Similes and Smiles

Describing the intangible. On meditation, happiness, and the habits of a thinking mind.

Photo by ryan baker

In The Quantum and the Lotus Matthieu Ricard speaks about meditation, and how the effect of meditation on the mind can be described.

Quote: For example, some authors say that thought is initially like a frothing waterfall, then like a stream with occasional eddies, then like a large river with the odd ripple running over it, and finally like the ocean, whose depths are never disturbed.

A simile is a figure of speech that compares two seemingly disparate objects. It describes by analogy. The word simile itself comes from the Latin word like, and used to also mean likeness, resemblance, similarity (in examples such as: there is no simile between the two). Imitation is a basic learning mechanism. Our acts, words, ideas are first seen, repeated, then modified by circumstance or will. We start by emulating our parents, our friends, our teachers; later on we emulate ourselves, learning and improving on what we have done. The mutual similarity and the gradual alternations of our actions allow for (a perceived?) continuity of personality.

The turbulence of thought. Photo by Mark Basarab

Similes enable us to explore intangible concepts that would otherwise remain obscure. How many similes do you know about love? About death? Similes are direct analogies, metaphors work with non-literal meanings of words, and then there are parables, allegories, and symbols. But they’re all mechanisms of transferring meaning from the more familiar to the less familiar.

Indeed, in today’s Quote, the sometimes unknowable states of the thinking mind are described by the states of flowing water. And we understand. Waterfalls are lively, pretty to look at, but noisy and eventually tiresome; they are forever chattering, moving on, unstable, unreliable. Streams and rivers less so; they have depth and a more stable course. Oceans have depths undisturbed by the most violent surface storms; oceans are vast, and they last through tectonic shifts around them.

The Quantum and the Lotus is a dialogue between the two authors, Matthieu Richard and Trinh Xuan Thuan, about the boundary where science and buddhism meet, and the common ground that they cover with their disparate approaches. Their biographies alone promise an interesting exchange of views: Matthieu Richard, a Frenchman, worked as a researcher in the cellular genetics department at the Pasteur Institute in the late 1960s, but moved to live in the Himalayas and study buddhism after that; Trinh Xuan Thuan was born a Buddhist in Vietnam, studied in France, and later moved to America to pursue astrophysics.

Here is Ricard’s TED talk on The Habit of Happiness, where he uses a similar analogy to discuss the state of the meditating mind; he also touches on the contemporary scientific research into meditation. I particularly like what he says towards the end, about how little attention we pay to training our minds, not in the habits of learning, but in the habits of happiness.


It’s more to say that mind training matters. That this is not just a luxury. This is not a supplementary vitamin for the soul. This is something that’s going to determine the quality of every instant of our lives. We are ready to spend 15 years achieving education. We love to do jogging, fitness. We do all kinds of things to remain beautiful. Yet, we spend surprisingly little time taking care of what matters most — the way our mind functions — which, again, is the ultimate thing that determines the quality of our experience.
— Matthieu Ricard, The Habits of Happiness TED talk

Do you train your mind for happiness, and how?

Reading recommendations

  1.  The Quantum and the Lotus, Matthieu Richard and Trinh Xuan Thuan. Because science and buddhism do meet.
  2. How to sitThich Nhat Hanh. Because it’s 96 pages, pocket-sized, easy to follow, and you’d like to see where mind training begins.
  3. Tao Te ChingLao Tzu. Because if you haven’t read some version of it, you should.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

8 thoughts on “Similes and Smiles”

  1. Thank you for showing me the compelling quote likening thinking to water. I’m thinking now about how my thoughts trickle away and get diverted into pointless channels. But the video inspires me to be more positive – the final words were well worth emphasising. This was also a visual feast. Thank you for the wonderful water photo you chose as well as the images Ricard used.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad that I stumbled across Matthieu Ricard’s TED talk, and that I was able to share it here. I see he’s also written a number of other books independently—I’m tempted by the one on animal rights.

      I enjoyed selecting the pictures from Unsplash—even better, that you enjoyed them too! 🙂


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