The Half-Smile of the Buddha

The little plant doesn't complain about where it grows. It just does the best it can where it lands. It grows naturally into what it will be. (Photo Hillary Johnson 2014)
The little plant doesn’t complain about where it grows. It just does the best it can where it lands. It grows naturally into what it will be.
(Photo Hillary Johnson 2014)

Martha Beck says, “The way we do one thing, is the way we do everything.” When I first read this, I was like, no way! But with time and reflection, that view changed. I think she’s right. I know that I have habitual patterns of thinking, acting and speaking. And sometimes those ways get me into trouble. Thank goodness that neither my habitual patterns or yours, are fixed in stone.

Habitual Patterns

One way my habitual patterns have caused me trouble is in meditation practice. For years I tried very hard to follow the instructions of my teacher (and one of the instructions of the Buddha.) That is to tie my mind to a post and keep there the same way a horse can be tied to a post and made to stay in one place. That is to focus my mind so fiercely on the breath and keep it there no matter what. But of course, my mind wandered. That old default mode, generating stories about everything bit of input; sights, sounds, sensations etc. As my mind wandered, I’d be filled with self-recriminations. I was failing at this one very simple but seemingly impossible task. I worried I was letting my teacher down. What kind of crummy meditator was I anyway? And so it went on for quite some time.

When I looked to the advice of Western teachers, of which there are many, well known, all over the country, their advice seemed so different. Because I had such a rigid view of meditation and what is was supposed to be, I thought these Western teachers must all be wrong. ( I know, the arrogance I had! Sigh.) My teacher told me to investigate myself.  Check them out. Always, ask was what they were teaching accurate and true? The only way I knew how to do that, was to compare those teachings to those of my own teacher, in terms of content, form and style. Done that way, the Western teachers were soft in comparison to the more stoic approach I was accustomed to. So, I simply decided that the Western teachers were wrong. ( I know, I know!)

At that point, I returned to what I’d been doing and endured several more years of struggle with this stoic approach. I made tremendous progress with my practice: I was no longer suffering with terrible depression, panic attacks and anxiety. My experience was life changing. But to a significant extent, I still fell into a place of continuing judgement, that somehow because my mind still wandered, I must be doing it wrong. And, the more I tried to force it, to not only tie but chain my mind to that post, the worse my suffering became. I was striving so hard because I thought that was what I supposed to do. The more I did it, the farther I was from any kind of inner peace on the cushion or off. I knew something had to change. (I should have paid more attention perhaps to other instructions but we are, where we are at any given time.)

The Half Smile of the Buddha (Photo by Hillary Johnson 2013)
The Half Smile of the Buddha (Photo by Hillary Johnson 2013)
Change is a Small

Thich Nhat Hahn and Tara Brach both advocate that we smile a bit when we practice meditation.They suggest that we allow the half-smile of the Buddha to come into our face when sitting in meditation. (Actually, they advocate this for many of life’s activities.) So, I tried it. What a difference! This has become a truly transformative practice for me. That half-smile allowed me to let go of striving. It’s hard to strive and smile. Try it! You’ll see. The faces we all make when striving are tight, scrunched up. Suddenly, I’m just sitting and while I set my intention to stay with the physical sensations of the breath coming and going, when the mind wanders, as it will, I accept it. I smile. Then I gently bring the attention back. I smile a little at the whole thing. No more harsh judgements. What a relief! (I realize how challenging this idea is to us Western folk…so much of our culture, particularly our work culture is all about striving, or the appearance of striving – more on that in another post. I’ll only add that I too have worked for years in corporate and academic settings, which were all about the strive factor. We can get over it.)

The Half-Smile Allows Life to Just Be

Best of all, I can bring that half-smile to everything I do. And, as Robert Frost would have it, “…that has made all the difference.” Now, I try as well as I can, to let that be the way I do everything. I don’t always make it but that’s okay too. I try without striving, clinging to some imagined outcome or mental picture, what my teacher calls “mind pictures.” This allows me to greet the day and all moments within it, from a warmer, more open-hearted place of acceptance. By allowing things to be just as they are, without striving or trying hard to change them, I find an open space where I try my best, let go of judgements when things don’t go as I’d hoped or imagined. In fact, I can more often let go of the idea of even having a mind picture or expectation at all. I can just enjoy life as it is. Of course, this is sometimes VERY HARD when money is tight, the future uncertain, loved ones are aging and so on.

Try it Yourself and See

So, I guess what I want to leave you with, to offer you, Dear Reader, is simply this. Try it for yourself. See what happens. No expectations. No, “Crap! I’m smiling and shit still isn’t like flowers and sunshine. Life is still hard.” Just try to see what happens when you inhabit your life from the half-smile of the Buddha. I’d love to hear from you on how it goes. Bumps and highlights, all your experiences. Maybe we can all help each other along the Way.

The rose doesn't strive to be beautiful. It just opens.
The rose doesn’t strive to be beautiful. It just opens. (Photo Hillary Johnson 2014)

May all beings be free, happy and at ease.


Author: Hillary Johnson

Improvisational documentary and fine art photographer.

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