A few years ago I was on a trip to the US. It was a combination of business and pleasure. I was going to see the sights and I also had scheduled meetings with my radio producer and my book agent. And I also looked forward to catching up with friends. One of my dear friends from school had moved to Santa Monica and we arranged to meet for lunch.
On the appointed day I was a little early. The café was crowded and the wait staff were busy. One of them made her way over to me, taking care not to bump or disturb other patrons. She had a look of concentration on her face, but when she got to me she smiled. Such a genuine, open gorgeous smile! That smile transformed her from a busy, focused member of staff into a warm friendly and beautiful young woman.
Her face lit up and I felt completely welcomed and uplifted. It was such a simple interaction, and such a common one. Meetings like that happen all the time. But it was actually a little piece of everyday enchantment. I was brought up short by how easy it would have been to dismiss it and miss that enchantment. I resolved to look further into what had happened in that immeasurably brief interaction in that café in Santa Monica.
I was inspired to go behind the curtain, to delve beneath the surface and find out what really happens when a young woman, or anyone, is transformed by a smile. And I wanted to find out why others are transformed by that warmth and radiance as well.
I am in the very happy position of having at my disposal a secret resource to find out how things tick, and that is Sanskrit. This may sound unlikely, but stay with me and let’s see what Sanskrit can tell us of the transformative power of a smile.
First, in English, the word smile is defined as a ‘pleased, kind, or amused facial expression, usually with the corners of the mouth turned up’.
Seriously, how does that technically accurate dictionary definition relate to the warmth, the beauty, the radiance of a simple interaction near the Santa Monica Pier? Or when your baby first smiles at you, when old friends meet, when a surprise gift is opened, does ‘an amused facial expression’ help us? I don’t think so.
Let’s look to Sanskrit and see if we can get some help.
First a little background. In most languages we research the meaning of a word by going to reference books like dictionaries. But these only convey meaning at a certain level.
We’ve seen what a dictionary can do to a smile. Here is the American Heritage Dictionary’s definition of a flower:
- The reproductive structure of angiosperms, characteristically having either specialized male or female organs or both male and female organs, such as stamens and a pistil, enclosed in an outer envelope of petals and sepals.
- Such a structure having showy or colourful parts; a blossom.
It’s a bit unfair to dictionaries to highlight these leaden examples. But I can’t help myself when I contrast that definition to the way a great writer can, in a few words, capture the delight a flower can bring. Here is Iris Murdoch:
People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.
And Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, from Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life:
“I have lost my smile, but don't worry. The dandelion has it.”
I love Sanskrit because it can take us way beyond the dictionary definition of words. It can lead us to joy by opening the door to the actual experience of the inner meaning of words like ‘smile’ and ‘flower’. Sanskrit has an ingenious way of giving us a real understanding through a guided, ‘lived’ experience rather than through a mere idea or concept.
Every word in Sanskrit can be traced back to a root form – usually just a single syllable. This root form is where the magic happens. It is like an acorn, the seed of an oak tree, immeasurably small when compared to what grows from it, but containing all the basic ingredients that the tree needs to grow.
The essential meaning of a word in Sanskrit is contained in these roots. And these roots are verbal. A verb is an action, and action is a form of energy. So, at the beating heart of a Sanskrit word is its powerful intrinsic energy. And we can come to understand the real meaning of a word through the direct experience of this seed energy rather than through mere analysis and over-thinking.
So, returning to that café in Santa Monica and that magical smile. What does Sanskrit tell us happens when we give or receive a smile?
The Sanskrit word for smile is smitam (स्मितम्). It almost invites us to smile when we say it. But what is a smile really? How does Sanskrit describe smitam? What is the lived experience of smitam? Smitam comes from the root form smi which means ‘to smile, to become radiant, to blossom fully like a flower’.
Sanskrit therefore tells us that smitam, a smile, means ‘to be radiant, to be fully blossomed, fully bloomed and expanded’. And this is what we do when we smile – we become radiant and fully blossomed like a flower. A smile is literally, according to the Sanskrit, like a beautiful flower. And just as a flower fully blossoms in the warmth of the spring sunshine after the bleakness of winter, so our radiant smile, fully in bloom, warms the hearts of all whom we meet. A smile is, as Shakespeare says, ‘twice blessed’. The radiance of a smile blesses the one that gives and the one that receives.
A smile is therefore transformative. The energy, love and warmth that fully blooms in our smile can change everything. Our smile warms and lights, reassures, nourishes, inspires and uplifts and brings joy. Our smile can relax a tense moment and lift a burden from one who is troubled. A smile creates connection, it unifies, it brings people together. It can open a heart that is closed, spread a healing balm to the afflicted, comfort those in need of a little joy in their life. It is companionable, easy, friendly.
All this is smitam. The Sanskrit takes us way beyond ‘the usually turned up corners of the mouth’.
Take that flower that is in full bloom included the meaning of smitam. Is that flower its petals, its colour, its fragrance, its chlorophyll or some other aspect of its physical make-up? Is it merely “the reproductive structure of angiosperms... having colourful parts”? To be sure these are necessary for a flower to exist, but if we stop there, we are going to miss all that is important and meaningful about a flower. There is an enchantment and a mystery to a flower that goes well beyond scientific explanations.
When we see a flower in full bloom the immediacy of our response connects us with a beauty that goes beyond the analysis of colour, shape and perfume. The flower gives that beauty freely, it places no demands upon us. There is no bargaining, no give and take, just an abundance of ‘give’. Our hearts open, and love, delight and joy arise naturally. Love and delight nourish the soul, love and delight are nourishment for all.
While the meal in the Santa Monica café was delicious and satisfying, that sustenance has passed. The pleasure of catching up with a good friend has outlasted whatever we ate. And the smile from the waitperson, when I recall it now, also continues to be uplifting. I can still experience that smile and its effect long after the moment.
So with smitam, there is a powerhouse of energy coiled up inside this simple word. The same energy that bursts forth when a field of flowers blossoms and releases the blessing of colour and scent into the world. This is Nature’s smile, and it is there for us to enjoy, and if there is anything required of us, perhaps it is just to pass on some of that joy to others.
We all experience this when we give or receive the gift of a smile. Sanskrit just gives a beautiful name and shape to that experience. That’s the gift I received in the café and which I try to pass on to others every day.