“All of my teachers have had a great sense of humor and have valued humor as an important part of the spiritual path. It is a key part of being friendly to ourselves. Many of us go through our days haunted by imperfection. We think there is something fundamentally wrong with us… when we laugh at ourselves… all our terrible flaws become less solid and serious.” ~ Pema Chodron
The other day, I went to a book sale at my local library and picked up the newest David Sedaris’ Calypso. I bought it, figuring I would like it since I enjoyed his others. Plus, I had been depressed lately and thought this could be just the thing to lift my spirits, as I have found his books to be funny. And by funny I mean hilarious.
And by hilarious I mean hysterical!
This book was no exception. I laughed out loud often, then afterwards realized I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed like that. That got me thinking about humor and its role in our lives. Living with chronic illness can make us feel sad, lonely, and depressed, and oftentimes, humor gets kicked to the side of the road without our realizing it. It seems to me that humor is an important human trait, perhaps as necessary to our health as the remedies we may take to make us feel better.
Have you ever seen pictures or videos of the Dalai Lama or met a Tibetan lama? You’ll notice that often they are smiling, and their eyes are twinkling. They seem to have an inside joke that the rest of us don’t know about, which leads me to think that humor is a natural, intrinsic part of our very being. When we lose our sense of humor, we are losing something essential; something we actually need in order to experience the wholeness of our being. So, how do we bring back our sense of humor? How do we cultivate it? How do we encourage it? Can we even include humor and lightness into our spiritual practice? Fun, even?
Everyone has their own sense of humor and every culture has their own sense of humor. What I find funny may leave you dry and vice versa.
I once had a friend over who is from Scotland. She brought with her a Monty Python movie, which we popped into the DVD player. While watching it, she laughed uproariously, in a way I’d never seen before. And although I found the movie somewhat amusing, it was not my thing. I got more amusement out of watching her.
Another time, I went to an international deaf conference. At one point, I decided to go to a large gathering where people would get on stage and share jokes. Although I am not fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), I knew enough that I understood the jokes, but didn’t find them particularly funny, but all, and I mean all of the deaf folks there could barely keep it together.
One thing that always works for me is to watch comedies. As I said, I know we all have different senses of humor, but just in case our tastes are similar and you could use a laugh, here’s a list of movies and actors that might work for you:
– I love Robin Williams. Two of my favorites are The Birdcage and Nine Months.
– All Marx Brothers movies
– Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers
– Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act and Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit
– Steve Martin
– Chris Rock – especially his stand-up
– Larry David (if you’re looking for politically incorrect humor)
– Lily Tomlin
– Hugh Grant (if you’re looking for dry humor)
– Margaret Cho, stand-up routines (if you’re looking for irreverent humor)
And I don’t particularly like her movies, but I love Ellen DeGeneres. She’s a goofball.
Of course, there’s always YouTube: Giggling babies
I don’t know about you, but there have been times when I have become too solemn in my spiritual practices. When meditating, for example, I have sometimes gotten too rigid in my approach, chastising myself when my mind wanders a lot during a session. Or, once, I took up a practice that required chanting a mantra for 103 times, and I found myself obsessing about whether I did it 108 times, or 107, or maybe even less. Maybe it’s just my Virgo personality, but I think there can be a tendency to get too strict and heavy about these things. Spiritual practices after all, are supposed to bring us to an open and warm-hearted place, not a demanding and austere one.
The following is a story my teacher told me that speaks to this:
There was once a very dedicated spiritual practitioner. However, try as she may, the enlightenment she sought seemed to escape her. She meditated diligently, and yet felt little or no reward. She decided she needed a new spiritual teacher and through word-of-mouth, set an appointment with one that came highly recommended.
“Oh venerated teacher”, she said, bowing before the master, “I follow the teachings religiously, and yet, I can’t seem to make any progress. Can you help me?”
The teacher looked at her for a while, pondering, then smiled. “I know just the practice”, he said.
“Yes?”, said the student, eagerly awaiting his wise counsel. “What is it?”
“For the next week, I want you to chant all day, using the mantra “Sensa”, then come back to me.”
After repeating the word several times to make sure she had it right, she said, “Thank you, thank you”, and made sure she bowed again. She rushed back to the meditation room and immediately began chanting.
The following week she returned, looking dejected. “Well”?, said the teacher, “What happened?”
The student hung her head. “I did as you instructed, venerated teacher, but nothing happened.”
“Hmmm…” thought the teacher. Then he smiled. “This week, I want you to say the mantra “huma”, then report back to me.”
The student was happy to receive new guidance, and felt sure that this time she would succeed.
But, one week later she returned feeling yet again dejected.
“Teacher”, she said, “I did what you instructed and yet I still didn’t make any progress. Isn’t there anything you can do to help me?”
The teacher’s eyes sparkled. “This week I want you to put the two together, saying the first mantra and then the second mantra right after it.”
The student nodded, happy there was still something she could do. She bowed deeply and left the room eager to start the next practice. She sat on her cushion, positioned herself correctly and began anew.
“Sen- sa hu-ma. Sen- sa hu-ma. Sense a huma. Sense a Humah.” Then, suddenly she got it. “Sense of humor!” The old teacher had been playing with her all along! Didn’t he know she was serious about her practice? All this time wasted! A fury rose up inside her. She picked up her few belongings and stormed out of the monastery.
For several weeks afterward she was still angry. Then, little by little, she went over the scenario in her mind and her perspective began to change. After a while she began to chuckle, thinking of what the teacher had done and then came to understand that he was a great teacher, after all, and had passed down some great wisdom, allowing a lightness in her practice she’d never been able to have before.
For those of you who want to add some fun to your spiritual practice, Dr. Madan Kataria, from India, developed a type of yoga called “Laughter yoga.” By including breath exercises, chanting “ho, ho, ha, ha”, playing silly exercises, participants begin to laugh, releasing built-up tensions.
Besides feeling lighter afterwards, Kataria says that laughter boosts the immune system and fights depression. It can also reduce high blood pressure and is a good workout for the muscles, improves circulation, and increases the production of endorphins.
Finding out about this type of yoga reminded me of a children’s game I used to play. Although I haven’t played it since I was a kid, I’m sure I would get just as much pleasure from it now as I did then. Perhaps you’ve played it too. Gather some friends and lie in a circle, each person placing their head on the belly of the person next to them. One person starts out by saying “ha”. The next person says, “ha, ha”, and so on, each person adding an extra “ha” to the last one. Pretty soon, of course, everyone is laughing hysterically until your belly hurts and you think you might pee your pants.
“Being able to laugh at ourselves connects us with our humanness. This in turn helps us connect to and have empathy with other people. We realize how all of us are fundamentally equal.” ~ Pema Chodron
I must admit that because I have epilepsy, my favorite jokes are epileptic ones. Some might consider this type of joke politically incorrect and therefore off limits, but for me, it gives me a chance to make light of my condition that I can take all too seriously.
Did you hear about the guy that got trampled to death at Disneyland? He had an epileptic fit, and everyone jumped on him because they thought it was a new ride.
What do you call an epileptic on a bed of lettuce? A seizure salad.
What’s blue and doesn’t fit? A dead epileptic.
That last riddle is my favorite. Maybe my humor is a bit twisted at times, but I also think what this does for me is to exorcise my fear and release the power that fear can have over me at times.
Here’s another example of someone laughing at themselves, in particular, their disability. This guy cracks me up.
The other day, I was hanging out with Cari (my partner who also lives with chronic illness). I don’t know what got into us, but we started singing “The Star Spangled Banner”, as loudly as we could and completely off-key. We sounded like donkeys who had a little too much to drink. And then we laughed so hard, tears ran down our cheeks. Her face, usually drawn from pain, brightened and she grinned from ear-to-ear. I realized I hadn’t seen her smile in ages.
Every once in a while, when our lives feel too difficult, I’ll grab this juggler hat I have and walk into her room. It never fails to get a chuckle from her.
So, what makes you laugh? How can you lighten your day?
BBC. (1969-1974) Monty Python [television show]. Westminster, London, England: The British Broadcasting Corporation.
Barnathan, M. (Producer), & Columbus, C. (Director). (1995). Nine months [Motion Picture]. United States: Twentieth Century Fox.
Chodron, P. “All of my teachers have had a great sense of humor…” Quote. “Being able to laugh at ourselves connects us with our humanness…” Quote.
Hafiz (14th cent.). Landinsky, D. (2006). I heard God laughing: Poems of hope and joy: Renderings of Hafiz (Landinsky, D., Trans.). Walnut Creek, CA: Penguin.
Harris, B. “Two Nuns Laughing”. Photograph.
De Niro, R. (Producer), & Roach, J. (Director). (2004). Meet the Fockers [Motion Picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.
De Niro, R. (Producer), & Roach, J. (Director). (2000). Meet the parents [Motion Picture]. United States: Universal Pictures
Gilmore, A. (Producer), & Ardolino, E. (Director). (1992). Sister act [Motion Picture]. United States: Touchstone Pictures.
“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” ~ Pablo Picasso
The following is another excerpt from my unfinished book.
Years ago, during a meditation session, I realized we are beings that are constantly creating, if only in our thoughts. I also realized that when we are in the act of creating something, we are connecting with Creation itself. A special relationship is forged as we link up with that essence, and we feel energized, plugged-in, an open channel. Any act of creation begins with that connection and ends with an outer expression of that connection. This process is healing as we feel those creative juices flow through us and we find yet another way to connect with our innermost self.
Finding a creative outlet can be very useful for those of us with chronic health challenges. Instead of vegging-out in front of the TV, getting lost in cyberspace for hours, or spiraling into depression or anxiety, we can focus our energy toward something that really nourishes our spirit. When we are being creative, we can shift our mood and
redirect that energy, transforming the chaos of fear or despair into the exciting chaos of creativity and by doing so, free up any numb, stuck places. It gives us a constructive outlet for all that we experience.
Being creative doesn’t require a certain level of expertise. Anyone can pick up a pen or a paintbrush. What is required, is a desire to play, to experiment, to explore, and to listen to what wants to be expressed. It also doesn’t mean you have to end up with a polished finished product. The outcome is often beside the point. Being creative can be as simple as playing your favorite music while dancing in your kitchen, or doodling on a piece of paper while you wait in a doctor’s office. It doesn’t mean you have to write a novel or to be published to write, or paint a landscape and have an art show to dabble in watercolors, which is really good news for those of us with limited energy. What’s important is to be engaged in the process and to allow the creative force to move through you with as little constraint as possible.
Most of us, at one time or another, experience blocks in our creativity. I think a large percentage of the time the reason for this is the critical voices in our head: “I’m too old for this”, “I’ve never taken a class”, “this is stupid”, or “Debra is really good at this – I’ll never be as good as her”.
During meditation, when critical voices arise, I try to recognize their tones for what they are, and to the best of my ability, take note of them and continue meditating. They can be handled the same way in regard to creativity. When the critic starts in, we can just say hello and continue what we’re doing. If it persists, we can set aside what we’re doing and take out a journal and let the voices have their say. We can write it all out as if they were talking and write until we can’t write any more. We may uncover something useful: We may recognize the voice of our mother, or our second grade teacher. Then, when we’re through, we can go back to writing that poem, creating that dance, painting that picture.
Another way of freeing up blocks is to try a different outlet for a bit. If we’re blocked with the still-life we’re painting, we can try our hand at a clay sculpture, or pick up the kazoo. There is something about trying out a different venue that can free up stuckness in another. It may be just that by taking a break from your particular creative endeavor and putting your attention elsewhere that makes a difference, or just allowing space for the flow of creativity, but I’ve seen this happen many times within myself.
Tapping into the creative can be a powerful and intense process that can have the side effect of bringing about a healing catharsis. I have a friend who began to have memories of early childhood sexual abuse. She started to make abstract pictures – nonverbal expressions of what she went through so long ago. She had never tried her hand at art before, but suddenly felt a compelling need to do so. During the process, she became possessed – spending hours working on them, for weeks. Afterwards, she had a series of probably ten pictures, which she shared with friends. The pictures were haunting and disturbing, especially the first ones, and then they became lighter and more hopeful, reflecting her inner process.
Another friend of mine had a car accident and suffered head trauma. She ultimately had to leave her job, because of her incapacitating symptoms. The accident changed her life completely and she was obviously distraught. She, too, began to make abstract pictures with an urgent need to express herself. Making these pictures became her main focus, churning out several pictures daily.
Creating an expression of your particular health challenge may be something you want to do.
Also, finding an outlet that is non-verbal can reach into the deepest parts of ourselves that are beyond words, and
can satisfya profound need in us.
One particular hard time in my life, I was experiencing partial seizures regularly. Because of cognitive problems, describing in words how my body felt was too difficult for me, so I drew a picture instead that was
much more expressive of my inner experience. Everyone I showed it to, had a visceral reaction to it that gave me a sense that they understood how it must feel to be me, leaving me feeling more connected with them and less isolated, altogether.
When I’m not feeling well, but want to dabble in something new and different, I can easily become overwhelmed and can’t think of what I’d like to do. When that’s the case, I choose from a list of things I made up when I was feeling better. You might want to do the same for yourself. The following is a list you might want to consider, made up of activities that range in energy level.
Try this: Take a small jar and fill it with some dried beans. Put on your favorite music and shake your new, instant percussion instrument.
Try this: Take out a pad of paper and pick a topic, any topic, and for the next ten minutes, write without stopping and no crossing out. Just let your mind take off. This technique was developed by Natalie Goldberg, who has written many books on writing as a spiritual practice (1986). To stimulate your creativity, I highly recommend Julia Cameron’s books.
Try this: Make a collage. Your library or your doctor’s office may have old magazines that they’ll let you have. Bring the magazines home and cut out images and/or phrases that appeal or inspire you. Have fun with it. You may want to have a theme in mind when you do it, or just want to create something of beauty you can look at later.
Try this: Buy a cardstock and envelopes at a craft store. Use some of the images you cut out for collages and in no time flat, you have pretty cards for various occasions.
Try this: Make a model from a store-bought kit.
Try this: Buy adult coloring books at your local bookstore. Instead of using crayons to color with, buy a small set of watercolors, instead.
Try this: Buy a set of colored pencils and a pad. Put on your favorite music and let yourself go.
Try this: Go to the library, to the arts and crafts section and peruse. If something catches your eye, check it out.
Try this: Make a list of all the creative hobbies you’ve always wanted to do. Remember how you’ve always wanted to knit a sweater? Now’s the time.
Try this: Go for a walk. Collect pine cones, sticks, shells, a feather. Buy an embroidery hoop at a craft store. Make a mobile.
Consider this: Creativity with others.
The other day, when feeling too ill to write, I took out my colored pencils and pad of pages, and my caregiver and I made some drawings. I decided my cats were the perfect inspiration.
Try this: Using watercolors, colored pencils, pastels or??? and a big pad of paper, create an abstract picture of your symptoms. Don’t overthink this … just grab colors that speak to you, and go. Because symptoms fluctuate, you may want to do a series of pictures. What was it like to do this? How do you feel afterwards?
“The idea is like a blueprint; it creates an image of the form, which then magnetizes and guides the physical energy to flow into that form and eventually manifests it on the physical plane”. ~ Shakti Gawain
“In a general sense, all artists are shamans, insomuch as they are channeling images or concepts on behalf of the collective”. ~ Vicki Noble