by Chelsea Rose Odhner
I put myself in an intense spiritual practice training regimen. It’s a simple style, but it requires every ounce of intention I can muster. By the second day, I already wanted to quit. What is it? Smiling. Maybe you’ve heard of the popular, albeit crass, term “resting bitch face” (RBF). You could call my new practice “purposeful resting smile face” or PRSF. I’m the goofy looking person you drive by that seems to be smiling happily at nothing when you pass them in the intersection. I don’t know how long I’ll last, but the insights I’ve had so far have been revelatory.
Why am I smiling? Not because anyone is telling me to. Not to try to counteract my RBF. There’s nothing wrong with RBF. Some sources define RBF simply as an expressionless face. The fact that a woman’s neutral expression gets categorized as bitchy is symptomatic of the pervasive sexism in our culture. Tatyana Fazlalizadeh started a public art series in 2012 called Stop Telling Women to Smile. It addresses gender-based street harassment. The project has struck a chord in women around the world, myself included. I’m reminded of a time I walked into Whole Foods and a gentleman whom I passed as he was leaving thought it was worth voicing that I should smile. Apparently, the neutral position of my cheeks and lips weren’t satisfactory. Hillary Clinton’s smile continues to be the target of commentary this U.S. election year. It seems no woman is exempt from being told by men to smile more, and media sources continue to use this convergence of experiences to shine a greater light on this often overlooked form of sexism.
A Swedenborgian Perspective on Owning Your Smile
A smile is a powerful thing. It’s also a very personal thing. There’s a stark difference between the experience of choosing to smile and being told to smile, whether directly or indirectly. Swedenborg writes that this difference marks a boundary that is integral to our soul:
What is inside us resists compulsion from the outside so definitely that it turns the other way. This is because our inner nature wants to be in freedom and loves its freedom. (Divine Providence §136:3)
Freedom is a critical element of our spiritual growth. And as antithetical as compulsion from the outside is to that growth, our freedom to compel ourselves is paramount. Demanding someone to smile is overstepping bounds. Self-compulsion, on the other hand, is not at odds with our freedom, even though technically we’re often forcing ourselves to do something that on some level we don’t want to do. Swedenborg writes,
Self-compulsion is not inconsistent with rationality and freedom. . . . Since we are human because of our inner thought, which is actually the human spirit, it follows that we are compelling ourselves when we force our outer thought processes to consent, or to accept the pleasures of our inner desires, the benefits that arise from our caring. We can see that this is not inconsistent but in accord with our rationality and freedom, since it is our rationality that starts this struggle and our freedom that pursues it. Our essential freedom, together with our rationality, dwells in our inner self, and comes into our outer self from there. So when the inner conquers (which happens when the inner self has brought the outer self into agreement and compliance) then we are given true freedom and true rationality by the Lord. Then, that is, the Lord brings us out of that hellish freedom that is really slavery and into the heavenly freedom that is truly, inherently free. (Divine Providence §145:1, 3–4)
It turns out, the greatest freedom we have is in what we choose to compel ourselves to do. Self-compulsion is the tool with which we shape our identity. It’s a sacred personal space. This is why inwardly we can feel so alone when faced with life’s most weighty decisions. God gives us the Word, exhorts us to follow it, but does not and cannot compel us to do so. It’s up to us, if we want to.
Self-compulsion as a spiritual practice could be called, in contemporary terms, “living with intention.” Our intention has the power to shift our spiritual association from hell to heaven:
The purpose that focuses our inner sight or thought is our volition, since our intentions determine our aims and our aims determine our thoughts. So if we aim for heaven, we focus our thinking on it, and with our thinking, our whole mind, which is therefore in heaven. (Heaven and Hell §532:3)
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
My smiling as spiritual practice came about when I was reading Sadhana of the Heart: A Collection of Talks on Spiritual Life by Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. In one chapter, she encourages the reader to “smile at your destiny” (pp. 69–92). The phrase struck me. From a Swedenborgian perspective, the idea of smiling at your destiny hits a sweet spot between acknowledging divine providence and emphasizing our personal engagement with life. I decided to take the bait and try literally smiling at my destiny as a daily practice.
The very first thing my destiny had in store for me was to drive my youngest to preschool just after the large school bus drove by our house to pick up the horde of elementary school children waiting on the corner. We were stuck behind it. “Smile at your destiny,” the words echoed in my mind. I did not feel like smiling, but I forced one. If someone caught a glimpse of me in that moment, it probably looked more like a grimace. But I kept at it as I watched parents help their kids onto the bus and then stand back to wave them goodbye. Then several of the parents began to sign “I love you” by pointing to their eye, their heart, and their child—the exact same way I sign “I love you” to my kids. Something clicked, and my smile became genuine. I was laughing at the sweetness of the moment.
I had forced a smile, not because anyone told me to, not for perfection or to align with a societal expectation, but for freedom—choosing to smile at my destiny.
I was still smiling when the bus left and I could make the turn to head to the preschool. In a glance, I caught the eyes of a mother getting into her car. And in a flash, her expression bloomed into the sweetest smile reflecting mine. I had forgotten that I was even smiling, but I had inadvertently inspired a smile in another! My own happiness surged in response.
Since that day, I’ve held the intention to practice smiling—PRSF: smiling at my destiny. It has brought a valuable level of contrast into my spiritual awareness. I’ve realized I can have mental cloud cover for hours and even days on end and that I just get used to it. Whenever I remember to smile-as-neutral, it’s like light cutting through. It doesn’t clear the clouds away, but I then see plainly the negative fog I’ve been functioning in as if it were my only neutral option.
Some days get really hard. And certain times of day are the hardest. At bedtime with my children, at the end of a long day, I feel like something in a chronic state of having too much static electricity: anything that reaches my senses gets zapped. But I think, “Smile.” I force a smile. I tighten the muscles in my cheeks, the edges of my mouth stretch to the sides and tip upward slightly. Then I add the eyes. Smile in my eyes. And something happens. I remember what it feels like to be happy. It feels like a shell of happiness, but that’s when the thought dawns in my mind that even though I can choose happiness, I can’t create it. And at that moment, when I’ve chosen it knowing full well I can’t create it, I begin to feel how there is a very full presence of a power much greater than me that is happiness, that can make it feel real, that wants to help me, and that has no interest in holding on to whatever state was gripping me before. It’s just happy I opened the door. I soften into the sunlight and let go of the cloud I thought was mine.
Chelsea Rose Odhner is a freelance writer who contributes regularly to the Swedenborg & Life show on the offTheLeftEye YouTube channel.