Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Keeping a Sense of Humor

The first thing to go out the door when things get tough is our sense of humor.

I'm not talking about sarcasm, which even if it is termed a refuge of the weak was and continues to be a high art in my family. The thing about sarcasm is that you can rarely fit it into that precept called right speech. Because of its biting quality, I'm hard pressed to see how it builds anything up. At best it can be used as a signal of commiseration, affirming that yes indeed it is cold and dark here in the cruel world, and us without coats.

Our family is also great with the gallows humor; we are really something at funerals. Full spectrum from the macabre to the double entendre.  It passes the time, and insulates from tears and earnestness, but it is not in any sense healing.

The sense of humor I mean is something that buoys us up, which is why its so curious that we don't pay more attention to it as an important coping tool. What could be a practice to help us recognize in the moment that while our situation may not be funny haha humorous, our sense of humor can help us keep some honest perspective?

So in that sense, the quality of of humor I am trying to zero in on feels related to equanimity.

When things get ugly, right away we get entangled in the upset, the storyline, and if we're really on top of our game, problem solving. Some of us actually skip directly to the problem solving in order to avoid being present with the source of suffering. I'll be the first to raise my hand on that one.  Here it is -- suffering hits: BAM! -- and I have no idea where to find my sense of humor at that moment. I know, let's work it like a business problem!

Lama Anagarika Govinda is said to have passed away laughing, so I pay attention when he says something about the Buddha and humor, from his Way of the White Clouds:
The Buddha's sense of humor -- which is so evident in many of his discourses -- is closely bound up with his sense of compassion: both are born from an understanding of greater connections, from an insight into the interrelatedness of all things and all living beings and the chain reactions of cause and effect. His smile is the expression of one who can see the 'wondrous play of ignorance and knowledge' against its universal background and its deeper meaning.
Only thus is it possible not to be overpowered by the misery of the world or by our own sense of righteousness that judges and condemns what is not in accordance with our own understanding and divides the world into good and bad. A man with a sense of humor cannot but be compassionate in his heart, because his sense of proportion allows him to see things in their proper perspective.
Breaking this down, we have elements of compassion, understanding of interdependence, non-judging, emptiness and then he winds us up right back at compassion and perspective.

Bernie Glassman for several years was working with his Order of Disorder, walking around with a red nose. Their precepts certainly seem like they're on to something, including an admonition to drop your fears and be one with Disorder. Their vision statement is literally illegible, which is, you know, really funny. I get the rationale, but I'm not quite ready to go over to the absurdist camp.

How about you, any strategies help you keep your sense of humor when things get rough?


  1. I've been encouraged to practice tonglen so that I might stay with emotions that arise (or seemingly arise in this imagined reality? Lankavatara has taken away my periods ?)

    Today was the first day I tried it out. Really helpful! Stories stopped!

    Labor intensive, perpetual care. Has anyone ever told you that living in a practice center is exactly like living in a house hold? I want to confirm this from an inside perspective. Living here is my preference, but karma rolls on relentlessly.

    Fooled again!

    1. Thanks for this good reminder..."Has anyone ever told you that living in a practice center is exactly like living in a house hold? I want to confirm this from an inside perspective."

      Oddly enough, I ran into a website describing the principles and practice of Tonglen only yesterday and was floored. About thirteen years ago I used to commute a great distance every day, and filled some of that time listening to tapes from teachers like Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, etc. There was an entire 8 tape set from a Tonglen retreat she led, and I even practiced it for a short while before I settled into Zen and the process for jukai. I had completely forgotten about it, and found that stunning when I ran across the website yesterday. Now you posting this. Hrmmmmnnn. A tool that has perhaps been too long in the back of the toolbox and worth bringing out again.

      Thank you again.

  2. I've always tried to use humor when things get tough in family situations - you know, the "keep em' laughing", relieve the stress and just keep dancing kind of humor - to keep everybody "happy" - which is not exactly a healthy dynamic either :) But I'm also finding lately that "the Universe" has a sense of humor all its own, presenting me with little reminders to not take things so seriously, to lighten up, to see the lighter side type thing - and to look for the Heart in everything. Not that I do that so well, which is why I keep getting the reminders... :)

    1. Appreciate your above and your visiting -- I had seen your site earlier this week jumping off from ZenDotStudio. LOVED the toilet/heart post.

      I will also try to keep opening to the lighter messages from the universe.

  3. I came from a very humorless family yet I find myself surrounded by laughter the older I get. My friends have changed since illness struck and with that this deep urge to laugh whenever the the opportunity arrises. I know it's good for me and so I jump at any chance to indulge in laughter.

    Often it's at the craziness of all this, of where I've landed compared to where I thought I'd be now. Laughing in relief that I am not where I thought i wanted to be, that I was spared that path. It lightens my heart and puts things in such perspective.

    1. The craziness you describe, I've been tempted to personify it as Coyote or Old Crow, and let it be.

      Certainly I share your relief that this situation has forced me to shift in a major way from behavior patterns that I'm now very glad to be amending out of my life.

      There is a sense of gratitude also in what you express above, not just relief. A Tibetan teaching I was reading last night suggested that if you can sit with gratitude it drives out fear, hate and other barriers.

      Relief, gratitude, humor, may we all have more of it in our lives.

    2. I very much believe that both gratitude and gentle humor practices are crucial for an emotionally and spiritually healthy life.

    3. Indeed, indeed. And thanks for writing!

  4. love that:). going to try and sit w/ gratitude tonight.