Psychology - Life`s a Chuckle
Doctor Ho HoMeet Dr Madan Kataria, founder of the Laughter Club International, and the man behind the ‘happydemic’ sweeping the world
If there were redemption in laughter, Dr Madan Kataria would be a good
Legend of the Laughing BuddhaA funny thing happened to the Buddha on his way to the Far East.
His slender and beautiful physique became small and pudgy, and his serene, dignified face grew a laugh!
It could well be the ‘before‘ and ‘after‘ snapshots of enlightenment. Pre-enlightenment, the Buddha, shell-shocked by his sudden exposure to mortality, agonizes as dancing girls whirl for his entertainment: "How can anyone laugh who knows of old age, disease and death ?"
If life contained suffering, then how could it be joyous? Only the ignorantand the self-deluded could laugh, he thought. And the Buddha lost his smile. And now look at the chubby personage on the cover!
The Laughing Buddha, arms thrown up in happy abandon, his entire being rubicund with joy, all angst and sorrow dissolved in the bliss of ultimate awareness. What a promise he holds out to those of us who fear that our foray into reality will only submerge us in misery.
Yes, the road to full knowing must encompass all that is unfortunate and negative, but the final understanding yields not sorrow, but joy.
Not a moan, but a laugh-unfettered, fearless, and all-encompassing, with room for old age, disease, death, not to mention 21st century malaises such as child molestation, nuclear wars and AIDS.
There may or may not be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but there will certainly be a great whooping laugh and a cartwheel or two.
If a laugh signals the end to the whole human enterprise, there are some who claim that it also gave rise to the process.
An Apache Indian creation myth quoted by Beldon C. Lane, professor of theological studies at St Louis University, USA, in an Internet article titled The Spirituality and Politics of Holy Folly, goes thus: "Hactein, the High 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."
Full Bodied Laughs
"A merry heart doeth like good medicine, but a downcast spirit drieth up the bones," observed the Proverbs in the Bible.
Closer to our time, a wit echoes the same sentiment.
"There ain‘t much fun in medicine, but there‘s a heck lot of medicine in fun," said US humorist Josh Billings.
Laughter, like other positive emotions, is a potent healing force.
Says Dr Madan Kataria, a physician and founder-president of the Laughter Club International, which encompasses 1,300 clubs in India and 700 outside India: "I was inspired to start the Laughter Club because of the amount of research that proved that laughing was good for health."He adds: "Laughter cannot solve your problems but it can help you look at them differently. From my experience, it seems to increase immunity levels, and senior citizens report sounder sleep."
One of the most celebrated cases of healing through laughter is that of Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, a prestigious American publication.
Cousins was struck with a fatal condition called ankylosing spondylitis, a degenerative disease that causes the breakdown of collagen, the fibrous tissue that binds together the body‘s cells.
Given only a few months to live, he checked out of the hospital, and into a hotel and began treating himself with extremely high doses of Vitamin C and humour.
Describing his recovery in the book Anatomy of an Illness, Cousins writes: "Ten minutes of solid belly laughter would give me two hours of pain-free sleep…"
"Even more encouraging, the retreat of pain was accompanied by a corresponding increase in mobility… Looking back, I realize that laughter probably played a part in activating the release of endorphins."
Cousins quotes Dr James Walsh, former medical director of the School of Sociology at Fordham University in New York.
According to Dr Walsh, whose research proved that hearty laugher stimulates internal organs, "by making them work better through the increase of circulation that follows the vibrating massage that accompanies laughter, and heightens resistive vitality against disease".
Laughter, scientists have discovered, is as good as a workout, for it speeds up the heart rate, raises blood pressure, accelerates breathing, increases oxygen consumption, gives the muscles of the face and stomach a workout and relaxes the muscles not involved in laughing.
Research has also proved that the salivary immunoglobulin A (sIgA) concentrates go up in people who have laughed a lot. This secretion gives protection against certain viruses.
Today, many hospitals in the US incorporate humour into their regimen by encouraging patients to watch funny films and inducing the nursing staff to strike a lighter vein with patients.
But enough medical jargon. Let‘s have a shot of the medicine instead:
A British doctor says: "The medicine in my country is so advanced that we can remove the brain of a man, put it in another man and make him get a job in six weeks." A German doctor says: "That‘s nothing. We can remove the brain of a person, put it in another one and prepare him for war in four weeks."
The American doctor, not to be surpassed, says: "Friends, both of you are outdated. Recently we identified a man without a brain from Texas, and placed him in the White House. Now we have half the country looking for a job and the other half preparing for war!"
We may not be able to prevent the horrors of the Iraq war, or persuade Bush to see sense, but we can refuse to dignify him or his decisions. We can laugh at him.
Gaining a degree of control over situations that threaten to overwhelm us is one of the many positive fallouts of laughter. The benefits of laughter on the mind are even more potent than on the body.
Psychiatrist Parul Tank, attached to Somaiya Hospital, Mumbai, conducted a study of those who attend laughter clubs and concluded: "Of the 24 people I spoke with, those who went for laughter therapy had better scores than those who participated in corresponding exercises like walking."
Scientists have also proved that laughter increases creativity and flexibility of thought.
In one such study conducted by psychologist Dr Alice M. Isen, at the Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University, students who had just watched a comedy film were better able to device innovative ways of sticking a candle onto a corkboard wall than those who had not.
A sense of humour can also help endure greater pain and discomfort.
In a study conducted by the Department of Psychology at Texan Tech University, subjects were divided into four groups, one for laughter, second for relaxation, third for an informative narrative and fourth for a no-treatment control.
Each was made to hear a 20-minute audiotape appropriate for their subject, while at the same time a blood pressure cuff was inflated on their arm.
The ones listening to the humour tape were able to withstand the maximum amount of pressure.
Humour can also alleviate stress. In a study of 56 undergraduates by Dr Rod A. Martin and Herbert M. Lefcourt, of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, four tests were designed to gauge their ability to enjoy humour in different circumstances.
Three out of four tests showed that those who valued humour the most were also most capable of coping with tensions and severe personal problems.
Writing on the ‘48 Ways to Wisdom‘ on the website www.aish.com, Rabbi Noah Weinberg explains: "Laughter is an integral part of emotional health. You don‘t have to watch TV to release tension. You just need to know a good joke, or have the comical sense to see absurdity in daily life and… bang! You‘re smiling and can parley that positive energy into movement, growth."
Corroborates Mumbai-based cartoonist Hemant Morparia: "Laughing at any situation helps you remain detached from it and not take it personally. You don‘t play the victim any more."
He adds: "Laughter also acts as a bond between people."
I have personally seen this demonstrated in Mumbai‘s suburban trains. A mouse or cockroach has only to enter the compartment for the ladies to throw all decorum to the winds, while they shriek and giggle.
After that little interlude, no one is a complete stranger to the other any more.
Says Acharya Ram Mohan, a teacher of Vedanta: "In my life, laughter helps me see all problems as challenges. Then they become things to be taken care of, not painful problems."
Laughter can also be used like a laser, to destroy all it is aimed at. This is a double-edged weapon and should, therefore, be used with caution.
Which of us does not fear the derisive laughter of children or loafers, or have not had our castles in the air punctured by someone‘s mocking snigger?
But when it is used to puncture fears, pretensions and pomposities, laughter heals, disarms and makes whole.
In his wonderful book on the comic tradition of ancient India, Laughing Matters, Lee Siegal interviews a Sanskrit scholar called Pandit Gananath Shastri, who offers him a dhristi, a demonic mask, to place on the façade of his home, with the following words: "He is laughing, he is sticking out his tongue like a child. This keeps evil away, for evil does not want to be made a laughing stock. If we are afraid of demons they come. If we laugh at them they stay away."
At a spiritual class I recently attended, a woman described how she disarmed an aggressor, whom she saw dragging a young woman into a cab, by simply tickling him!
In his book, The Act of Creation, novelist and writer Arthur Koestler analyzes the comic instinct: "Laughter prevents the satisfaction of biological drives, it makes a man equally incapable of killing or copulating; it deflates anger, apprehension and pride."
To laugh at evil or arrogance takes courage and moral fibre. But when an individual can reach that stage, then he is close to using laughter as a spiritual tool, for growth, acceptance and redemption.
Of Mirth and Mukti
In Laughing Matters, Siegal narrates this wonderful story from the Kathasaritsagara:
A king was once accosted by a Brahmin demon in a forest, who released him only on his promise that he would furnish him with a seven-year-old, whom he would kill while the child‘s parents held his arms and legs. The king proclaimed a rich reward for anyone who would offer their child for the sacrifice.
One child of unusual beauty immediately told his parents to offer him up to save the king, and also to save themselves from their harrowing poverty.
On the appointed day, the child was taken into the forest. As his parents held him, and the king sharpened the knife that would slay him, while the demon drooled in the background, the child suddenly laughed in joy and surprise.
At the sound of the laughter, the parents, the king and even the demon brought together their hands reverentially and bowed to the boy.
The explanation of this tale is that the child laughed with the joy of selfless devotion to others, with the delight of transcendence. He also laughed with surprise at the complete corruption of all those who were sworn to protect him-his parents, his king, and his mediator with God, the Brahmin. The child‘s laughter, which showed his elders the mirror, was transformative.
There is definitely a transcendental component in the best of humour and laughter.
Says Acharya Ram Mohan: "Humour, like spirituality, is paradoxical. It leads you on logically and then suddenly becomes illogical. I always say those who can understand jokes can understand Vedanta."
Adds Morparia: "Much of laughter springs out of a sudden realisation, making it a portal to the truth. When you actively laugh at yourself and life, you are reiterating your frailty and insignificance, but instead of getting you down, you revel in it."
Morparia sees humour as the link that reconciles our mortality with spiritual aspirations: "Great reconciliation is required between our ordinary selves with bowel movements and body odour, and the perfection we struggle for. Humour helps you not to take yourself too seriously, to see things in the proper perspective and to transcend limitations. I would say most enlightened people would have a sense of humour."
Morparia‘s observation certainly holds true for many of our modern sages.
Swami Dayanand Saraswati, founder of the Arsha Vidya Peeth and Acharya Ram Mohan‘s guru, is a great wit.
"He keeps us roaring with laughter," says the latter.
Sri Sri Ravishankar‘s graceful quips have his adoring disciples rolling with laughter. And Osho, of course, literally made the joke his signature tune.
Describing the philosophy of humour, he once said: "The purpose of the joke is not the joke. The purpose is the laughter that follows, because in that laughter your thinking stops. In that laughter, you are no more mind. And after that laughter, just a very small gap… and I can reach to the deepest core of your being."
Humour can disarm us, making us temporarily lay down the shields and defences we erect to keep the world at bay, making ourselves vulnerable to the guru‘s truth arrow.
I have rarely seen laughter used more benevolently than by the Dalai Lama. Many years ago, I had gone to interview him at his headquarters in Dharamsala. In the course of the interview, I was shown a videotape of one of His Holiness‘s visits to the US.
The tape showed the audience, blank-faced men and women, sitting in urban isolation. As the Dalai Lama lumbered onto the stage, his entire countenance chortling with joy, the blank faces, like an icy sea cracking open at the infusion of warmth, began to register curiosity, then surprise, then tentative smiles and finally surrender to uproarious laughter.
Even before His Holiness had said one word, the entire audience had been won over!
Humour and spirituality are linked at the highest level as well.
Says Ram Mohan: "This whole corporeal world, the maya that we think is the truth, can be seen as a joke God is pulling on us. Vedanta teaches us how to call the bluff."
The world as a joke, as God‘s lila, is a traditional Indian perspective. If life is a cosmic joke, then it indicates that the dead seriousness with which we approach it is uncalled for. It asks us to lighten up, to laugh a little, to essay our roles with grace and purpose, but without attachment. It tells us that the truth we seek is elsewhere. Humour then becomes the divine signpost showing us the way.
The Anatomy of Humour
But what exactly is humour? Koestler offers a learned explanation when he says that humour happens when a situation, or an idea, is perceived in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible forms of reference.
Consider this joke:
A dashing but penniless Austrian officer was wooing a courtesan, who replied coyly that her heart was no longer free. "Madame," said the officer, "I never aimed as high as that."
The joke comes when the officer reinterprets the word ‘heart‘ geographically. But of course, as Koestler points out, the joke dies when explained. The idea is to imply the humour and much of the fun is in getting it.
According to Koestler, humour happens by a "kind of ‘thinking aside‘, a shift of attention to some feature of the situation, or an aspect of the problem, which was previously ignored, or only present on the fringes of awareness-often depending on unconscious processes".
This ability to think laterally not only develops our humour but also our creativity, and finally, our spirituality. Koestler also considers all humour to be a version of aggression, a putting down of the other, even if good-humouredly.
Siegel, however, finds, a difference between satire and humour.
He says: "Satire negates, laughs a nasty ‘no‘ in the face of all promises and ideals. Humour affirms, laughs its exuberant ‘yes‘ in the face of all that is dark and miserable… There is a poignancy in humour, wholly absent in satire. It arouses sympathy."
The Joke‘s in India!
We Indians seldom consider ourselves to have a sense of humour, but Siegal has discovered a rich layer of both satire and humour in classic Sanskrit literature. Like everything else, laughter too appears to have been abundant in the ancient times.
Siegal observes that unlike the Western dichotomy of comedy and tragedy, in India there are no tragedies. Instead of the dramatic clash of the two opposites, we have instead melodramas in which a "particular aesthetic mood dominates and in which others may play a part".
The plays always end happily. This is inevitable, given our tradition‘s extremely positive understanding of the ultimate nature of life - Sat Chit Anand (Truth - Consciousness - Bliss).
If the Creator himself has scripted a happy ending for life, can man do otherwise?
The ancient Indians laughed, like most others, at love, pretension, incongruities, deformities and perverted ideals. And they laughed at religious aspirations as well.
Here, for instance, is a verse mocking the Brahmin:
Oh, here comes a Brahmin, a priestly reciter
His hair looks like dry weeds, only much whiter;
His crooked teeth are all jagged like broken glass;
Both his armpits are stuffed with liturgical grass.
And here is a satire on Tantra.
What do I know about texts, spells and meditation ?
My guru‘s got a better way to liberation.
And I stick to the path-
My Tantric occupation of wine, girls and women known through fornication.
One prominent source of humour in ancient and medieval India was the jester in royal courts, none more felicitous than Birbal, Akbar‘s Brahmin minister. With his wit and wisdom, Birbal not only always managed to get the better of the king, but also did so without wounding his feelings.
Here‘s an example:
Akbar once had a parrot he adored. He bade his servants to take great care of the bird and threatened to execute the individual who broke the news of its death. One unhappy day, the parrot died.
In consternation, the servants consulted Birbal. After some thought, Birbal approached the king and began singing the parrot‘s praises: "It‘s a true yogi. It has gone into samadhi."
Eager to see this wonder, Akbar accompanied him to the parrot‘s cage. "You fool," he shrieked, "the parrot is dead!" Birbal bowed low and said: "You must now execute yourself, your majesty, for you have broken the news of the parrot‘s death!"
Birbal has his doppelganger in the mischievous Tenali Rama, the jester in the court of Krishnadevaraya, ruler of the medieval Vijaynagar empire in southern India.
Once when Tenali Rama was sentenced to death for some trick or the other, he was given the right to choose the form of his execution. After giving due consideration to the matter, he declared that he would like to die of old age!
The king laughed and pardoned him. Court jesters in medieval England were called fools, their irreverence giving them licence to voice the unpalatable truth to kings.
Not too far removed were the Holy Fools, the fools for God, whose childlike naiveté often made them the butts of jokes. But their lack of worldly knowledge actually equipped them for the wisdom of God.
Kalidas was considered to be a dullard entirely devoted to the Goddess Kali, who ultimately blessed his devotion by giving him the power to write unparalleled poetry.
Ramakrishna Paramahansa often called himself the world‘s biggest fool. And indeed his devotion to the Mother, as well as his emotional transports, equipped him for holy folly.
The Holy Fool is a well-known figure in Russian art, known as the yurodivy, and has appeared in paintings as well as literature.
Fyodor Doestoevsky‘s great novel, The Idiot, was about one such, Prince Myshkin. Laughter, then, is the one comfort left to us when all else goes.
"Humour is a declaration that man is above all that befalls him. He may get old and grey and his teeth may fall off, but he can still laugh. He may have cancer but he can laugh," says Morparia.
So laugh a little. No, make that a lot. As the wit once remarked, "He who laughs, lasts!"
- With inputs from Shivam Gupta
Comic strips courtesy DharmaTheCat.com.
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