Studies have found that smiling makes people happier. Normally of course we think of things working the other way around: being happy puts a smile on our face. But the reverse is true as well. Feelings of happiness are triggered even when we don’t realize we’re smiling—for example when we’re clenching a pencil with the teeth, which causes the face to use the same muscles that are used when we smile. So the emotional impact of smiling is obviously not just the power of association, and it seems that it’s the activation of our “smiling muscles” that triggers the happiness response. But maybe it doesn’t matter why it works, as long as it does.
So as you meditate, smile, and help joy to arise. You don’t have to have a grin on your face. A gentle, almost imperceptible smile can have a transformative effect on how you feel. Smiling is a short-cut to unleashing your repressed joy.
One of the things that smiling does is to give us a sense of reassurance. When we smile, we send ourselves a signal saying “It’s OK. We got this. We can handle this.” When we smile, even in the face of difficulties, we remind ourselves that there’s a grown-up present. There’s a part of us that can function as parent, as mentor, as wise friend. We become our own spiritual guide.
Smiling shouldn’t however become a way of avoiding our experience. We don’t smile in attempt to drive away or replace difficult experiences but in order to be a friendly presence for them. Smiling, and the confidence it can bring, should make it easier for us to be with our experience, and less likely to turn from it.
A simple smile can help us to feel more playful. Playfulness—letting our effort be light, allowing our heart to be open, not taking things personally, and appreciating the positive—allows joy to arise. On the other hand, taking things too seriously is a sure-fire way to kill joy. When we try to force or control our experience—trying to do everything “right”—our experience becomes cold, tight, and joyless. Smiling helps us to lighten up.
When we smile, we’re more confident, and we can let go of our fear-driven need to police and control our experience. We’re less likely to judge, and can be more accepting. So we might, for example, notice that many thoughts are passing through the mind, and yet find ourselves at ease. We might notice an old habit kicking in once again, and rather than blame ourselves for messing up, feel a sense of kindly benevolence.
One potent illustration of the power of a smile is the image of the Buddha being assaulted by the hordes of Mara, the personification of spiritual doubt and defeat. In this allegory, which has been depicted many times, Mara’s armies, which consist of hideous demons that symbolize craving, discontent, laziness, and fear, surround the Buddha. At the center of a tempest of demonic fury, the enlightened one sits, smiling serenely. A radiant aura extends around him, and when the weapons of his foes touch it, they fall harmlessly as flowers.
In a sense the Buddha’s aura is the radiance of his smile—the protective effect of his determined yet playful confidence. Every time we smile in meditation, we create the conditions for joy and peace to arise. Every time we smile in meditation, we connect ourselves to the Buddha’s own awakening.