Everyone seems to demand it nowadays: for those pesky corporate functions, for press conferences, for photographs.
What happened to the good ol’ days where we could wear any facial expression we like?
Recall that at the advent of photography, it was trendy not to smile for pictures. The more normal and blasé or, moreover, serious and sincere one appeared, the better. Only since the advent of national propaganda in the 20th century world wars was smiling implemented. Now we’re obsessed with it to a nearly unreasonable extent.
While a smile conveys contentment, and it is far better than a frown—and easier, as goes the oft repeated note that smiling takes less muscles than frowning. Perhaps that explains why, then, when we hold a small smile it is so much easier for our faces to return to a restful and tranquil state.
But holding a big smile is about the same as frowning—we’re still using all those muscles, still exerting effort.
Indeed, enlightenment entails happiness. But does it require happiness?
A central and foundational tenant of many schools of Buddhism is the concept of The Four Noble Truths. A simple way to understand the purpose of Buddhist logic and a beautiful teaching that should be revisited always and often.
The four truths are, essentially, as follows:
1. Recognition of suffering (it exists, so deal with it)
2. Recognition of an origin (one can find where suffering is born)
3. Recognition of the cessation of suffering (it’s possible to end it)
4. Finally, understanding of the path to ending suffering (that’s how to deal with it).
Perfectly simple and elegant.
So, at the foundation of Buddhist psychology, we have this assertion that has absolutely nothing to do with happiness. Why is that?
Happiness is an emotion. Just like sadness or anger. Excessive happiness requires an exertion of effort.
Can we remember the last time we were incredibly happy, even in a state of rapture? What happened afterwards?
Oftentimes we find ourselves exhausted and spent. Maybe still joyful and feeling good—but in a similar way that we’d feel if we had a good cry, or screamed to release anger.
A teacher of mine shared experiences at certain ashrams in India. Spiritual seekers would go to these temples for solace and sanctuary. At some of these places, the resident gurus would lead the people in all sorts of exercises that would bring them into a state of absolute bliss. How wonderful! The people would become so happy!
But then, just the next morning, the very same people would be crying and sobbing, miserable that they’d returned from ecstasy. Now grasping again for that intangible sensation of nirvana.
So there exists this strain of thought, that happiness is what we’re seeking. Yet, we may find that on seeking this, we are chasing after a phantom. An idea.
A fleeting sensation.
This brings us to Taoist thought, where we can draw the concept of balance between yin and yang. Here we apply that to positivity and negativity or, more appropriately, happiness and it’s inverse—unhappiness. From the epic Taoist foundational text, the Tao Te Jing (spellings vary depending on romanization), we are reminded that yin births yang, and vice versa. This means that an excess of one force inevitably will lead to an excess of its inverse. Like the classic example of a pendulum—all too often, we find ourselves swinging wildly between happiness and unhappiness.
We should not force happiness on others. Instead, we should simply seek to remove suffering. Allow ourselves to live easefully and peacefully. In balance.
Not in excessive exuberance, simply being in a state of supremely balanced contentment and tranquility.
It is in this state that we find ourselves most conducive to all the greatness that comes with living. To a feeling of really being alive.
Then we can deeply appreciate and feel gratitude for what we experience.
So, my dear brothers and sisters, smile. But do not force happiness on others. More importantly, do not force happiness on oneself.
Just be, and be with ease. For that is our true nature.
Enlightenment will surely follow.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Chiara Cremaschi at Flickr