A smile is a response to a stimulus. One of the first things we do when something pleases, delights us or makes us feel good is to smile but can that be reverse engineered? Can we use smiling as a stimulus and propel ourselves toward a warm, fuzzy feeling of gratitude? My experience has been that we can. This is the smile meditation exercise that I use, both personally and at Soul Scripting workshops, to turn the physical action of smiling into a felt sensation.
The big but
Before I smile mediation as a practice I want to add a caveat.
I’m not suggesting that you use this meditation as a way to shoehorn your way into feeling happy when you’re actually feeling sad, or angry, or any other emotion that makes you uncomfortable. Attempting to push how you feel to one side in favour of a distraction doesn’t make the feeling go away. It buries it. The more you bury, the more you lug around inside you every day and that stuff gets heavy. So find a way to be with, experience and process your emotions; meet yourself where you are and act from there. Sometimes that means seeking support from an appropriate professional.
The best time to practice the smile meditation
I like to practice this when I’m winding down to get ready for bed, or right after I finish a few hours of hard work and I want to change gear. When I’m feeling calm and relatively neutral, or even a bit exasperated about things beyond my control – those times when I know it isn’t in my best interests to dwell and I’d be better served by reminding myself of all there is to be grateful for in my life – those are the times when a smile meditation feels like just the thing.
It’s also a nice way to begin a Soul Scripting practice.
Let’s have a go
Begin by sitting quietly, or taking yourself out for a walk.
As you sit, or stroll, bring a smile to your face. You might feel silly at first – a bit like you do when you’re asked to ‘smile for the camera’. Instead of allowing that awkward feeling to take hold, see if you can allow the smile to become a memory instead. You have smiled plenty of times before.
Use a smile to recall a memory
Bring to mind a time that you smiled spontaneously. When I guide this exercise in workshops I often invite people to recall the last time they really laughed.
Try it. It doesn’t matter what you were laughing at. It doesn’t even have to be the last time you laughed. Any time will work. Simply invite a memory in, then notice as your mind and body respond to your request.
You may not receive a memory in full Technicolor but the smallest fragment is enough to play with. Perhaps a certain person comes to mind, or a particular night out. When I try this I usually conjure an image of my sister laughing so hard she can’t tell me what’s so funny, or my little dog and the way her back legs stick up in the air when she sits down. Then the effort has dropped and I’m smiling for real (it’s actually happening right now, live!).
Relive the moment
Now expand the scene. If a particular moment in time has come to you, let yourself relive it as completely as possible. For example, if something hilarious happened while you were at dinner with friends, spend a few moments reflecting on who was there, how you felt in their company, what you were eating and what it tasted like. This isn’t about making an effort. Let it happen in the same way that you remember dreams – one fragment appears in your mind after you wake and, as you bring your attention to it, the rest of the dream floats back in. Or sometimes it doesn’t and that’s fine too.
Allow, don’t push. Perhaps this memory will float out and another will appear. If it’s effort, notice whether there’s something more pressing standing between you and this practice, asking to be witnessed. See if you can give that permission to come into focus, even if that takes you in an unexpected direction.
Notice felt sensations
If a scene, or a person (or animal) has presented and unfolded itself in your awareness, check in with how you’re feeling as a result. What emotions are you experiencing? Can you name them? Can you bring your attention to what those emotions feel like in your body, and where in your body you are experiencing them?
If this is difficult at first, try bringing your attention to your heart. Notice whether you feel any sensation there. Notice your face; are you still smiling? If so, does it feel softer and more effortless, or are your forcing it?
Let go of any effort. Notice what is and what wants to be.
When you find emotions and physical sensations, allow your mind to linger on them. We are hardwired to remember exactly what fear feels like because, as a species, we need those feelings to alert us to danger and keep us out of harms way. We’re not so easily disposed to recall the feelings that go with gratitude, or a good mood. Those, we have to practice (this is called ‘the negativity bias’ and I first read about it in Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson).
Anchor the experience
In true Soul Scripting style you might even choose to grab some paper and record your experience of this practice in writing, to really help you drop anchor and stay with it for a few extra moments.
Let it come naturally
I suggest reading this post a couple of times so that the words sink in, then giving it a go. When you do, don’t concern yourself with trying to remember the next step. Just experience the practice in your body, without feeling the need to rummage around in your head for the instructions. If you go totally blank you’ll still benefit from some time in meditation. You can always come back and read it again tomorrow.
Tip: If you practice this as a walking meditation there’s the added bonus that by wandering around with a gentle smile on your face, emanating gratitude, you could positively impact someone else’s day. If it feels safe to do so, meet someone else’s gaze as you pass them and notice what happens.
Let me know how it goes!