How we marvel at the delightful smile of an infant; there's little we won't do to win another one! As we grow older the act of smiling changes into a complex nonverbal interchange; a smile is part of our body's expressive equipment. There are all kinds of smiles from the buoyant one of a contented and centered person to the frozen one of a television newsperson to the decorous one of a socialite at a party to the sublime smiles on the death masks of saints.
Spiritual writer Edward Hays observes that "a smile is a facial message of friendliness, delight, satisfaction, and amusement." It is a positive expression of the life force within us and an antidote to physical and mental exhaustion. The ancient wisdom tradition of Taoism lauds "the inner smile" and challenges us to use it to repair and rejuvenate our stressed out bodies and minds.
I can't count the number of times that someone restored me with a bright and healing smile. One of the most enthusiastic teachers of the spiritual practice of smiling is the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. He calls it "mouth yoga." I have used this vow first thing in the morning and found it got my day off to a very good start:
"Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty four new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment."
Waking up with a smile on my face is something I aspire to do as I grow older. A few years back, Mary Ann and I had our picture taken for the page about us on this website. The photographer, a neighbor, usually does the portraits actors use in their "books." She had quite a few tricks to getting a natural and spontaneous look. As was her custom, she took several rolls of us from different angles. When we got the contact sheets back, Mary Ann had many different expressions throughout the shoot, including some that didn't look like her at all! But all my pictures were pretty much the same. There I sat with my small Buddha smile — the fruit of all those years of equanimity practice.
Thich Nhat Hanh puts it succinctly: "Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy." I think of that when I pass smiling people on the streets of New York; their radiance makes me feel like I'm in the presence of angels. And I smile back at them with my Buddha half-smile, hoping that they can see my joy in return.