestingly, it seems the opposite is the case. Studies on the effects of mindfulness meditation have consistently shown that by tuning into our own experiences with an open, friendly acceptance, we are more able to be present and empathic with others as well. Like a well-functioning sports team which relies on good communication and encouragement, but also constructive feedback and a willingness to improve, it seems we’re at our best when we feel supported in our willingness to learn.

It is like a balm to our soul when we walk into a room and are greeted by a friendly smile. If we are greeted by a frown instead, our anxiety levels tend to rise. If we are learning mindfulness meditation to help us decrease our anxiety levels, it makes sense to not spend our lives metaphorically frowning at ourselves. As Mother Teresa said,

‘Peace begins with a smile.’

Weekly practice idea:

This week, when you make a mistake, notice how you react. Are you unnecessarily hard on yourself, or do you find yourself brushing off your mistake without much thought? Are you less kind to yourself than you would be to a friend?

Anja Tanhane