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Transformative Power of a Gentle Half Smile

Half-smile during your free moments

- Thich Nhat Hanh, in ”The Miracle of Mindfulness”.

Light up your face with gladness

Hide every trace of sadness

Although a tear may be ever so near.

That’s the time you must keep on trying

Smile what’s the use in crying?

You’ll find that life is still worth-while

If you do just smile.

Lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons

This famous song has no doubt brought a smile to many faces over the decades. From a mindfulness point of view, we may not agree with the line ‘hide every trace of sadness’, since we don’t want to deny our feelings. However, there is a practice which the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls a gentle half smile, which can indeed brighten our day, without needing to pretend that life is all wonderful.

When we look at advertising we are bombarded with ecstatic smiles, showing two rows of perfect white teeth, giving the impression of a fully realized human life. In the past we may have been told ‘come on, smile!’ when we’ve been having a bad day, and we probably rather resented this! It’s quite galling to be told to smile when you’re feeling lousy. And we have all come across the compulsory professional smile, which depending on the person may still be friendly, but in the wrong hands can feel cold and arrogant.

The gentle half smile is a way of bringing positive energy into our day, of lifting our spirits without necessarily trying to radically change our underlying feeling state. We can feel sad, or anxious, and still find our outlook improves if we sit with those feelings while we have a gentle smile on our face. It’s quite easy to habitually frown without even noticing we’re doing this. It’s a good practice to start our meditation with a reminder to gently smile, but we can also bring this half smile to our face throughout the day.

The meditation teacher Tara Brach has a lovely way of extending this practice. During some of her guided meditations, she suggests feeling the gentle half smile behind the eyes, behind the face, in the heart centre. We can also send the half smile to parts of our body which may be hurting, or which feel tense.

It’s easy for us to metaphorically frown at various parts of the body, either because of pain, or because of a sense there is something ‘wrong’ with our bodies. It’s so much more friendly to bring a gentle smile to different regions of our bodies instead.

When we are talking to other people, it may not always be appropriate to be beaming a wide smile at them. They may be talking about something which has distressed them, or criticising you, and a big smile would look out of place. But even in those situations, you can still imagine a gentle half smile behind your eyes, and you will look more open and receptive to the other person, and they may feel you are being warm and friendly towards them. It is a wonderful habit to cultivate, and encapsulates what mindfulness meditation is about – not pretending that life is other than it is, but choosing small actions which will gradually infuse our days with more positive states of mind.

Weekly practice idea: This week, try the gentle half smile, when you are by yourself and also with other people. Notice how it feels. Anja Tanhane


I’m reading The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen Master and spiritual guru for many. I’ve decided to incorporate mindfulness into my day-to-day life – not as a

general resolution that I will someday get to eventually, but as a reality beginning now. Mindfulness has been shown to have research-based results: stress reduction, working memory improvement, more cognitive flexibility and focus, as well as an increase in intuition and self-insight, even increased immune response (source here). Sounds good to me!

Hanh’s book contains a number of mindfulness exercises that don’t seem to take a lot of time. My eye is caught by one in particular that seems very simple:

“Anywhere you find yourself sitting or standing, half-smile.  Look at a child, a leaf, a painting on the wall, anything which is relatively still, and smile.  Inhale and exhale quietly three times.  Maintain the half smile and consider the spot of your attention as your own true nature.”

I decide to practice it for a week and journal about my experience. I invite you into my experience.

Day one. After breathing three times with the half smile on my lips, I find myself looking at a green bowl my daughter made in ceramics when she was in high school. A handmade, organic green bowl with imperfections yet shiny, holding space, holding things, a container for much.  My own true nature. The smile on my lips fills me with peace and joy.

Day two. This very short meditation (probably about 1 minute) immediately gets my energy flowing down from my crown and my energy level up. The half smile, the deliberation of the meditation, the reflection on my house plant as my own true nature, in only 30 seconds shifted my energy and astonishes me with its effect.

Day three. I find myself smiling the half smile a few times today. Immediately my energy shifts.

Day four. I’ve had a long day and it’s almost time for bed. As I sit at the table and remember that I need to do this meditation, I close my eyes and breathe deeply three times with a half smile. My energy flows. I wait to open my eyes with anticipation at what they will land on as my own true nature. A painting that hung in my parents’ house, which now hangs on my kitchen wall, reveals itself. I enter the sunny glade amongst dark trees and see my parents there. My mother died five years ago, my dad died in 2008. They

are delighted.

Day five. This is the first time I’ve done the meditation at work. One of my clients cancelled so I have time. As soon as I close my eyes and start to half smile, my energy starts moving (chills running through my body from my crown down). As I take my three breaths and open my eyes, I set my gaze on the light switch. Can this light switch be a manifestation of my own true nature? Yes. This catches my fancy and I find myself staring at the light switch for some time. 

Day six. Today I do this meditation mid-walk. I sit on a bridge that used to be a railroad track, a trestle bridge, with my back against a chain link fence. I close my eyes and let my breathing settle. When I open them with anticipation and the half smile on my lips, they light on a feather caught in the chain link fence just opposite, about five feet away. My own true nature is this lovely light feather. What holds me? Where will I drift to next? I go look at the feather more closely, examining its fragile looking tufts. I feel as if I’m floating.

I am a bit stunned by my experiences. What power mindfulness can bring! I invite you to try this exercise

for a week and journal about it. I invite you to discover the power of the half smile.

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