Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Guru of Laughter

In Quaker Meeting for Worship on First Days (Sundays), the elders, or people who carry responsibility for the meeting, sit on the facing benches. (Nowadays that's changed a bit, but anyway.) When I was a child, at our meeting the facing benches were at the front of the room.  On a raised bench in one particular spot, week in and week out, sat Dr. McP.    He was ancient. He never moved.

I thought he was dead.  The reason he was there seemed obvious to me.  Every First Day they'd cart him in and prop him up for all to see to remind us to take Meeting really, really seriously.

In Quaker Schools, regular Meeting for Worship is mandatory.  During one memorable 7th grade meeting, my friend L and I fell into laughing fits.  We were "eldered" out of the room and found to our dismay that life wasn't half so funny on the meetinghouse porch.

I'm not saying that letting 7th graders meeting-bust is a great idea, but what is it about religion that fosters such grave attitudes?  According to the New Yorker, the Buddha essentially disapproved of laughter because "the world is burning."  I've heard one or two church sermons where the minister went to some lengths to assert that "God does have a sense of humor." Which, if this were obvious, wouldn't need to be hammered from the pulpit, right?

Enter Dr. Madan Kataria, founder of a spiritual  movement called Laughter Yoga.  With a thousand-bazillion years of Indian religious tradition behind him, he has founded a new spirituality based entirely on the notion that laughter can heal--physically, emotionally, spiritually.  It's free, it's social, and it's (duh) fun.  No one will boot you out of one of his loose network of laughter clubs for falling-out-hilarity.   Dr. Kataria's goal is modest: To win a Nobel prize for creating a worldwide healing movement.  Being from India, it seems that the "guru" part of his calling is almost a given.

Medical science hasn't exactly jumped on the bandwagon, but medical science isn't exactly known for its sense of humor.  One thing we do know: There's no way science can call this stuff harmful.

It makes me think. No, actually, it makes me want to go find a rubber chicken and do something ridiculous.  I mean, life isn't always easy, is it? We can go on with our lives, which may or may not include: Daily/weekly Mass; church services; "quiet times"; keeping a guardian angel air freshener in the car; Bible study; no study; Freudian analysis; meet-a-friend-for-coffee analysis; meditation; Dharma talks; prayer before meals; prayer after meals; yoga; gym workouts; drum circles.  Etc.

But I for one am going to look for opportunities to laugh. Really laugh. Full-out, embarrassing, nose-snorting, tears-down-the-face laughter.  After all, one reason people make religion such a serious matter is that we take ourselves so darn seriously.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Sometimes, worries pile up.  You find yourself awake (again) an hour before you need to get up. Maybe you had a bad dream.  Maybe the financial-anxiety gears are already engaged, even before your outer mind has a chance to know what's going on.

Yesterday, I sat in Meeting for Worship in a small Quaker meetinghouse.  Someone had lit a fire, and the glass in the old, tall windows around the room rippled when I moved my head, making patterns of the trees outside. I've been seeing that most of my life, and it gives a comforting sense of oldness.

Yesterday, I felt gnarled.  Closed and small inside, distracted.  I was there, but I wasn't there.  Someone stood and spoke the words of Jesus: "Unless you become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven."  Christianity has a way of turning assumptions upside down; so does Buddhism.  Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron puts it like this: "...when we are nailed with the truth, we suffer...This is where tenderness comes in.  When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something.  We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way.  We can either shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality...When there's a big disappointment, we don't know if that's the end of the story.  It may just be the beginning of a great adventure."

Who is more open to adventure than a child?  The key is embracing what hurts.  Children howl and wail when things go wrong  because they haven't learned to put on the mental armor.  Their joy is also that much greater.

Much as I'd like to fly away from all this, I am nailed to the present moment.  Welcome, life.  Sometimes it hurts.  What I'm learning is that if I flee from the hurt, it only magnifies.  Being with it in tenderness brings in lightness, clarity. The glass may be rippled, but it's more fascinating that way.