In 2010, I spent some time in a Theravada Buddhist Monastery in Southern Thailand. While I was there, we had a 10-day silent meditation. The monks communicated with the laypeople only by posting things on a bulletin board in the dining hall.
One day, I woke up and walked to the dining hall. There was nothing on the bulletin board except for the above image. Sad -> Happy -> Neutral.
At first, I thought that the monks had gotten the order wrong. I thought it should be “Sad -> Neutral -> Happy.” Why would anyone want to go from Happy to Neutral? It didn’t make sense to me.
But, over the course of the 10-day meditation, as I began to let go of the ideas of “good” and “bad,” and my emotional state began to come into my own control, I began to understand.
The smiley face doesn’t represent happiness, just like the smiliest person isn’t necessarily the happiest. The smiley face represents the effect that “positive circumstances” have on our emotions… just like the sad face represents the effect that “negative circumstances” have on our emotions.
But we cannot always control our circumstances. For those of us who TRY to do so, this very act of “fighting” and “struggling against the natural flow of change” creates a “circumstance” in itself (picture the wealthy man who works hard to earn a life of stress and an early grave). So our faces are constantly fluctuating between the frown and the smile, the happy and the sad.
As long as we are emotionally attached to the circumstances of our lives — as long as we consider these fleeting, momentary conditions to be of great importance — our emotions will continue to be thrown back and forth by the changes in our circumstances, like a ship tossed back and forth by the waves on a stormy sea.
Once we begin to realize that the circumstances of our lives are neither “good” nor “bad” (relative words that we use to compare things with other things, but have no actual reality on their own), our emotions (which fundamentally arise from our perceptions of “good” and “bad”) become much less dependent on our circumstances.
And when that begins to happen… well then… you begin to “transcend the world.” You are “in the world, but not of it.” You still HAVE emotions, but they are no longer controlled by your circumstances… they are controlled by YOU.
YOU decide when you want to be happy. YOU decide when you want to be sad. You decide when you want to experience anger, frustration, love, calm, and joy. These are all “modes” that you can turn on and off.
Some people (who have not experienced the effects of long-term meditation practice) think of this as “detachment,” or “being like a robot.” In fact, this could not be further from the truth. While your emotions are now “detached” from your circumstances, your experience is FAR from detached from your emotions. In fact, when you have this kind of control of your emotions, you can go much deeper into love, much deeper into joy, than you ever knew was possible before. When your experience is no longer scattered, no longer splattered by random mixtures of emotions that you cannot even begin to be aware of before they change in the next moment… you can become so immersed in your experience of pure [insert emotion here] that tears well up in your eyes and all you can do is be thankful to be alive to experience such a powerful feeling.
The significance of the “neutral face” is that your “base state” is neutral, and you can add whatever toppings you want to it. When your emotions are out of your control, your “base state” is somewhere on the spectrum from smiley to frowny face, and is pretty much outside of your control. So you can’t really “add toppings” to create your “ideal ice cream sundae” because you never know what the base flavor is going to be. If you know that the base flavor is neutral, however, you can always add all kinds of delicious flavors and you’ll know exactly how your sundae is going to turn out.
Another analogy for this “neutral base” on which we can layer our emotional experience is that of a painter. A painter usually wants to start with a white canvass. If his canvass is dirty, or completely yellow, or completely black, or brown… he can create a painting, but he is limited in what he can paint. It will all be tinted with whatever color the canvass happens to be. If he starts with a white canvass, however, he can paint whatever he wants to, be it black, white, or double-rainbow-polka-dot colored. The cleaner and more neutral the backdrop, the crisper, clearer, and more beautiful the painting will be.
When we let go of the ideas of “good” and “bad,” when our emotions are no longer dependent on our circumstances, our minds become clear and bright like the white canvass of the painter. We are able to take in the beauty of our world more clearly, we are able to experience the wonders of life more powerfully… and we are able to respond to it all (emotionally and behaviorally) in the way of our own choosing, instead of reacting instictively out of our evolutionary and societal programming.
And, from the many sculptures of the “buddhas” (the “awakened ones,” aka “meditation masters”) throughout history, we can see what types of states long-term meditators tend to choose for their experience of daily life.
UPDATE: 1/28/2013: I found a really cool video which discusses the problems with “too much happiness” from a western psychiatric perspective. Check it out!