Recently, one friend asked me, “How can I force myself to smile when I am filled with sorrow? It isn’t natural.”
I told her she must be able to smile to her sorrow because we are more than our sorrow.
A human being is like a television set with millions of channels. If we turn the Buddha on, we are the Buddha. If we turn sorrow on then we are sorrow. If we turn a smile on, we really are the smile. We can not let just one channel dominate us. We have the seed of everything in us, and we have to seize the situation in our hand, to recover our own sovereignty.– Thich Nhat Hanh
The initial question comes from a misconception. We don’t need to force ourselves into anything. Smiling is obviously not required. Why not embrace the sorrow? Why not allow it its life? If we do this with some guidance and skill, it’s an important element in allowing it to liberate.
The initial answer can be a bit misleading. TNH points to that we are more than any one feeling, experience, or part of us. Instead of getting absorbed into whatever is coming up, we can notice this bigger whole and that gives us space to relate to what comes up in a different way. Instead of taking it as who or what we are (identified with it), we can notice it as happening within us and a temporary guest (seeing it as an object).
Why did TNH talk about smiling? I assume he refers to a metaphorical smile. Noticing ourselves as more than our current experience is very helpful, but it doesn’t really have to do with smiling or not.
It may be that TNH refers to another aspect of this, which is what others may call befriending the sorrow, or meeting it with kindness, or relating to it as we would a sorrowful child, friend, lover, or animal. There are also specific practices that use a form of inner smile (for instance in Taoism) and TMH may have referred to these practices. I am not sure.
And yes, we are a million channels. We are whatever experience is here now. We can take the view of anything we can name and more. This is what we explore through subpersonalities and practices like the Big Mind process. And it’s good to notice this and become more experienced and skilled in navigating these dynamics.
I appreciate what TNH has done in his life. His example and pointers have reached and helped a great number of people. At the same time, the way he talks about some things can be misunderstood as encouraging a kind of repression. That’s not needed. We can allow whatever experience is here, find some space around it, and develop better discernment and skill in how and when to act on it or not.