“We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.”Mother Teresa
I’m lying in bed, middle of the night, unable to sleep.
A sliver of moonlight peeks through a crack in the blinds and ripples across the bed like a jellyfish, illuminating the room. Already awake, I flutter my eyes open, admiring the watery sparkles of light as they pop with color over the red and turquoise paisley bedspread. I’m drawn to the lovely glow and alluring cast shadows, but my eyelids are too heavy to sustain my vision, and my eyes fall closed again.
I’m so tired I can hardly lift my head, but I can’t go back to sleep.
I lie awake in the silence of the room, waiting. Nothing makes a sound except my heartbeat and the rolling hum of my thoughts.
Why am I awake?
I have nothing to worry about tonight, nothing to consider or figure out. There’s nothing “wrong,” no sickness, no feeling of being too hot or too cold, no hunger or pain to cause physical discomfort. Yet something is keeping me falsely awake like a sugar rush after eating too much Halloween candy.
A train whistle pierces the silence and invades the room with a lonely serenade to the night owls of the world. My thoughts happily respond to the sound, bouncing to its rhythmic drone, dancing waltzes in the ballroom of my mind.
I love train whistles. But in my crude wakefulness this train sounds like a band of monkeys banging on kitchen pots. The train wheels grate on the tracks like angry tap shoes on metal rails. I’m not amused.
Did I eat too late? Drink too much coffee? Stare at too many screens for too long, too late, before bed?
No. It’s just these thoughts.
Thoughts, rolling like waves over the contours of my mind. They’re not bad thoughts. They’re just random patterns of words and memories, vying for my attention like magazine headlines in a drugstore checkout aisle. Thoughtless thoughts, folding, curving, repeating. Thoughts looking back over their shoulders to admire themselves in the mirror.
“Come on, mind.” I beg inwardly toward the clutter of self-reflective banter. “There’s nothing the matter. Let’s go to sleep.”
My mind is not buying it. We keep on thinking, together. Mind chatters on colorfully, and I watch, tossing and turning to the internal music for many long minutes. I roll from one shoulder to the other, fluff the pillow beneath my head, and try again. No go.
I become desperate. It occurs to me in my half-aware state to ask my mind for help more directly.
“Please, mind. Listen to me.”
My appeal is weak, as if projected through a wavy looking glass. Nonetheless, my mind turns to look at me, curious, listening.
“Please,” I beg. “Help me to fall asleep.”
Something tells me this might work. I’ve asked my mind for help many times in the past. And sometimes, it helps me.
When I was young, for instance, my mind used to listen to the radio for me.
I loved listening to the radio as a child. I adored music, and always held a handful of favorite current hit songs to love and admire, like precious stones. I reveled in expectantly waiting for a DJ to drop one of my favorites into the day’s rotation. I could wait for hours for a particular song to play, without getting tired of the wait.
I loved the feeling of my heart jumping to attention when the opening bars of a beloved tune would finally hit the speakers. At those moments I felt temporarily complete, as if some quiet hunger in me had just been fed by the world.
In high school, I used to keep the radio turned on low by my bed all night for company. At some point I developed a habit of asking my mind to wake me any time my current favorite song came on while I was sleeping. I would say, for example, “Mind, please wake me up if ‘Paint it Black’ comes on during the night. We can listen to it together.”
My mind complied. It must have liked the arrangement.
Many nights I was awoken to the intro notes of a favorite tune just as the sound reached my ears. I marveled to think that while my conscious awareness was sleeping, all the while my mind was actively on task, listening for the assigned musical cues. And when the time came for my favorite to play, my mind would gently wake me just in time to listen. I thought the whole thing was magical.
Following on the heels of such success, I ventured beyond the radio with my experiments. One night I tried out using my mind as an alarm clock. I was staying with friends, and I needed to wake up at 8 a.m. the next morning. While there was a clock in the room where I was staying, that clock didn’t have an alarm. So I decided to ask my mind to help me get up on time.
Before falling asleep, I asked, “Mind, please wake me up at exactly 8 o’clock in the morning.”
The next morning, I was awakened with a sharp knock to my skull. I jolted awake, feeling the residual pain of an impact to my left temple.
I sat up in bed, rubbing my head, and looked around the room. There was no one there but me. I looked at the clock. It was exactly 8 a.m.
Thank you, mind.
Many times since then I’ve asked my mind to help me with unique challenges, both large and small. Sometimes I ask for help to remember something. Sometimes I ask for help to forget. Other times I ask for an answer to a problem, for extra strength to make it through a challenging time, or for guidance on whether to say yes to a new opportunity.
These requests don’t always get a response from my mind. But often enough, they do.
Therefore, asking my mind to help me fall asleep is not entirely out of character. Nor is it out of character for my mind to respond. I just need to remember to ask.
Tonight, as I lay awake accompanied by dancing thoughts and pot-banging monkeys, mercifully I remember. “Mind, please help me to fall asleep.”
In the echoing trails of the retreating train whistle, I wait, and listen. And just as mercifully, an answer comes:
My eyes open wide with a start.
I’m a little surprised at this one-word answer. I shift my glance around the room, wait for something more. Nothing comes.
But then I understand, and the guidance makes sense.
I realize that I’ve been frowning.
The power of a smile is something deeply undervalued in our competitive and often aggression-driven society. As products of our modern culture, with its rush to choose competition over kindness, we can easily come to interpret a smile as something valueless, or worse, as a sign of weakness.
But this is a shame. A smile is much more than a benign symbol of positive emotion — and the polar opposite of a weakness. On the contrary, a smile is a powerhouse energy transformer, capable of producing seismic shifts in consciousness. When we miss a chance to smile, we miss a great opportunity for transformation.
How is a smile strong? A smile taps our interior reserves of strength and brings them to the surface of life, where they can act powerfully upon the physical world.
Like an enzyme in a chemical reaction, a smile has the potential to alter the energetic matrix of a situation. A smile can drop into the mix of a moment and shift its composition, transforming perceptions, relationships, and even memories with its complex cascade of biochemical effects.
A smile can transform us from the inside. When we smile, we invoke our inner sense of well-being by sending a neurochemical message to our brain that tells us that we are safe, that things are ok. By simply shifting our facial muscles from a frown to a smile, we send an impulse to our body’s control centers, telling us that “something just got better.”
In a graceful act of collaborative biology, a smile can also transform us from the outside. A smile sends its message of well-being from our consciousness to any other person who witnesses it. When we smile at someone, what they receive (whether they recognize it consciously or not) is a signal of mutuality and non-aggression. Such a transaction, especially in a tense moment, has the power to shift the edge of discomfort, possibly shifting any potential outcome to something more positive as well.
That is the powerful universality of the smile. Each smile is a small individual expression, yet it encompasses all humanity as a shared sign of brotherhood and sisterhood. Its meaning is easily read across cultural and language barriers, and sometimes even between species. And a smile is contagious: it’s hard to witness the smile of another person — or of a dog, for that matter — and not respond in kind.
Like a piece of candy, a smile is sweet and alluring, a natural attractor. Like sugar, it invites us toward its sweetness, softens sharp edges, and relaxes tension.
Maybe that soft sweetness is just what I need to help me fall asleep tonight.
In my childhood I often listened to Nat King Cole’s mid-century rendition of the old Charlie Chaplin tune, “Smile.” It was one of the records I played in heavy rotation on my dad’s 1970s wood-veneer Pioneer record player. The boxy lid on the console was made of clear plastic, and I thrilled to watch the record through that transparent barrier as it played, spinning round and round the center spindle.
I cranked my neck to read the song title on the record label as it sped past my eyes on each rotation. “Smile… Smile… Smile…” I watched until I made myself dizzy. And I listened carefully to the words.
“Smile, though your heart is aching…
Smile, even though it’s breaking…
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by…”
I was captivated by the lyrics of that song. In my youthful curiosity I wondered, why would someone smile when their heart is breaking? If someone is sad, why would they want to smile? Such paradox didn’t make sense to my child’s mind.
“If you smile through your fear and sorrow…
Smile and maybe tomorrow…
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you.”
Several times I’ve heard the Buddhist story of the “smiling monk,” and it always captures my attention. In the story as I learned it, a monk returns from his monastery to visit his family home during wartime. Upon arriving, he learns that every one of his family members has been killed, and his family home destroyed. Grief stricken and alone, he retreats to the edge of town to meditate.
Each day the monk is seen sitting quietly in the same location, deep in meditation. Yet on his face, there is no sign of grief. Instead, the townspeople marvel to see him smiling, a deep presence of peace emanating from within him.
Perplexed, one of the townspeople finally approaches the monk to ask about his strange behavior.
“Dear brother, we can’t help but notice that while you have lost everyone dear to you, nonetheless we see you smiling every day. Can I ask, how can you possibly smile when all your family is dead, and your home destroyed?”
The monk opens his eyes and rests them on the questioner. His smile deepens. “I smile,” he answers, “because it makes me feel good.”
This is the paradox of the smile. It’s the paradox that Nat King Cole sang about so sweetly. A smile can and does reflect a state of well-being, an organic happiness bursting outward in genuine emotion. But a smile can also create its own sense of well-being, seemingly from nothing, through a simple act of intention.
A smile, chosen in a moment of darkness, has the power to bring light to a suffering heart. With its chemical and psycho-spiritual signals, a smile can manifest a sense of peace where moments before there was only pain.
Years ago, I got into a terrible fight with an old partner of mine. We whipped our emotions into a fury, hurled tongue lashings and evil eyes at each other, and smashed each other’s feelings against the wall. In the midst of my anger, I grabbed my backpack and marched for the front door. I yanked it open as fiercely as I could, fully intending to slam it behind me with every bit of power I had in my being.
My hand on the doorknob, I turned around to give one last dirty look. I caught a glimpse of my partner sitting on the couch, glaring ferociously at me, daggers of anger shooting across the room through slanted eyes. We locked at attention like two gunmen moments before a shootout. He drew first.
“Good bye, Shannon!” he bellowed, in a voice two octaves deeper than his own.
The words flew heavy through the air and fell to the floor at my feet. It was truly dramatic. We may as well have been standing together on the set of Gone with the Wind, his Rhett Butler admonishing my Scarlet O’Hara — “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!” — before exiting stage right into the foggy night.
There we froze in the truth of the moment, angry bricks strewn across the floor between us. He stared at me. I stared back at him.
I don’t know what came over me then. But somehow, miraculously, I softened. In a moment of clarity I stepped outside of time to see the two of us suspended in the moment, stewing in equal parts gravity and silliness. The intensity of our fight was painful, but the reason for it was trivial. What we did next would likely make a difference in the outcome of our relationship. And it was all completely unnecessary.
In that moment the drama lost its power and appeared to me for what it was: totally ridiculous.
I didn’t slam the door. Instead, hand still on the doorknob, I winked at my partner and smiled.
The energy shifted. The weight lifted. A long silence spread between us, me smiling a crooked smile, him with a curled up look of confusion on his face.
Finally, slowly, he smiled back.
Within a minute, we were both laughing.
One smile was enough to shake us two inflicted lovers from our emotional tornado and sweep the floor clean of debris. We had been caught up in the land of Oz with its forest of flying monkeys and wicked witches. But with the sweep of a smile we found ourselves under a clear sky in a Kansas cornfield, squarely back in the objective world where we loved and respected each other.
That episode happened long ago. The reason for the argument is lost to me, as is that old love affair. But the powerful effect of the smile lives with me still.
I’m not so naive as to think that a smile is some magical elixir, able to cure all ills on contact. While a smile can be a powerful transformer, it’s not an on/off switch for avoiding the inevitable pain and suffering of life. On the contrary, I believe a smile can help us navigate the struggles of our lives with a much-needed dose of openness and grace.
A smile is not a trivialization of pain. It is not an attempt to escape. It is an act of leaning in, a way forward, a way through. The alternative response is to move away, to cut ourselves off from life and from one another — an act that only creates more suffering in the end.
Long past my childhood, I recognize that the old “Smile” song carries within it this wild wisdom of leaning in. The song is not about hiding our sadness or pretending it doesn’t exist. It’s not about faking it. It’s about invoking the power of a smile in times of suffering, adding it to the power we already have within us, and trusting that the combined forces will carry us through.
“That’s the time you must keep on trying…
Smile, what’s the use of crying?
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile if you just smile.”
So whenever I can remember — especially in times of crisis — I remind myself to smile. When I manage to do it, I feel a ripple of peace run through me, in spite of myself.
It’s remarkably odd: when I make myself smile in the moment I want to frown, it feels a bit like I’m lying to myself. As with my childhood musings over the record player, I question myself: “If I feel so bad, why am I smiling?”
But if I can muster that smile, I notice that it quickly comes to feel like the truth. And just as quickly, it’s the frown that comes to feel like a lie.
Back in my bedroom, in the midst of this sleepless night, I lie in the darkness welcoming the new instructions from my mind. I hear my cats outside the bedroom door, tearing through the hallway. One of them is playing with a toy mouse, shuffling, bouncing, pouncing. Cats are nocturnal beings. It’s their time to be awake now, not mine.
As quickly as the muscles of my mouth turn upward, I feel a soft wave of relaxed well-being swell through my body. The dancing thoughts become quiet. They smile along with me.
A moment passes, and I feel my head’s weight sink into the pillow. I lose track of time and drift off into peaceful sleep, a genuine smile resting gently on my face.
This post originally appeared on Elephant Journal at this link.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Charlie Chaplin, Behind the Screen