Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sprituality and Fun

A woman was in the hospital, near death. The family called their pastor to be with her. As the pastor stood next to the bed, the woman’s condition deteriorated rapidly. Gasping for breath, she motioned for the pastor to come close as if she needed to urgently tell him something. He couldn’t understand what she was saying so he handed her a piece of paper and pen. She used her last bit of energy to scribble something down and handed it to the pastor, and then she breathed her last. The pastor placed the paper in his pocket and decided to read it later. He forgot about it until it came time for the funeral. As he was giving the eulogy, he remembered the note and realized that he was wearing the same pants. He decided to spontaneously add it to his eulogy. He said to the congregation, “Before Jane died, she handed me a note. I haven’t read it yet but knowing Jane I’m sure it has a word of inspiration for all of us. He opened the note and read it out loud, “Step away from the bed. You’re standing on my oxygen tube.” You could say he put his foot in it twice.

Do you think that death is a laughing matter? Do you ever laugh at funerals, either because people share humorous, heartwarming stories or for no apparent reason? It’s a fairly common phenomenon, and probably some sort of coping mechanism, for people to laugh at times of tragedy. Robert Fulghum even says that “laughter is the cure for grief.” Why does humor heal? What is the power of fun? One of the most famous eulogies was delivered by John Cleese at his fellow Monty Python comedian Graham Chapman’s funeral. Chapman co-authored the Parrot Sketch where the guy takes his parrot back to the pet shop and tries to convince the shop keeper that the parrot is in fact dead. Cleese began his eulogy by saying, “Graham Chapman is no more. He has ceased to be, bereft of life, he rests in peace, he has kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it, breathed his last and gone to meet the Great Head of Light Entertainment in the sky.” The Cleese eulogy was followed by the remaining Monty Python members doing a rendition of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

In the eulogy Cleese spoke about the ability of Chapman to shock people. Then he ended the eulogy by saying something interesting about the value of shock. “The thing about shock is not that it upsets some people. It gives others a momentary joy of liberation, as we realize in that instant that the social rules that constrict our lives are not actually very important.”

One of the reasons that fun and laughter are powerful spiritual tools is because they play with your assumptions and society’s rules. Laughter and fun give you ways to tear apart the straight jacket of personal and social conformity. Life is not always predictable, our rules and conclusions are not always as permanent as we imagine, and it’s always possible to take alternate perspectives. Through the power of laughter, you open up a kaleidoscope of new possibilities.

How do you know when it’s appropriate to laugh at tragedy, and when it’s not? Personally, I take my cues from the people involved. I have fond memories of visiting a woman who was in her last days. You will be glad to know that I didn’t tread on her oxygen tube. She was a spunky flirt of a woman to the end. She asked me if I would make a phone call for her. I asked her the number. She said it was in her phone. I asked her where her phone was. She pointed to her chest. I didn’t know what she meant until I saw her phone hanging by a cord that went around her neck and rested under her nightie. She just smirked and kept pointing to her chest. She wasn’t going to help me get the phone. She forced me to dig in and pull out her phone, get the number and then put the phone back. We both laughed and laughed. It took all the tension out of a difficult situation. People involved in traumatic situations will usually give the cues as to what’s appropriate.

Fun and Transformation

Fun is not only fun. It can also be transformative. I heard a story that illustrates the power of fun to transform seemingly hopeless situations. A few years back the Toronoto Maple Leafs were in last place in the Canadian hockey ranks. They had just set a record for the worst start of any season. Despite being one of the wealthier teams, they hadn’t won a single game. They were the Detroit Lions of Canada. So when they gathered for practice after yet another loss, the players expected to be given a thorough dressing down by the coach, followed by extra drills and a tough training session. Instead the coach shocked them by suddenly and randomly throwing tennis balls at the players. For the next couple of hours, the Leafs played dodge ball on ice. The players skated around frantically, pegging balls at each other, smiling and laughing up a storm. At one point someone even grabbed the coach and used him as a human shield while they both got hammered with balls. While they were having fun, the players forgot that they were the worst team in Canada. Sure enough, a few days later, the Leafs won their first game of the season and went on to win several more. The team had been transformed by fun.

The transforming power of fun is that you can try out a different reality in your mind, see how it feels, get comfortable with it, rehearse it, and live it into existence. You release the tension out of a situation and inadvertently find new solutions that you hadn’t even thought about. Some people have a rare gift of introducing fun into tense situations, but we all have the ability to do it if we are mindful.

There are also evolutionary benefits to fun. People have created serious science out of tickling. Tickling simulates a playful version of a mock attack. We tend to be ticklish in the same parts of our bodies that are vulnerable to attack. Tickling is a shock tactic. You can’t tickle yourself for example, because there is no surprise element. But at the same time a young baby will laugh more when tickled by mom than a stranger, because it’s easier to know that it’s a mock attack from mom than a stranger who could be REALLY attacking you. So tickling has evolutionary adaptive functions. In short, play prepares us for the real challenges of life by finding the boundaries of what feels right and what feels inappropriate. Fun is a fine line as any parent who has hidden for too long or any politician who has frightened a baby can verify. We all have to know where to end the fun and games before the tears start.

Spirituality and Fun

Fun is important to all species. Animals in the wild engage in ferocious mock battles. Magpies wrestle, foxes jump on trampolines and elk frolic in puddles. Bears charge rivers, monkeys somersault down hills, and elephants doodle with sticks in the earth. Fun even crosses species lines. Polar bears have been seen horsing around with dogs, and monkeys playing with tigers. Fun seems to be a universal instinct.

A study of Alaskan grizzlies showed that the ones that played the most were the ones most likely to survive. Another study showed that if you take play away from lab rats they develop behavioral problems and become bad lovers. And we can’t have that, can we?

Fun is important, and there are loads of examples of fun and laughter in spiritual traditions. There is a Japanese proverb that says, “Time spent laughing is time spent with the gods.”

An Apache Indian creation myth tells the story of the creation when God first created all varieties of animals and laughed uproariously at their peculiar shapes and funny behavior.”

“Then he made a man and spoke to him, saying, ‘Laugh!‘ The man laughed and his laughter caused the dog to jump and wag its tail… His laughter helped to complete all that the God had initially brought into being at creation.”

“At last the man was caused to fall asleep, and he dreamed a creature like himself, a woman. When he awoke to find her more than a dream he began to laugh and she laughed too. They laughed and laughed together… and that was the beginning of the world.”

Particularly in the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, laughing is greatly emphasized. There is a quote usually attributed to the Buddha that says, “When you realize how perfect everything is you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.” It’s a great thought although not quite accurate. It likely comes from a Tibetan text that says,

Since everything is but an illusion,
Perfect in being what it is,
Having nothing to do with good or bad,
Acceptance or rejection,
One might as well burst out laughing!

(From chapter 1 of The Great Perfection’s Self-Liberation in the Nature of Mind, by Longchenpa (1308-1364)

From the Muslim tradition, a beautiful image comes from the Sufi poet Hafiz who said, “Me and God are two giants in a tiny boat, bumping into each other, and laughing.” Imagination and fun are gateways to wonder and possibility.

It’s harder to find the fun in Christianity but it is there if you look hard enough beyond the pious Churchianity that many of us were raised on. The Gospel of Judas was discovered in the 1970’s, and believed by many to be compiled in the 4th century, around the same time as Constantine was making Christianity very serious, and very focused around beliefs and practices. Meanwhile Judas was portraying Jesus as laughing hysterically at his disciples. When he saw them gathered intently around bread and cup, he burst into laughter and said they were worshipping a false God. Maybe they were taking themselves and their beliefs a little too seriously, imagining that their practices could get them to God. It is laughable to think that you can look outside of yourself for God. Looking for God outside of yourself is like wandering around looking for your sunglasses when they are on top of your head all along. There’s nothing wrong with beliefs and ideas about God, nor with rituals and practices. It just requires the humility of playfulness to avoid setting up false gods.

Fun and Perspective

There is yet another effect from laughing, and that is that we have the ability to laugh in the face of the unthinkable and create a little distance from the trauma in order to gain new perspective.

There is so much death and suffering in the world. It seems like there is a new natural disaster every week at the moment, now with hundreds, maybe thousands of people dead in the Japanese tragedy. Meanwhile they’re still looking for bodies in Christchurch NZ and a fresh round of floods is hitting northern Australia. Since Katrina, not to mention last year’s gulf oil spill, Mardi Gras has become an occasion synonymous with rising from the ashes of disaster. Is it appropriate to have fun at a time like this? Maybe it’s one of the most powerful things we can do. It’s like raising a fist to despair as if to say, “You can’t have me. I won’t give in.”

Four rabbis were gathered before the desecrated temple in Jerusalem in the first century. Three of them were weeping. The fourth, Rabbi Akiva, was laughing uproariously. The three rabbis were shocked at his response and said, “Why do you laugh?” He responded to them, “Why do you cry?” They said, “This temple that we have adored has been burned to the ground by the Romans. Foxes now roam in the space where up to this point, only the most enlightened of all Jewish leaders could even tread. How can you laugh? All is lost.”

Akiva said “that is why I laugh because now I know the prophecy has been fulfilled. Until the temple is completely and utterly destroyed there will be no new temple. I laugh because I know the prophecy has been fulfilled.”

I’m not suggesting that laughter is always appropriate, but at times it is a coping mechanism as if to say, “Alright I’ve hit rock bottom here. The only way is up, and that’s where I’m heading now.” Things seem so bad right now that it’s comical, but I can beat this and rise from the ashes. I will get the last laugh by climbing on top of the very rocks that have shattered around me and use them to give me a leg up.

Laughing As a Sign of Spirit

Do you remember Guido in the movie, Life is Beautiful? The story is set in the time of the holocaust, and Guido, his wife and 5 year-old son are being held in a concentration camp- Guido and his son in one camp, and his wife next door in the women’s camp. Guido breaks the oppressive spirit of the camp with humor. In one scene Guido commandeers the PA system in the camp and sends a message to his wife, who doesn’t know if he is dead or alive. Guido says he wants to make love to his wife in Italian so the solders can’t understand him. In another scene Guido volunteers to be the translator for the German soldier who is barking orders about different rules that the prisoners must follow, or be killed. Guido translates it completely differently. What he says is a message in Italian to his son. He tells his son that this is all a game, and if you follow the rules of the game, you can win. If you win the game you get a beautiful big tank. The son’s eyes grow wide as he listens to his father, while the soldier barks out order about death. In the midst of unthinkable sadness, Guido gives his family hope.

Thank goodness for laughter and for those who are able to create fun in tense situations. Mardi Gras is the perfect time to consider your own relationship with fun. Are you burdened by unsolvable problems? Are you overwhelmed by the sadness and suffering in the world? Laugh, not at the suffering and not in a callous way, but in such a way that you remind yourself that a new reality is always possible. If you can’t find anything funny, conduct a preemptive strike on fun. Laugh on suspicion of something ordinary and every day. Laugh at your own routines. Laugh at your over active imagination. Laugh at the absurdity of chaos. Laugh at the frailty of life.Then surrender to new perspectives that only open up because you let the air out of your nervous energy. Fun is a pathway to spirit, rerouted surprise, laughter’s short cut. The spirit of fun in me greets the spirit of fun in you. LOL! Namaste.


Bricky said...

A great post, Ian. Well done!
I have just spent two weeks in Christchurch, NZ, visiting and assessing the needs of earthquake victims. Almost invariably, people were nervous and suspicious when contact was first made, but an hour or so later they were smiling and laughing in many cases. I think humour is an antidote for grief. Some people are able to provide it for themselves but most need interaction with others in order to find it.

Ian said...

thanks Bricky and thank you for being a bright light of hope for people in Christchurch