I am all over the place lately, leaping from fear to peace. I am reflecting what is happening all over the globe: Chaos and fear, yet a slowing down of activities. Sometimes I obsess about all kinds of things: Will I get this illness? Will I die a horrible death? Do I have enough tp? What if one of my caregivers gets sick and spreads the virus to others? What if I am left with no caregivers? How do I clean properly? Did I wipe down the doorknobs after someone left? What if I forgot? Anxiety loves this kind of stuff. It thrives on it.
And then, suddenly I am peaceful and feel wide open and content. Calm. And more connected to nature. The trees around my house seem more vibrant than ever. I watch the ducks in the pond happily waddling about, and I breathe more deeply. The red-winged blackbirds sing their delight at being alive and dive in and out of the cattails. Sometimes I go outside and sit on the earth and cry. I don’t know what I’m crying about, but tears run down my face. I sob. It feels good to do so. And I feel supported by the earth when I do.
Yesterday, while I was out there, Simon, our cat, came and sat with me and then curled up in my lap. We both surveyed the pond, the meadow, the hills. And I thought: If all humankind died, the earth would heal and that thought gave me peace. I love my friends, family and community, and sometimes am able to love all humankind, but, as my mother used to say, “We are the most destructive species on the planet.” She was right and it’s a hard fact to sit with.
Sometimes, I open my heart to not knowing. Not knowing if certain people I know and love will survive. Not knowing if local businesses will survive. Not knowing how long the virus will survive. And these thoughts take me to the big “I Don’t Know” – the mysteries of The Universe. And this thought leads to Freedom.
“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.
Anxiety runs in my family. I inherited mine from my father.
My mother often told the story of when my father first began his teaching career. Every morning before work he would vomit from nerves. Eventually he got this down to every Monday, and then when he became more confident at his job, he stopped. Every time my brother and I were told this story, we would laugh, including my mother. We didn’t understand.
He couldn’t stand being late. When we would travel, he’d pack days ahead of time. When going to the airport, we would have to arrive hours ahead of schedule, or he would get upset, often yelling at us. His fear of being late carried over to other events when promptness was not called for – for example when going for an outing, he’d announce to the family what time we would “need” to leave, only to blow up when we weren’t ready a half an hour before the scheduled time.
His anxiety took the form of hypochondria. If he got a headache or a slight fever, he’d worry about it as if he had some strange or daunting illness, asking my mother repeatedly to feel his forehead or listen to his heartbeat. She’d roll her eyes and say, “You just have the flu for God’s sake! You’re not dying!” But by the look on his face, I could see he was frightened.
At restaurants, much to my family’s chagrin, he’d become agitated, running his hands through his hair repeatedly, waiting for dinner to arrive, long before it could possibly be ready. He would flag down a server and ask them when our meals would be ready, his voice sounding a little desperate, while the rest of us hid behind our menus.
As he got older, his anxiety increased, along with his controlling behavior. Once while I was visiting with my partner, his car was in the shop and was supposed to be ready early afternoon, but he got a call informing him that they ran into a snag and the car wouldn’t be ready until much later. He exploded and berated the receptionist on the other end who was only relaying the news. There was really no rational reason for him to be upset, he didn’t need to go anywhere that day, and, if that need changed, my partner and I had a car.
My parents lived about 2 hours from me. When returning home after visiting them, he would often call my landline long before I would arrive to see if I made it back ok, and when he found out I wasn’t there, he’d become anxious. I think it was my last visit there before he died, that he called my house three times before I made it home. It didn’t matter how much my partner tried to reassure him that I was probably just fine, he didn’t calm down until he heard my voice.
It took me a long time to recognize that these behaviors were coming from a place of anxiety, especially when he acted controlling, impatient and angry. It wasn’t until I began to analyze and compare my own feelings and behavior with his and recognize that they too stemmed from anxiety that I began to understand more fully his experience. Although I try not to manipulate and control those around me like my father did, there are situations where I have to have things a certain way or I become very anxious. There is a felt sense of great urgency when anxiety takes over, especially in triggering or stressful situations, and for me that happens most at bedtime. I have to be in my bedroom at 9 and if my partner begins a conversation at 8:50, I get impatient and irritated with her because of this urgency. I need to check and re-check to see if the front door is locked, the stove is turned off, and the cats have enough food and water before I turn in, or my stomach goes into knots.
I want to say here; I loved my father very much. He was much more than his anxiety disorder and I hope the following poem I wrote 3 months before his death demonstrates that.