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May 11, 2020

Laughing our way to Nirvana

[Photo credit: Simon Sharman]

Shouldn’t yogis be laughing more?

When we picture a meditator we normally conjure up that serene blissful chilled type sat on a mountain top, blue sky, prayer flags fluttering — all Instagram perfect. Perhaps a gentle smile of contentedness playing on her lips. But where’s the laughs? She sure as hell ain’t rolling around on her mat gasping for the next breath,  clutching her sides, tears streaming down her face as she desperately tries to get her shit together. No! This is meditation everyone, it’s spiritual and it’s very serious.

I’ve been at this meditation game for a while now. I’ve done a fair few retreats. Learned to steady and calm my mind. I’ve mindfully eaten a mountain of raisins.

I can even mindfully open a jar of peanut butter…I really can! I can feel the coolness of the lid. The tension in my muscles. I can note the “For f*ck’s sake does this have to be so tight…grrr…” thought. Be aware of the “pop” as the lid releases. I can contemplate the sunshine and rain that allowed the peanuts grow. I can observe the “God…I love peanut butter” thought arise. And on. And on. You get the picture.

But I’ve never been invited to just have a giggle, think of something funny and mindfully laugh my head off. But why not? Is laughter somehow not spiritual enough?

There is humour in some areas of the meditation path. Some teachers do bring a wry, gentle humour but where’s the full on joy and laughter? I know the laughs are there. One of Buddhism’s poster boys,the Dalai Lama seems to often be rolling with a joke. He has one of the most TikTok ready chuckles on the planet and he’s at the top of his meditation game; the guy runs a worldwide posse of Buddhists after all. And there’s Budai the laughing Buddha of Zen tradition, but it seems he has largely been denigrated to the arena of gift shop spirituality. So despite a few examples it does seem that laughter gets a tough trip amongst the spiritual crew.

I believe good-natured, generous and kind humour (the generous and kind bit is crucial here) in our approach to the craziness of our lives and our world might offer a real path to greater compassion. It seems difficult to hold benevolent laughter and joy in the same space as anger, frustration and selfishness. The act of taking ourselves a little less seriously and stepping back to laugh at life can be a useful tool in breaking down our ego. When we laugh at ourselves and our life, our nature to cling to how we want things to be starts to drop away. At the same time humour can open our hearts to the tenderness of suffering which lies at the foundation of the Four Noble Truths. Whilst we don’t want to use our humour to avoid real feelings of sadness or pain, it can shift our relationship to them.

So how can we bring some more laughter and joy to our practice?

In the spirit of hip-hop I’ve been digging in the crates of spiritual practice to bring some mudita (appreciative joy) meditation to the turntables of our heart-mind. Which is my way of saying – I made this shit up! It didn’t come straight from the sutras, but in the same way A Tribe Called Quest breathed fresh air into Lou Reed’s classic, I’m sampling some mudita practice to see if we can spin some joy.

So dust off your cushion and let’s grab a new tune.

Set aside 15-20 minutes to practice. Get all comfortable, sit down on the floor, in a chair or lie down. Don’t get too serious and spiritual on us — this meditation gig should be fun.

Take 10 breaths – slow and easy. Get to know each one really well. It’s only ten breaths – so I know we can manage it — so we’ll count them, old skool style.

Now let’s think about a time we were truly happy, laughing, just enjoying the good times. Maybe we were on our own, with friends or family. Maybe it’s when we were a kid…before all the to-do-lists took over. We might have been dancing, sharing a meal, celebrating an occasion or just messing about laughing and laughing and laughing.

Let’s get that image in our heart-mind — really get deep into it, the sounds, the feeling of the moment and the joy inside us. Now just hang with it for a few minutes. Keep living that joy inside us.

Let a big old smile come to our face; if it’s not already there.

Now let’s try to feel where that joy is in us. Is it in our chest or belly as we laugh? Our face as we smile? Our whole body as we feel ourselves dancing? Wherever it is just hang in that space for a while and feel the carefree joy. Maybe give it a colour and imagine the feeling growing and filling our whole body. Surely meditation shouldn’t be this much fun?

Then let’s mix in some phrases;

I hope I get to laugh loads
Let me see the funny side when shit happens
I hope I find lots of joy in all this craziness

Keep going with the phrases while we hold the good times in our body

Now let’s get a picture of a friend or family member in our mind and whilst looking into their eyes imagine them smiling and laughing. Really loving life.

Then say the phrases to them;

I hope you get to laugh loads
I hope you see the funny side when shit happens
I hope you find lots of joy in all this craziness

Get a real sense of them laughing and us sharing in that joy of their happiness.

Repeat the phrases again a few more times. Allow the joy to grow inside you as you see their happiness.

We should be rocking some big smiles now. See, this shit works and it feels good.

Now let’s think of a stranger, somebody we recognise but don’t really know. Let’s picture them smiling and laughing – having a great time.

Then say the phrases to them;

I hope you get to laugh loads
I hope you see the funny side when times are shit
I hope you find lots of joy in all this craziness

Note how we feel, does it make us feel good to share their happiness? Can we share in their joy?

Now let’s think of some awkward bastard that winds us up. Just pick one though eh? I know I have loads to choose from but let’s keep it simple. One at a time.

Now picture them laughing and enjoying themselves. I know it’s difficult…but we can do it. Remember we can still be laughing too.

Then the real brave move let’s roll them the phrases;

I hope you get to laugh loads
I hope you see the funny side when shit happens
I hope you find joy in all this craziness

Picture their joy increasing. Remember that them having fun doesn’t mean we can’t too. Keep going for a bit longer repeating the phrases.

Now note how we felt. Was it harder to see their joy? We managed it ok for a friend and probably for a stranger too. But maybe it was different for this person? If it was, don’t judge our reaction, just notice that is was more difficult.

Then finish up by bringing it back home again to us for a final round of “May I laugh and take shit lightly.” Let’s realise this sense of laughter and joy is there within us all the time, we just need to bring our attention to it.

As I say, we’re not gonna find laughter mentioned in the Dhammapada but we do find happiness mentioned and some of our happiest moments involve laughing.

So next time we’re with friends and we’re just joy and laughter let’s remember we’re probably getting a glimpse of Nirvana. The real trick is to share that joy with everyone. And that includes that shitty boss of ours!

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