The power of your inner smile
Are you smiling or frowning to yourself? Smiling is the secret to health and serenity, according to several spiritual traditions. The theory behind inner smile practice is that when we smile like a Buddha, the world beams back.
Mother Teresa (1910-1997) believed “peace begins with a smile”. A sincere smile shines from your soul, making the world a warmer place. As English essayist and poet Joseph Addison (1672-1719) put it, “What sunshine is to flowers, smiles are to humanity.” A genuine smile puts us at ease, while a frown creates unease, promoting disease and depression, according to both modern and traditional medicine.
Smiling to others and ourselves is a gift of love. The universal language of a smile speaks straight to the heart, bypassing the intellect and ego. To nurture loving relationships, Ayurveda advises greeting others with a pleasant face, Buddhism encourages friendliness to all (maitri) and Taoism teaches that giving yourself a grin is the best medicine.
A deep inner smile spreads like a relaxing elixir, making us receptive to transforming negative energy into positive. Conversely, a scowl suppresses the immune system by increasing stress and blocking energy. Research by French physiologist Dr Israel Waynbaum indicates that facial muscles used to express emotion trigger specific brain neurotransmitters. Smiling triggers happy healing hormones such as ecstatic endorphins and immune-boosting killer T-cells, whereas frowning triggers the secretion of stress hormones.
Smile therapy lowers the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline and produces hormones that stabilise blood pressure, relax muscles, improve respiration, reduce pain, accelerate healing and stabilise mood.1 If you’re feeling down, the stress hormones secreted with a scowl may increase blood pressure, weaken the immune system, increase susceptibility to infections and exacerbate depression and anxiety.
But what if you don’t feel like smiling? Can you fake it till you make it? Though a heartfelt smile has a deeper effect, even a surface smile tricks the brain into releasing happy hormones, according to facial biofeedback research.2 And the more you smile, the more you want to smile, concluded a study where participants were either prevented from smiling or encouraged to smile by holding a pencil in their mouth (those who held the pencil in their teeth and were able to smile rated cartoons as funnier than those who held the pencil in their lips and couldn’t smile).3 This is because each time you smile, you reinforce happy neural pathways that fire more spontaneously with each subsequent use. Self-love smiling circuits then release healing nectar, while self-hate messages release toxins that breed disease, according to Taoism.
The smile trial
How often do you smile? Try the smile trial for a minute. Relax your face and let a subtle Mona Lisa smile spread from your eyes to your lips. Now frown and sense the emotional and energetic shift. Feel the difference? Considering it takes only 26 muscles to smile and 62 muscles to frown, why wear the strain of a scowl? As motivational speaker Les Giblin says, “If you’re not using your smile, you’re like a man with a million dollars in the bank and no check book.”
Smiling seems to have a cultural element. The Japanese rate low on the smile-o-meter, so they’re being encouraged to smile to increase profits. “Japanese are truly hopeless at smiling. That’s caused the loss of many business opportunities,” says Makoto Tonami, president of Mac Corp, an operator of beauty salons offering 30-minute smile sessions using exercises and a machine to lift the mouth muscles and spirits.
Britain also has sorry smile statistics, with research revealing that if you smile at 100 people, 70 will smile back in Bristol, 68 in Glasgow, 18 in London and only four in Edinburgh.4 Writing this article while on retreat in Thailand, I notice how people there go out of their way to smile at others, while in many other places I’ve found people often avert the gaze of others, as if avoiding a smile ambush.
It’s easy to share a smile, since it’s the second most contagious facial expression after yawning. A smiling face is always beautiful and an endearing accessory, while an ugly expression will overshadow meticulous attention to grooming and dress every time. But smiles do more than increase your face value: British researchers found that receiving a smile could give more pleasure than sex or eating chocolate. It also generated much higher levels of stimulation to the brain and heart than being given money or having a cigarette did.
Never underestimate the power of a smile. Use yours and you’ll find it helps to disperse sadness and dissolve stress. When dressing in the morning, remember author Jim Beggs’ advice: “Before you put on a frown, make absolutely sure there are no smiles available.”
The cellular smile
A genuine smile glows from your deepest layer of self-love, radiating like sunlight through clouds and embracing everything as an extension of self. Starting as an inner hug, it spreads to soften the whole body, melting malevolent energy and emerging from benevolent eyes and lips. The smile says, “I accept and love you unconditionally.” Our being warms to this kindness, dissolving walls of psychic and physical isolation that prevent wholeness and health. Just as others respond to our loving smile, our cells soak up smiling rays, with new cells forming under the influence of the inner love affair.
Taoist Master Mantak Chia has taught the inner smile for the past 40 years. He explained its significance on my recent visit to his retreat in Thailand: “In ancient China, the Taoists taught that a constant inner smile to oneself ensured health, happiness and longevity. Why? Smiling to yourself is like basking in love: you become your own best friend. To live with an inner smile is to live in harmony with yourself.”
The smiling energy emanating from Mantak Chia brings to mind enlightened souls such as the Dalai Lama. Mantak Chia had an aura of contentment and kindness that put me at ease immediately. He also explained that, as sickness starts from negative emotions settling in the organs, the inner smile breaks this cycle: “By transforming destructive emotions into positive energy, the inner smile removes the cause and symptoms of disharmony.”
The subtle inner smile is different from a superficial smile set on a fake expression masking hidden motives and meaning. The inner smile is as innocent and natural as a baby’s blissful smile. It doesn’t impose, demand or expect anything in return. Nor is it a spiritually superior or condescending smile; it accepts everything as it is.
Genuine smiling has a significant impact on people’s lives, according to Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California Berkeley. Studying college yearbook photos dating back to the ’60s, Keltner found that people with Duchenne smiles — smiles using the muscles around the eyes — were happier since graduation than the phoney mouth-only smilers. He concluded, “Happy, smiley people cheer up others around them, which in turn makes them more stable and less prone to depression or divorce than those who faked it in their yearbook.”
A point worth noting is that, though laughing has significant benefits, as evidenced by the worldwide laughter clubs, excessive or loud laughing can cause surplus chi and increase blood pressure, according to Chinese medicine. A mild smile is a more sustainable and inward expression. The soft smile dissolves hardened patterns without struggle or force, gently coaxing a shift in stuck energy. Attacking problems with aversion and aggression only increases resistance, and abusing our frailties makes us weaker. Alternatively, sending ourselves loving, smiling energy empowers us with strength and restoration.
The inner smile arises from a loving intention, surfaces on the face then suffuses your internal and external reality. Though a smile may feel forced initially, your psychophysiology responds with happiness anyway. As Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains: “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.” Eventually, your being is saturated with smiling benevolence and it becomes a constant, effortless expression of your inner bliss.
If smiling feels so good, why don’t we do it more? It seems negative thoughts become entrenched in our energy and imprint themselves on our facade. Helen, a recent participant in an inner smile workshop, suggests: “It’s easier to remain closed and blame externals for our problems. The inner smile requires us to look inside ourselves, accept ourselves and extend that loving energy to everything.”
Ironically, we smile least when we need it most. Depression, pain and stress often rob us of the healing humour that can transform our state. Though smiling may be the last thing you feel like doing, it will do you the world of good. When you smile at your pain, worry, troubles and perceived inadequacies, you dissolve compounding tension. As Allen Klein, author of The Healing Power of Humor, says: “The hardest thing you can do is smile when you are ill, in pain or depressed. But this no-cost remedy is a necessary first half-step if you are to start on the road to recovery.”
Smiling puts everything into a brighter perspective, as you observe the psychodrama of life objectively. British actor and film director Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) expressed it well: “Life is a tragedy in close-up and a comedy in long-shot.”
A challenge many people experience in practising the inner smile is the tendency towards negativity. We can catch an inner frown from others’ negative outlook or our own. When you feel tense, simply remind yourself to smile again and any inner wrinkles will soon smooth over, uplifting others’ energy, too. Strengthen your inner smile by practising it in difficult situations such as during exercise, in traffic jams and long queues and when you’re annoyed. As smiling doesn’t take any extra time or effort like other meditation practices, nobody can say, “I don’t have time to smile.” Smile as often as you remember to, knowing it will override negative reactivity and reawaken your core of self-acceptance.
Before practising the inner smile, install smiling energy into your cellular memory by creating a smile file. Scan your past for moments of joy and laughter, then invoke your capacity for happiness by reliving those emotions. You can also visualise a peaceful natural scene to bring serenity and dissolve stress. A smiling baby or your own smiling face are other useful images. Look at funny old photos, jokes, cartoons and movies to help recapture your innate sense of humour.
Start the day with a smile by imaginatively writing “smile” on your bedroom ceiling. Invite more smiles into your life by playing with children, giving to others and finding the humour in all situations. If you can’t conjure a smile, frown for as long and hard as possible until you get tired, then flip to the other extreme: a smile.
Emotional detox smile
Our organs store emotional garbage, so to clear inner clutter, Mantak Chia recommends first smiling to the major organs to detoxify negative emotions. “This refines and recycles harmful energy into healing energy,” he says. Our organs work hard to maintain homoeostasis, so we can thank them with an inner smile. The specific order for the inner smile follows the organs’ cycle of creation.
hate and cruelty to love and compassion
grief and depression to joy and courage
anger and resentment to forgiveness and patience
|Stomach, pancreas and spleen
worry and anxiety to faith and fairness
fear and stress to security and calm
The inner smile can be practised at any time and for any duration. Familiarise yourself with the location of all your major organs beforehand to establish a strong mental connection with them. You may feel more in touch with your organs if you place your hands over them and visualise them as you send your smile to them. Feel the grateful response from your organs as they release blockages and receive loving energy. Open your eyes if you choose to make the healing sounds, then close them to resume smiling.
To clear negative emotions, follow these simple inner smile steps:
- Begin by closing your eyes and relaxing your whole body. Breathe slowly and smoothly, letting go on the exhalation.
- Smooth your facial muscles and focus attention on the third eye.
- Feel inner joy. Visualise a peaceful scene, a smiling baby or your smiling face, for example, to evoke this feeling.
- Gather this bliss behind your eyes and watch it internally as it travels down your body.
- Let the smiling energy flow like a sweet stream down your nose to wash over your lips.
- Raise the corners of your mouth slightly in a sublime inner smile. Simultaneously feel this soften your eyes.
- Place your tongue behind your teeth to connect the energy circuit for the entire practice.
- Relax your jaw.
- Swallow your saliva and feel your throat open and relax as you smile to your voicebox. Thank them for giving you the power of balance and speech.
- Visualise your thymus like a blossoming flower and smile to it with thanks for strong immunity and healing energy.
- Let the smile radiate to the happiness centre of your heart. Feel your heart soften and fill with red love nectar. Release cruelty, harshness, hastiness, impatience and hurt from your heart on the exhalation. You can also say “haaw” to release negativity. Send a smiling love letter to your open heart. Thank it for giving you compassion, kindness, joy and good circulation.
- Gather the loving energy from your heart and spread it to your lungs. Sense every cell relax as it releases grief and depression and, as you exhale, make the sound, “ssss”. You can also visualise your lungs as glowing white wings carrying you to your higher mission. Let your spongy lungs, swelling with smiling sap, soak up joy, love and courage. Thank them for oxygenating your body.
- Smile to your liver as it emanates a forest-green hue, releasing grey, murky light on the exhalation. Release anger and resentment with the sound “shhh”. On the smiling inhalation, absorb kindness, forgiveness and acceptance. Thank your liver for its role in assimilation, metabolism and purification.
- Send pure, smiling streams to your stomach, pancreas and spleen. Visualise these organs basking in a golden yellow light as they relax to release worry and anxiety while you exhale with the sound “huuu”. Feel faith, fairness and present-minded consciousness saturate this region. Thank these organs for maintaining healthy digestion, immunity and blood sugar levels.
- Keeping your body relaxed, send the loving smile to your kidneys. Visualise them like deep-blue ears, releasing fear and stress from them while exhaling with the sound “chooo”. Smile to them as they fill with soothing security, wisdom and calm. Thank them and the adrenals for filtering blood, balancing water and increasing stress resistance. Strong kidneys give us the willpower to act on our convictions.
- Smile to your orgasmic sexual area. Fill it with a tender, loving energy, appreciating the pleasure and power it gives you. Thank it for producing hormones that nourish your mind and body.
- To finish, smile up your spine, washing your whole body with golden nectar flowing from each vertebra through the nervous system, bone marrow, bones, muscles, skin and hair.
- The smiling waterfall rises to your crown, showering your whole body in smiling ecstasy.
- Allow the energy to flow back down behind your eyes and pool into your naval.
- To complete the practice, spiral energy around your navel. Men place their palms left over right and spiral clockwise 36 times. Women place their palms right over left and spiral counter-clockwise 36 times. Next, reverse the direction and spiral back 24 times. By storing the smiling energy in your navel you’ll avoid accumulating excess heat in your head or heart.
Once you are filled with an inner smile it naturally overflows to others. The smile resonates with external vibrations and reverberates back as a collective smiling wave. This creates an endless exchange of loving energy, invigorating and uplifting yourself and others on all levels. To keep this smiling circuit flowing, remember to smile as often as possible.
Smile to your past, present and future so you may continue on the spiritual path. Send an inner smile to those you love, hate, empathise with and are indifferent to. Extend it to your house, family, work, community, teachers, well-wishers, country, continent, planet and universe. Send a special smile to the natural world of plants, animals, water bodies, mountains, sky and stars.
The inner smile is considered a complete, non-sectarian spiritual practice that will benefit everyone. When consistently practised it can nurture the enlightened awareness that we are all part of the same smiling energy. In the pursuit of world peace, may we all share the prayer of Paramahamsa Yogananda (1893-1952): “Let my soul smile through my heart and my heart smile through my eyes, that I may scatter rich smiles in sad hearts.”
- L. Hodgkinson, Smile Therapy (Optima, 1994).
- A. Klein, The Healing Power of Humor (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989).
- A. Ornstein and D. Sobel, The Healing Brain (Simon & Schuster, 1987).
- F. Strack et al, “Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A non-obtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54 (1988): 768-77.
- Davis & Palladino, 2000.
- Pat Spugin et al, Comic Relief fundraising campaign, December 2002, Student BMJ 11 (April 2003): 87-130.