“If I could smile from the heart, then I wouldn’t be so !@#$%& depressed!”
I didn’t say it out loud, but I thought it really loud.
I had traveled thousands of miles to learn from a world-renowned qigong master, and I was desperate to feel better.
“Smile from the heart!” he said in his strange, Chinese-Malaysia accent.
This wasn’t just advice. He was teaching us a Zen meditation technique.
The other students seemed to get it. But I was depressed, and I didn’t.
In fact, I fought back the urge to let out a cynical laugh. Instead, I kept my cynical thinking to myself (see above).
Later in the workshop, I told the master that I was having trouble with the smiling heart thingamabob, and asked him if he had any advice.
He told me not to worry, not to intellectualize, and to just “smile from the heart”.
In other words, just do it.
For years, I tried to “just do it”. But it didn’t really work for me. I struggled for a long time.
In retrospect, having taught the same technique to hundreds of depressives, I know that it is natural for us to struggle more than non-depressives.
But I also know that this technique is critical — for depressive and non-depressives alike.
It’s like a key that turns on the ignition of your energetic healing system. It’s also the key to leading a happier life.
So yeah — it’s rather important.
Students are always telling me how Smiling from the Heart changes everything. Honestly, it may be the most powerful thing that I teach (and I teach some pretty powerful stuff!). The longer I practice, the more I realize that Smiling from the Heart is probably the secret to life, the universe, and everything.
Here’s what a student recently told me about Smiling from the Heart:
I think learning how to smile from the heart is the thing that changed my life. Experiencing it legitimized qigong for me. Someone can argue all day long about these arts being woo-woo or whatever, but experiencing smiling from the heart — no one could ever touch that with any kind of argument. That’s genuine spiritual stuff, and no one could ever convince me otherwise. – Melissa Coast
This article is my sincere attempt to help you to “get” what the student is talking about.
I’ll do my absolute best to give you a more complete answer than “just do it” so that you don’t waste years like I did. (I’ll also answer your questions below.)
Try It Now
It’s easier to help you understand this technique if you have an experience of it.
Do you have 4 minutes? Yes, of course you do!
Close your door, turn off your phone, and follow this free 4-minute meditation right now:
If you absolutely can’t do it now, then at the very least least schedule a time to do it. If you don’t put it on your schedule, then it won’t happen. Schedule it now!
If you listened to the audio, then you heard me saying following:
Smiiiiile from the Heaaaaart!
I was practically singing the words as I said them, right?
And that’s because I was smiling from the heart as I spoke!
The Flower Sermon
See, it gets confusing because the description of the technique and the name of it are the same. Really, the name of the technique is about as good as it gets when it comes to describing the technique with words.
When students ask me to explain Smiling from the Heart, I always think of the following story:
In roughly 500BC, the Buddha gave what would later be called the “Flower Sermon”. Hundreds of disciples sat in front of him, ready for another of the Buddha’s powerful sermons. But this time, he didn’t say a word. Instead, he just held up a beautiful flower and smiled.
Of all the disciples there that day, only one, Mahakasyapa, grasped the sermon. The rest were puzzled and confused. But Mahakasyapa smiled.
Seeing his reaction, the Buddha said: “I possess the true Cosmic eye, the marvelous mind of stillness, the true form of the formless, the subtle technique that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahakasyapa.”
Except for Mahakasyapa, all of the Buddha’s disciples were busy intellectualizing.
Is the flower symbolic? What does it mean? Is the Buddha referring to the different petals of his teachings? Has he gone crazy?
But Mahakasyapa’s mind was clear. Because his mind was so clear, because he wasn’t stuck in what we call the Monkey Mind, it was natural for him to smile when the Buddha held up the flower.
I mean, flowers are beautiful! It’s actually weird NOT to smile.
Here’s a photo that I took on our ranch in Florida:
The Origins of Zen
The Zen tradition started roughly 1000 years after the death of the Buddha. Bodhidharma, the 1st patriarch of Zen, summed up his teachings as follows:
- Not recorded in language or words.
- Transmission beyond the tradition.
- Directly pointing at the mind.
- Entering enlightenment in an instant.
Not coincidentally, all of Bodhidharma’s teachings also apply to Smiling from the Heart:
- Smiling from the Heart is difficult to describe (or record) in language or words.
- Smiling from the Heart requires a transmission to really get it (like the audio above).
- Smiling from the Heart points directly at the Zen Mind (and skips over the Monkey Mind).
- When you Smile from the Heart, you feel it in an instant.
From Heart to Heart
During his Flower Sermon, the Buddha was doing more than just holding up a flower. He was projecting energy and information. There was a broadcast on that day 2500 years ago — a transmission that Mahakasyapa received, and the others missed.
The Buddha’s disciples blocked themselves that day. Like the Buddha’s disciples, many modern students struggle with Smiling from the Heart. If you are busy worrying about how to do it, or if you giggle thinking that it’s silly, or if you wonder whether the smile should be on the face or not — then you’ll miss what we call the heart-to-heart transmission.
Why? Because thoughts and worries will block the flow of qi (or energy). Until you let go of your thoughts and worries, until you are able to stay in the Zen Mind, you’ll continue to be baffled by Smiling from the Heart.
11 Reasons to Stick With It
Look I understand that it can be hard to understand Smiling from the Heart. I’ve been there.
I’ve done my best to explain in words something that can’t really be explained in words. But it may not be enough. Some of you are probably still scratching your heads. And that’s fine — as long as you persevere!
So until you get it, until you are able to grasp Smiling from the Heart beyond words, maybe I can inspire you to just keep on trucking. Here are 11 things that you can look forward to once you get the hang of Smiling from the Heart:
- It gives you an instant shot of happiness, no matter what else is happening in your life.
- It is the real secret to healing with qigong, tai chi, and meditation.
- It boosts oxytocin levels and lowers blood pressure.
- It activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).
- It’s the ultimate, all-purpose spice for life. Everything is better when you Smile from the Heart (including food and sex).
- It instantly creates more inner peace.
- It’s the ultimate tool for creating more focus.
- It’s great for creating healthier relationships.
- It’s a powerful stress-buster.
- It’s an effective way for athletes to get into the “zone”.
- It feels awesome!
When you finally get it, when you suddenly realize how life-changing this one technique can be, then please contact me and say, “You were totally right!”
Or if you already recognize the awesome power of Smiling from the Heart, then go ahead and leave a comment below so that you can inspire others.
Note: This article was original published in 2012, but was completely revised and updated in 2016. Mindfully yours, Sifu Anthony I’m Anthony Korahais, and I used qigong to heal from clinical depression, low back pain, anxiety, and chronic fatigue. I’ve already taught thousands of people from all over the world how to use qigong for their own stubborn health challenges. As the director of Flowing Zen and a board member for the National Qigong Association, I'm fully committed to helping people with these arts. In addition to my blog, I also teach online courses and offer in-person retreats and workshops.