Last week while visiting the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond with my friend, Rita Willet, I was struck by the similarities among sacred figures of many different cultural/religious traditions. The serene expressions of various Buddhas, the fierce visages of Japanese temple guardians, the adoration reflected on the faces of maternal figures holding their infants—we found these themes repeated as we meandered through the South Asian, East Asian, African, and other sections. We wondered what it would be like to have an exhibit of these figures together. What would that say about humanity, or rather the relationship between humans and the divine?
A parallel rumination I have had lately has to do with a person’s “resting face,” that is, their face when no one is looking, when they are not actively interacting with anyone. I have spent many interesting hours watching people, especially in airports. I study their faces as they sit, walk, or run. Maybe airports by their very nature bring out frustration, worry, and stress; I see a lot of unhappy expressions. Once in a while, though, I encounter a beautiful, content face, and it makes me feel happy. Then I wonder what my own resting face communicates.
I remember years ago reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s words about the spiritual practice of a half-smile. I tried relaxing my mouth, turning the edges up ever so slightly, and bringing my attention to an internal smile. It worked, and I have used it (not as regularly as I’d like) ever since. It’s about being mindful, being in the present moment. In my musings today I went back to find those words.
“To meditate well, we have to smile, a lot… I always say that a smile can be a practice, a kind of yoga practice. Yoga of the mouth: you just smile even if you don’t feel joy and you’ll see after you smile that you’ll feel differently. Sometimes the mind takes the initiative and sometimes you have to allow the body to take the initiative. Sometimes the spirit leads, and sometimes the body can lead.”
In another place he says:
“When I see someone smile, I know immediately that he or she is dwelling in awareness. This half-smile, how many artists have labored to bring it to the lips of countless statues and paintings? I am sure the same smile must have been on the faces of the sculptors and painters as they worked. Can you imagine an angry painter giving birth to such a smile? Mona Lisa’s smile is light, just a hint of a smile. Yet even a smile like that is enough to relax all the muscles in our face, to banish all worries and fatigue. A tiny bud of a smile on our lips nourishes awareness and calms us miraculously. It returns us to the peace we thought we had lost.”
For me, today, the new piece is thinking beyond what the practice does for me and considering the effect it might have on others. I discovered that Thich Nhat Hanh has written about this as well:
“If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.”
As a Quaker, I also sometimes wonder what my worshiping face communicates. I usually close my eyes during worship in order to focus inward, but sometimes I look around the room, not only looking at the feet intersecting the circle in various ways, but at the faces. I see expressions that reflect worry, pain, peace (some very deep peace). Then I smile and close my eyes, breathing in peace, breathing out love.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace ( Berkeley, California: Parallax Press, 1987).