This week I read a fascinating story in The Atlantic and I want to share a little bit of it with you. It begins with a reference to something a Reddit user in Finland posted. If you don’t know what Reddit is, I’m afraid I can’t help you. I checked it out once and was immediately overwhelmed. But it’s an internet thing. Anyway, this Reddit user in Finland said:
When a stranger on the street smiles at you:
a. you assume he is drunk
b. he is inane
c. he’s an American
The story is aptly titled, “Why Americans Smile So Much.”
This caught my attention because although I’m a ready and exuberant smiler these days, it wasn’t always so. I grew up in Mexico City, up until it was time for college, when I transferred to a school in the U.S. A Mexican Reddit user could have said the same thing as this Finnish one. It’s a crazy, busy, crowded city, Mexico. You can’t help but be in the midst of people all the time. And yet, if ever you smile at someone, you’d better be sure it’s someone you know. Otherwise, they might think at best you’re flirting, or at worst, you’re craving a knuckle sandwich.
So, I come to the States for college and the first thing I notice is how everybody, and I mean everybody, smiles at me. People I don’t know, just crossing paths on campus or at the grocery store, smiling for no apparent reason. Are they really that happy? I would wonder.
It would be fair to assume that this story goes on to mock the effortless arousal of smiles that characterize Americans all around the world. But what the author of the story, her name is Olga Khazan, finds is that this penchant for smiling is anything but frivolous. There is a good reason for this tendency and there is research to back it up. She says, “It turns out that countries with lots of immigration have historically relied more on nonverbal communication, and thus, people there might smile more.”
Studies find that people in more diverse countries, countries with great numbers of immigrants, rely on smiling to build trust and to build cooperation. A simple reason for this is the fact that we don’t all speak the same language. But there is a different, and I think, more meaningful reason for smiling in countries with more immigrants, and that is that smiling is a way to bond socially. A smile is a rather universally understood thing. Surely we can recognize a fake smile, a genuine smile, a wicked smile, a forced or sarcastic smile. But we know a smile when we see it.
Some years ago I was on a Richard Dawkins kick. In one of his books he wrote about the evolutionary reason why newborn babies smile. If you’ve held a newborn baby, whether it’s your own or not, you know what I’m talking about. There’s something about a baby’s smile that just excites the spirit! Julia, our oldest daughter, smiled a lot when she was a little baby. Everybody said it was just gas, which made me very concerned, because if that was the case this was surely the gassiest baby ever and maybe we needed to rush to the doctor.
But I digress, back to Dawkins. Dawkins doesn’t say gas is the reason for a newborn’s smile. But he also doesn’t think there’s anything magical about it — leave it to Dawkins to burst our bubble! In fact, he says, evolutionary theory provides a perfectly reasonable explanation for this phenomenon. Babies who smile more at their parents have a stronger chance of bonding and being wanted, and therefore are less likely to be abandoned. So, from an evolutionary standpoint, babies smile more or less as a survival instinct. Is your mind blown or what? Mine is. I mean, from this perspective, a smile is a matter of life and death!
So what does this have to do with the Dharma? You might be wondering. When I think about a nation of immigrants seeking to connect and bond, uncertain, looking for common ground, I see a smile as a perfect vehicle for bringing people together. I can imagine a sense of rest and comfort, of hope and promise, “we are here now, we have a chance, we have a priceless opportunity to pursue life and happiness!”
And it reminds me of the first thought that turns the mind, the preciousness of human life. Maintaining an awareness of the precious nature of human life is the first thought that turns our mind toward the Dharma. And, in this case, precious is not meant as, “oh how cute, how precious.” In this case precious means of great value, something not to be wasted or treated carelessly.
That is the nature of human life, priceless, not to be wasted or treated carelessly. This awareness turns our mind toward the Dharma because it reveals how fortunate we are to have found this human form, which is so difficult to obtain. This makes us aware of the difficulty of finding the freedoms and advantages to receive and practice the Dharma. In other words, “we are here now, we have a chance, we have a priceless opportunity to pursue life and happiness! A priceless opportunity to pursue the Dharma and find liberation.”
How could we not smile?
But, lest you get me wrong, this is not about making you feel good. I’m not trying to sell you some happy-go-lucky prosperity Dharma. Precious human life is an opportunity, not a guarantee. And samsara is downright shitty. We have plenty of reasons not to smile. All it takes is a glance at the latest headlines. And yet, with all the suffering of samsara, we have found precious human life. This thought alone is plenty reason to smile. Not because we’ve made it, but because we have a chance. We have the chance to realize the full human potential. And, if we don’t make good use of this opportunity, how could we possibly expect to have such a chance again?
You may not have much to smile about today. We are all on our own paths and some are struggling with serious and disheartening situations. All around us and in our own lives we see causes to lose hope, to be discouraged. And we must be mindful and respectful of this, we mustn’t take it lightly.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche likens compassion to a sore spot or a wound in our body. He says that some people think of that sore spot as religious conviction or mystical experience, but he discourages that. He says, “it has nothing to do with Buddhism, nothing to do with Christianity, and moreover nothing to do with anything at all.” He continues, “It is just an open wound, a very simple open wound. That is very nice,” he says,“ at least we are accessible somewhere. We are not completely covered with a suit of armor.”
Similarly, I like to think of a smile as an expression of that open wound that is compassion. I once heard someone say that to love is to suffer with a smile. This is meaningful to me now more than ever. A smile does not necessarily mean one has no cares and no worries. A smile can also be that open wound through which we are accessible, a vulnerable spot not covered by a suit of armor.
Like those early immigrants, a smile can be the wound through which we hope to connect with others. A smile can be our way of bonding with one another as if to say, “our paths are so different, our struggles are so different, our suffering is so different, and yet, we are here now, we have a chance, we have a priceless opportunity to pursue life and happiness! A priceless opportunity to pursue the Dharma and find liberation. We have precious human life.”
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