Laughter, Spirituality, and the Power of Humour

By Adam J. Pearson

Mark Pifer, a comedian, once told me that “humor is great for hiding fear but useless for finding peace.” He said: “Adam, I was around comedy for 20+ years. I’ve known some of the most funny men and women in the country. And they’re all miserable. Comedy doesn’t work. It’s a great release in the moment, and a great place to hide fear, but it’s ultimately useless for finding peace. I get that not everyone wants to achieve that, and that’s fine with me. I will always love comedy, and in the hands of the greats I am even still in awe of the techniques and abilities, but it’s an empty endeavor. ”

The words “humor is great for hiding fear but useless for finding peace” stuck with me, largely because my own experience was exactly the opposite of what these words suggested.  I’ve often found that laughter carried peace in its wings. Some situations, when taken seriously, seem overwhelming and insurmountable. But when we learn to laugh at them before tackling them seriously,  a new perspective can sometimes open up. They seem to loom less largely over us. They seem more manageable. We feel we can handle them. We think “if I can laugh at this, then I can handle it.” This realization brings peace and eases tension. This is a very physical experience; in fact, there was a neurological study that showed that laughter and stress cannot coexist in the body at the same time. Laughter banishes stress. It quite literally makes the body more peaceful, even if only for a time.

Moreover, the reverse can also be true; not only can humor be helpful for finding peace, but peace can help us for find humor. The more peaceful we are, the more we can laugh, the more we can relax into humor. When we’re relaxed, we can make jokes more easily; they just come to us . In contrast, when we’re really tense and trying to make jokes, taking pains to joke around, our attempts feel awkward. Others have the sense that we’re trying to hard.  This is the diametric opposite of what happens when we are feeling peaceful and joking around easily; in such situations, the laughs flow as easily as the jokes.  So, peace can enhance humor just as humor can enhance peace.  This is probably what makes hippies so amusing… they’re so peaceful, they can’t even stand up and so funny they make Chris Rock look like Chris Hansen.

Now, this doesn’t mean that all comedians are peaceful, balanced people. Many struggle with various mental and emotional conditions.Some comedians are about as peaceful as an Irish family feud.   The words “can” and not “does,” “sometimes” and not “always” are chosen very carefully here.

Over the years, I suppose I have become less uptight about what I feel can the subject of humor and what cannot. For instance, I used to be terribly serious about spirituality. I would never joke about it. Ever. This is the business of life and death I’m talking about, I thought. How dare I laugh at it! How dare I profane the subject. I was terribly uptight. Looking back now, it seems just as sad as it does laughable.

It was Zen that taught me that laughter can be a form of spirituality.  Zen Masters often have great laughs with one another.   Since then, I’ve also met Christian priests, jovial Jews, smiley Sikhs, devout Muslims, and devoted Hindus  that all know how to laugh about their traditions even while remaining reverent of them.  In fact, I think that, for me, the most convincing Christian missionaries I ever met were those who knew how to laugh at their own religion. The stone-cold ones were easy to dismiss. But those who could laugh at their own faith, now they were worth hearing out!

Only in this last year have I learned how to laugh at my own beliefs, my own teachers, my own scriptures, my own traditions, and, most importantly, at myself.  There are times in life when gravitas is appropriate, but I tend to feel that life in general is best approached lightheartedly, though realistically as well.  Should spirituality, which deals with our most fundamental relationships to our true nature, to each other, to our world, and to the universe as a whole, be any different? I don’t think so.  These things are terribly important and should be taken seriously.  And yet, I feel it is okay to joke about them.  I can picture Ramana Maharshi poking someone in the eye and shouting “what? It wasn’t me! How could it be when my formless being transcends all fingers and eyeballs!” I love and deeply respect Ramana, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think his loincloth is hilarious.

Photo: Ramana Maharshi’s loincloth.

In short, there is no necessary contradiction in a person who, though deeply devoted to the God in whom he believes, often makes jokes about Him. In fact, the more I learn about this amazing reality, the more the human predicament strikes me as funny.  We have elaborate physical theories that describe the operations of bosons and fermions and the workings of nature in terms of four fundamental forces and twelve particles of matter.  And yet those particles are themselves formed from energy, a quantity whose operations, transmissions from system to system, kinetic and potential types can all be defined very precisely and yet.  But here’s the funny part: even though we  know all of these things,  we have no idea what energy is.  Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicists who developed quantum electrodynamics, one of the most powerful and most widely-confirmed scientific theories of all time, once said: “”It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no idea what energy is.” Energy is fundamental to everything and yet we have no idea what its essence is at all.  The foundation of all knowables is something mysteriously unknown… This realization fills me with awe, but it also strikes me as quite funny!

To summarize, I find no difficulty reconciling spirituality with humor or even in joking about spirituality.  Now, this does not mean that we cannot push jokes about religion too far; the line between amusing and hateful can be fine.  Humor is a toy, or better still, a tool; like all tools it can be destructive or constructive, used to help or to hinder, to increase peace or to disturb it. It is up to us how we choose to use it.  I choose to use it to spread joy and poke fun at the rigidities of life and culture, and that includes religious culture.

We have all met religious people who are so rigid about their beliefs that they cannot so much as smile.  They seem to be lacking a deep and wonderful dimension of their religious traditions that they have not yet accessed, the dimension of the LOL, the laugh-out-loud.  Indeed, in closing, I would almost go so far as to say that superficial religiosity cannot so much as crack a smile, but deep spirituality can get us rolling around on the floor like a bunch of  sugar-crazed kids on a Pixie Sticks binge…


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