Smile! It’s Good For You!

I am a smiler. Walking down the street, I’m usually the first to break into a smile as I pass a stranger. Under my photo in my high school yearbook it says, “Best Smile.” Smiling is such a natural reflex for me that when I do feel depressed, I notice the heaviness in the corners of my mouth right away. That’s how I know something’s not right in my brain: my smile turns upside down.

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Smile and the whole world smiles with you.

And so I was intrigued to read that smiling, even fake smiling, can actually change your mood. Yes, there is scientific evidence now to support this. Try it for yourself: next time you’re feeling out of sorts, grab a pen or pencil and stick it in your teeth horizontally, like you’re a dog carrying a newspaper to your master (or in this household, a rabbit with a whole carrot that he’s just stolen from the fridge). This forces your facial muscles into the semblance of a smile. And here’s what will happen:

The simple act of smiling sends a message to your brain that you’re happy. And when you’re happy, your body pumps out feel-good endorphins. Your body will slow its breathing and heart rate, reducing anxiety. This reaction has been studied numerous times since the 1980s and has been proven again and again.

You’ll probably feel ridiculous with that pen in your mouth, and you might start to laugh. This is great! Have you ever laughed without smiling? It’s impossible. Numerous studies have been done on the health benefits of laughing, including how it acts like a mini workout that burns calories and works the abs. Laughter also helps blood flow, lowers blood sugar levels, reduces stress, and improves sleep. It may also raise the level of antibodies in the body, which helps boost the immune system.

Remember the Nat King Cole song, Smile? Check out these lyrics, and see if they don’t match up with the scientific research:

Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you

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 of crying?
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile

That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what’s the use of crying?
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile

Satchmo knows what's good for ya!

Satchmo knows what’s good for ya!

And smiling helps others, as well. “When you’re smilin’, the whole world smiles with you,” sang Louis Armstrong (who had one of the best smiles ever!). Research shows that smiling is contagious. Something as simple as seeing a friend smile can activate the muscles in your face to make that same expression, without you even being aware that you are doing it.

Have you ever noticed that the Buddha is often represented in statues with a slight smile? It is said that his smile holds the 10,000 joys and the 10,000 sorrows of the world. That’s how powerful it is. Smiling can help you hold whatever emotions, thoughts, or sensations you are feeling. Think of it as a big bowl that can contain it all.

If holding the pen in your mouth is making you drool, then just close your eyes and simply imagine the curved shape of a smile. Let the image spread into your eyes, feeling the corners of the eyes soften. Let it melt any tension around your mouth and jaw. Feel the smile shape spreading its warmth into your chest and heart. Let the natural rhythm of your breath relax you. When you open your eyes, you might notice that you actually are smiling. Let it shine.

Spiritual Mile Markers

Dear Friends,

Today is the one year anniversary of this blog!! I first want to say thank you to each and every one of you for your support. I started this blog because I wanted to share some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned from having a spiritual practice. I wanted to create a community where we could help each other along the path. The topics I write about usually come from my daily life, ideas that are rooted in the mundane activities we all share but that contain universal spiritual principles. I hope this blog has given you some practical ways of deepening your own practice and a sense of being in it together. I am very grateful for the presence of each and every one of you.

I called this blog “Spirit Trail” because I liked the metaphor of the path, with all its twists and turns and ups and downs, it’s challenges and it’s rewards. Sometimes we fear what might be around the next bend; other times we get an expansive view. It’s not uncommon to take a wrong turn, or to have to repeat your steps. But ultimately we are all climbing the same mountain.

Whether you are conscious of it or not, you are on a journey of discovery. Your soul is on the path of enlightenment, a dawning of the full awareness of who you are as a spiritual being: a unique expression of god. Every person you meet on this journey has value to bring to your experience. Every experience you have serves your enlightenment in some way. This is going on around you and through you every day.

My story is your story. My particular dramas might be different than yours, but the tale is the same. Here we are, traveling together. I am playing the role of teacher/blogger, and you’re playing the role of student/reader. But the funny thing about being a teacher is that the roles often get reversed. So really I’m just reminding you of the real power that already exists in you. I’m standing here next to you, showing you the full picture of your life. Your life is a microcosm of the macrocosm of the universe.

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Some of you may be asking, “Are we there yet? How do I know if I’m making spiritual progress?” Well, thankfully we know what it looks like further down the trail because a few brave and wise souls have already journeyed there and sent postcards back. All of these enlightened beings seem to share three qualities:

1. Peace. They have a profound sense and understanding of their connection to spirit and to all things, and they rest in that. They don’t panic, they don’t worry, and they’re not troubled or conflicted by all the things going around them. Even when things happen in the world that seem horrific, they somehow see all of our human drama from a higher perspective, knowing that no soul is ever lost and all good is guaranteed.

2. Compassion. All enlightened beings show compassion, which is love in action. They recognize our oneness and know that how you treat others is paramount to how you will be treated in return. Compassion is one of the first signs of spiritual maturity. They are forgiving. They’ve made enough mistakes in life to know that they cannot judge another person. We’re all doing the very best we can.

3. Wisdom. Those who have traveled further down the road hold a deep, abiding wisdom that cuts through fear and doubt. If they come to a rattlesnake on the path, they simple walk around it. They trust in knowing they are an aspect of god, and this gives them a power, a deep connection to the truth within.

So as we journey along, watch for these spiritual mile markers, a way of examining your own life and checking in with your progress. Cultivate these three qualities in your daily experiences. You are on the right path.

With love and gratitude from your fellow traveler,

Chandra

A Symphony of Sound

Let’s talk about sound. I’m settling in to my new living space and adjusting to being in closer proximity to my neighbors than I was before. Next door to me are a group of college freshman who do what college students do: party. All night. Very loudly.

I’ve found the sounds coming from next door really bothersome. They keep me from sleeping, and I’ve found it hard to do my meditative practices during or after their activities. (I wonder, do my Oms at 6am bother them?)

Yet, one of the meditations I lead asks participants to treat sound as just another passing phenomenon. Sounds can be as compelling as thoughts and just as immaterial and open to interpretation.

Good sound or bad sound?

Good sound or bad sound?

One morning I sat outside and tried to experiment with this. Closing my eyes, I immediately began to notice the sounds all around me. I also observed how my mind likes to label and make patterns. It went something like this: “It’s an animal…it’s a bird…it’s a hummingbird.” “It’s a vehicle…it’s a truck…it’s a UPS truck.” “It’s a person…it’s a child…it’s a child crying because he doesn’t want to go to school.”

I admit I found the “neutral sound” meditation very difficult. Maybe it was all the ear training I received when pursuing my bachelor’s degree in music theory. My brain hears sound and wants to give it a name. I hear a car horn and think, “That’s an F Sharp!” A doorbell rings and I hear it as a musical interval. I visited a Buddhist temple where they had a fan going intermittently and I heard it as wind blowing through the Himalayas.

Good sound or bad sound?

Good sound or bad sound?

But if we can let go of labels sound can be like any other ephemeral, passing occurrence. You might even begin to hear sounds as if they were instruments in a symphony: the percussion of a helicopter, the bass of a car stereo, the soprano of an ambulance siren. When we can detach our emotions from these sounds, they become neutral. And when we take the stance of the curious observer, we can lessen our suffering.

Give this practice a try with the following meditation:

·       Settle into a comfortable position and become aware of your breath flowing in and out.

·       When you are ready, shift your awareness to the sounds that are present in this moment.

·       Without searching for sounds, let them come to you and fill your ears while simply hearing sounds near and far away.

·       Notice any judgments or thoughts about the sounds and let them pass away.

·       Notice if you find yourself trying to identify or label the sounds and instead focus on hearing the bare sounds themselves.

·       Be aware that sounds arise and fade away, and notice if there are any spaces between sounds.

·       When your mind wanders or fixates on a particular sound, gently return your attention to the flow of sounds occurring in the present moment.

·       When you are finished, shift your attention back to your breathing and gradually open your eyes.

Treading Water

I’ve been spending a lot of time at the pool lately trying to beat the summer heat. Usually I swim laps, enjoying the zen-like rhythm of stroking back and forth, back and forth, until I’ve completed about a mile.

But some days I just don’t feel like swimming laps. I’m tired or hot or lazy. Some days the black dog of depression sits heavily on me, making me feel like I can’t even muster the energy to smile. Yet I know some exercise would do me good, and feeling weightless in the water can be a good antidote to throw off the weight of the heavy dog. On those days, I tread water.

I learned to tread water as a child. My swim teachers, Laura Lungfish and Sammy Seal, taught me how to scull the water with my arms and hands. They showed me how to flutter kick and move my legs like egg beaters to stay afloat. If I ever had to stay in the water a long time, they showed me how to conserve energy by leaning back and floating my legs up like I was in a recliner, gently sculling with my hands.

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I get in the water and start moving my arms and legs as hard as I can for five minutes to warm up. I flutter kick, egg beater kick, and move my legs like I’m cross-country skiing. I sweep my hands forward and back, making a full circle around myself. Then I cross my arms and switch to using only my legs. It’s hard. I can feel my lungs aching as they strain against the pressure of the water. If I get too tired, I kick back into recliner position until my energy comes back. Then I use only arms, crossing my legs so I won’t be tempted to use them. I alternate like this for about 30 minutes.

Sometimes the lifeguard will come over and ask if I want to use the floatation belt. “No, I’m good.” A little while later he’ll ask, “Are you sure you don’t want to use the fins?” “Nope, I’m fine.” Some people stare, wondering what I’m doing. Sometimes people will ask, “How are you doing that? Why don’t you sink?” “I don’t know,” I answer. “I just keep moving and breathing.”

“Aha!” I thought. That’s it. For me, treading water is a way to keep going when I don’t know what else to do. I may not be moving from point A to point B, but I am still moving. If I stop moving, I will sink, so I just keep waving my arms and legs, even if it’s slow and languid.

It also helps to keep the breath smooth and even. Too much of an inhale or a holding of the breath and I pop up above the surface. Too much exhale and I start to sink. So I have to keep it even to keep my head above the water. Slow and even, no matter how hard I’m paddling under the surface.

Treading water can only happen in the deep end, where your toes can’t touch the bottom. You have to move out into the open and be willing to take a risk. Like life, you just have to keep moving and remember to breathe.

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