Mindfulness, Oprah, and the Smiling Meditation of Thich Nhat Hahn

“Breathing in I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile.” ~Thich Nhat Hahn

There is more power in a smile than you may have ever contemplated.

Yesterday I was driving to pick my daughter up from school and tuned in to Oprah Radio on XM radio.

I was delighted to hear an interview she was conducting (from 2010) with Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn (pronounced tic not han). He is called “Thay” (teacher in Vietnamese) by his students. For the sake of brevity, this is what I’ll call him in this post.

In a discussion about happiness, Thay said something to Oprah that opened a new level of awareness for me, and I hope for you.

First, if you don’t know Thay, here’s a brief introduction.

He’s been a Buddhist monk for more than 60 years. He is also a poet and the author of Being Peace, The Miracle of MindfulnessLiving Buddha, Living Christ, and many other books.

He gave birth to the movement of “Engaged Buddhism”— peaceful activism for the purpose of social reform. Because of his stance against the Vietnam War, he was exiled from his own country. It also led Martin Luther King Jr. to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.

He lives in a monastic community in south-western France called Plum Village , where he teaches, writes, gardens, and works to help refugees world-wide. (No matter what your faith, I encourage you to read more about this amazing man.)

So back to the Oprah interview — Oprah asked Thay about happiness. I found the transcript of the interview, and here’s what he had to say about happiness:

Oprah: What is happiness?

Nhat Hanh: Happiness is the cessation of suffering. Well-being. For instance, when I practice this exercise of breathing in, I’m aware of my eyes; breathing out, I smile to my eyes and realize that they are still in good condition. There is a paradise of form and colors in the world. And because you have eyes still in good condition, you can get in touch with the paradise. So when I become aware of my eyes, I touch one of the conditions of happiness. And when I touch it, happiness comes.

Oprah: And you could do that with every part of your body.

Nhat Hanh: Yes. Breathing in, I am aware of my heart. Breathing out, I smile to my heart and know that my heart still functions normally. I feel grateful for my heart.

Oprah: So it’s about being aware of and grateful for what we have.

Nhat Hanh: Yes.

Oprah: And not just the material things, but the fact that we have our breath.

Nhat Hanh: Yes. You need the mindfulness/mindfulness-practice”>practice of mindfulness to bring your mind back to the body and establish yourself in the moment. If you are fully present, you need only make a step or take a breath in order to enter the kingdom of God. And once you have the kingdom, you don’t need to run after objects of your craving, like power, fame, sensual pleasure, and so on. Peace is possible. Happiness is possible. And this practice is simple enough for everyone to do.

Oprah: Tell me how we do it.

Nhat Hanh: Suppose you are drinking a cup of tea. When you hold your cup, you may like to breathe in, to bring your mind back to your body, and you become fully present. And when you are truly there, something else is also there—life, represented by the cup of tea. In that moment you are real, and the cup of tea is real. You are not lost in the past, in the future, in your projects, in your worries. You are free from all of these afflictions. And in that state of being free, you enjoy your tea. That is the moment of happiness, and of peace. When you brush your teeth, you may have just two minutes, but according to this practice, it is possible to produce freedom and joy during that time, because you are established in the here and now. If you are capable of brushing your teeth in mindfulness, then you will be able to enjoy the time when you take a shower, cook your breakfast, sip your tea.

Oprah: So from this point of view, there are endless conditions of happiness.

Nhat Hanh: Yes. Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.

Oprah: With you, the tea is real.

Nhat Hanh:I am real, and the tea is real. I am in the present. I don’t think of the past. I don’t think of the future. There is a real encounter between me and the tea, and peace, happiness and joy are possible during the time I drink.

(From the March 2010 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine)

When I heard him speak of breathing in and having awareness of his eyes or heart and breathing out and smiling to them, I was struck by the beautiful simplicity of this action.

Not smiling at them — but smiling to them. This subtle distinction actually is a huge shift, engaging your full being with the awareness of your eyes or heart or whatever you are aware of in the moment. It’s offering the gift of your full awareness and receiving happiness in return.

This interview compelled me to do a bit more research around smiling meditations. I learned that smiling is used as a healing and meditation practice by many ancient cultures.  Taoists have long believed that having a smile on your face and directing it inwards towards your organs and inner body is essential to good health and longevity.

Balinese healers believe that a smile clears away negative energy and practice smiling meditation as a simple way to calm the mind and bring healing to the soul.

Then I found this amazing excerpt from Thich Nhat Hahn’s book Being Peace:

During walking meditation, during kitchen and garden work, during sitting meditation, all day long, we can practice smiling. At first you may find it difficult to smile, and we have to think about why. Smiling means that we are ourselves, that we are not drowned into forgetfulness. This kind of smile can be seen on the faces of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

I would like to offer one short poem you can recite from time to time, while breathing and smiling.

Breathing in, I calm body and mind.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment

I know this is the only moment.

“Breathing in, I calm body and mind.” This line is like drinking a glass of ice water–you feel the cold, the freshness, permeate your body. When I breathe in and recite this line, I actually feel the breathing calming my body, calming my mind.

You know the effect of a smile. A smile can relax hundreds of muscles in your face, and relax your nervous system. A smile makes you master of yourself. That is why the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are always smiling. When you smile, you realize the wonder of the smile. “Dwelling in the present moment.” While I sit here, I don’t think of somewhere else, of the future or the past. I sit here and I know where I am. This is very important.

We tend to be alive in the future, not now. We say, “Wait until I finish school and get my Ph. D. degree, and then I will be really alive.” When we have it, and it’s not easy to get, we say to ourselves, “I have to wait until I get a job, in order to be *really* alive.”

And then after the job, a car. After the car, a house. We are not capable of being alive in the present moment. We tend to postpone being alive to the future, the distant future, we don’t know when. Now is not the moment to be alive. We may never be alive in our entire life.

Therefore, the technique, if we have to speak of a technique, is to be in the present moment, to be aware that we are here and now, and the only moment to be alive is the present moment. “I know this is the only moment.” This is the only moment that is real. To be here and now, and enjoy the present moment is our most important task. “Calming. Smiling, Present moment, Only moment.” I hope you will try it.

Sometimes the simplest ideas and actions can have the most profound impact on your well-being. Take a moment right now. Breathe in and be aware of the present moment. Breathe out and smile to it.

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33 thoughts on “Mindfulness, Oprah, and the Smiling Meditation of Thich Nhat Hahn”

  1. Barrie,

    I have tried to apply the “half smile” in many moments of frustration in my life. I heard of this from Thich Nhat Hahn as well, The half doesn’t feel forced like an exaggerated smile might and signals peace and contentment to the mind and body. For instance, when I wake up in the morning and am a little irritable, or when I meditate and my mind is racing, I simply apply the half smile and try to find amusement at the expense of my distress. It works for small things and does seem to make an impact on my mood. It helps me take things less seriously.

    • Hi Joe,
      I have been trying the half smile ever since I heard the interview on Oprah. It is amazing how immediately calming it is. If feels like you have a happy secret, even though I’m sure if anyone saw me, they’d think I was a half-wit!

  2. The half-smile device is really effective. I have experienced it. Whenever there are awkward moments or situations, I give a half smile to whomsoever is around and I get a great mental relief. If you look into the mirror and give a half smile to yourself you feel so nice and contended. Any smile for that matter leads to peace and tranquility of mind.

    • Hi Modak,
      I’m sure your smile also brings relief to those around you. Just smiling at someone in those moments communicates warmth and connection. When you pay attention to your own expression, it is amazing to realize how often our faces are settled into a hard look. Practicing the half smile can re-train your brain and muscle memory to adopt a new expression — with the side effect of impacting your mood.

  3. I’m a fan of Thich Nhat Hahn, too. It’s nice to get these gentle reminders when we are in the midst of chaos or worry that usually project into the future. Truly, this moment is all we really have.

    Thanks for sharing this Barrie!

    • Hi Barbara,
      If only I had a nickel for all of the future projection time I’ve wasted over a lifetime! We do need those reminders because the ego really wants to take us down the path of projection, doesn’t it?

  4. Wonderful to see you writing about Thay! I love him, and he’s been so important to me over the years. His teachings are like my pillar. I love listening to his talks on video–do you follow him on Facebook? They put up live video–it’s fab.

    Totally agree about the smile. I’ve read somewhere–I forget where but something more secular, just regular psychology–that smiling releases all sorts of endorphins and stuff like that.

    Thanks for the reminder to smile. It’s definitely a great thing to do in crowded grocery stores, and it helps everyone feel better 🙂

    • Hi Leah,
      I don’t follow him on Facebook, but I will now!! Thanks for letting me know about that. When I’m in the grocery store, I’m going to look for other half-smilers. Or maybe I’ll just start a smiling revolution in Kroger!

  5. Start and end your day by smiling into the mirror. Smile at everyone you encounter during the day. Take note of the reactions you get. Amazing :-)!

    • Great advice Jon! Now that I’m more aware of this, I’m going to be a smiling maniac. My cheeks are aching.

  6. Thank you Barrie for this post. I have now and then tried being in the present but old habits always crop in. I will make another effort. I have never thought of smiling to my organs but now the idea looks pleasing. I will do that also and I believe they will feel good about it. Thank you also for the distinction between ‘smiling at’ and ‘smiling to.’

    • It is pleasing Murigi, I agree. It’s sending love to all of the parts of your body and acknowledging the wonder of them. It really is amazing how beautifully the body functions, but we take it for granted. I love the idea of smiling to my body.

  7. Thank you so much for the post! I’m smil’n while I’m typ’n! After I’d read your post, I ‘happened’ to pick up a newspaper that had been in a stack for a week…Guess what was on page three? Yep, a picture of a hockey player…with a huge yellow sign hanging behind him, in black letters….SMILE!!!
    I truly am inspired by guided signs!!
    Thank you!

    • Wow Deirdre, that’s amazing! I love it when those moments of synchronicity happen. Keep smiling!

  8. Hi Barrie,

    Thank you for the interesting post. It is a good reminder to smile. I do try to smile, but I’m sure I could smile more often. Walking down a street I like to see who I can get to smile back at me. Almost everyone does, and it adds a moment of joy to my world. Smiling to the present moment sounds like an idea to remember.

    • Hi Cathy,
      I love to smile at people walking down the street as well. When I was in my 20’s, I lived in NYC for a few years. I would smile at people on the street, and they would grab their purses or small children! Smiling at someone on the streets in the city was the first step before accosting them I guess! But I did it anyway. 🙂

  9. Hi Barrie!
    Most of life gets suddenly easier when we smile, doesn’t it? Smiling not only calms us when we get angry, it can prevent the anger in the first place. Sometimes when I get cut off in traffic, I just smile. That smile cuts right throught the anger and leaves me feeling so much better.

    Thanks for the introduction to “Thay” Barrie!

    • Smiling in traffic — that is a GREAT idea Ken. Traffic can bring out the absolute worst emotions in us. I’m going to try that for sure. I think we are all “thays” here to teach each other!

  10. what a wonderful interview … and thanks so much for putting it up. I try to bring mindfulness into my day as much as possible. It brings all things to life and I enjoyed spending these few moments reading your blog post. Thank you 🙂

    • I am so glad you liked it and that it create a positive “moment” for you! Please visit again. 🙂

  11. I tried the breathing and the inward smile that Thich Nhat Hahn suggested—and it works. I truly enjoyed the tea I was drinking, the flavor, aroma and the peace of the moment. It did keep me in the present. This is a habit I would like to continue. Thanks for sharing with us.

    • Hi Cris,
      I know!! It is so cool that just a smile can have such an impact on your well-being. Instead of a Coke and a smile — have tea and a smile, right?

  12. Sharing your smiles with children can be almost magical in terms of what can result.

    Today at the supermarket, I encountered a mother and child (strangers) who were having one of those “who’s the boss here” moments. The child was pitching of fit of epic proportions, while the mother was about to come apart at the seams.

    I walked up to the child, made a goofy face, and then gave her the biggest smile I could muster. Lo and behold, the child stopped her tantrum, the mother began to giggle, and both paid me back with smiles worth a million bucks. Well worth the risk of having some mental health folks chasing me down :-)!

    All the best,


  13. In my book “How God Changes Your Brain” (an Oprah pick for 2012), we list smiling as one of the top 10 ways to maintain a healthy brain. To create a “Mona Lisa” smile, visualize someone you love or an event that brought you great joy. The Mona Lisa smile that spreads across your face stimulates neural empathy in the listener’s brain. I teach this exercise to my executive MBA students at Loyola Marymount University…it improves business and teamwork dynamics.


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