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

The practice of RAIN

Last week we looked at the advantages of listening to the messages our emotions might be trying to tell us, of paying attention to them rather than ‘shooting the messenger’. There are several approaches in mindfulness for dealing more effectively with our emotions, and today we will look at one which is taught by well-known meditation teachers such as Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, best known under its acronym RAIN.

RAIN is a four step process which can help us transform how we approach our emotions. Sometimes this process is best done with the support of a teacher or therapist, or, if the emotions feel manageable and we have some experience with meditation, we can also do this on our own. The four letters of RAIN stand for:

Recognition: The first step is to pause, tune in, and recognise the experience for what it is. We might be feeling unmotivated, and recognise that underneath our lethargy is a feeling of hurt and discouragement. Or we might be tetchy with our family, and when we take some time out we realise that an incident at work has left us more shaken than we realised. It’s not always easy to recognise what our emotions are, but over time, with regular meditation and other practices, we can become more skilled at this.

Acceptance: In some ways, this is perhaps the most difficult step. It’s natural to have feelings of aversion to unpleasant circumstances, including challenging emotions. Acceptance sounds passive, as if we’re helpless victims of our circumstances. In fact, it’s a very active way of engaging with our lives. Acceptance doesn’t mean we don’t work towards changing a situation for the better. But just in this moment, we accept the emotions we have – we accept that they are present.

Investigation: This is our opportunity to look more deeply into the emotion. In mindfulness, we do this by investigating our experience of body sensations, our feelings, our thoughts, images and beliefs. It’s not an intellectual or philosophical process, but rather one which is grounded in our moment-to-moment experience.

Non-identification: We have a tendency to over-identify with our emotions. I am a happy person. I am an angry person. It’s more helpful to say ‘having a thought that I’m angry’, or ‘feeling butterflies in my stomach with excitement’. Emotions come and go like weather in the sky – we are much more spacious than a temporary emotion passing through.

Processes like this take time, but it’s time well spent. Feeling more effective in dealing with our emotional life can give us a great sense of confidence. And gradually, as we get to know ourselves better, we can use this process even in the midst of a hectic day. ‘Ah yes,’ we can say to ourselves when a familiar emotion arises, ‘here it is again, trying to pass on its message.’

Weekly practice idea:

Take twenty minutes or so to use the RAIN process to investigate an emotion you have been aware of lately. Try to start with a low-key emotion rather than a really intense one.

Anja Tanhane

The stream of life

‘When the transient stream of life is frozen into a block of ice, the frozen block of ice no longer knows that its true nature is water. It becomes hard and unyielding and clashes up against other ice blocks. Practice is about melting the frozen block of emotion/thought in the fire of attention. When we do this we return to our original nature, the stream of life – soft, transparent, bubbly, fluid and adaptable. This moment to moment stream is happiness itself.’

Geoff Dawson (Zen teacher and psychologist)

When we are confronted with the joys and challenges of our existence, we always have a choice – we can harden ourselves against the experience, or soften into it. Different circumstances call for a range of responses, and it would be naïve to think we can always be soft and gentle. Yet even situations which require us to be strong and tough can still be met with a sense of fluidity. As the Tao Te Ching says, nothing is more fluid than water, yet nothing is stronger – over time it can wear down whole mountains.

Gradually, as we tune into our experiences through mindfulness, we might become aware of our default position towards life. We like to think we always choose the most logical and wise response to any situation, but in fact many of our behaviour patterns are habitual, and have little to do with the circumstances at hand. We may have gone through difficult times which caused us to harden up, and this might have become the way we now approach life. It takes trust to soften into each moment, and perhaps that trust went ‘walkabout’ a long time ago.

And yet, as Geoff Dawson writes, by imagining ourselves as blocks of ice, we are constantly clashing up against life – against others, and also against ourselves. When we bring the warm energy of mindful awareness to our life, some of our sharp edges begin to soften, and we no longer need to spend so much energy keeping our block of ice frozen and solid. We become more responsive to life as it is, instead of constantly hardening ourselves against imaginary threats.

The American meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach offers a beautiful meditation to help us in this. She invites us to become aware of parts of our bodies which are tight, such as the shoulders, and to imagine that this part is like ice. As we rest our awareness there, we can feel the ice beginning to melt to become like water, and then to evaporate into gas. We are left with a sense of lightness and ease – of being able to soften into the experience of meditation – which we can then take into the rest of our day.

Weekly practice idea:

When you become aware of tension in a part of your body, visualise it as a block of ice, which begins to melt as you bring the warmth of mindfulness to it. Over time, we can also soften into the rest of our lives, both the joys and difficulties.

Anja Tanhane