The Importance Of A Sense Of Humor On The Spiritual Path
One of the very first things my teacher said to me almost 25 years ago when I first embarked on this journey was: “Two of the most important things to have on the path are patience and a sense of humor.” Patience because the spiritual path is very long and takes hard work, the discipline of sitting down to meditate every day and to face every part of ourselves, the parts we keep secret because they are painful and because we believe they are too bad to expose. A sense of humor, because if we can’t laugh at ourselves sometimes, we will continue to want to hide those parts away in the dark. Laughter brings light and warmth, two essential components to growth. (Think of plants – would we have any without light and warmth? Definitely not!)
Learning from My Teacher
My teacher’s wisdom of patience and a sense of humor was hard-earned. After his youth and growing up years of searching and suffering and struggle, (hard to speak of such a rich history in a few sentences), he awoke to the true Self at twenty-three. He sought then to find a spiritual teacher and community to help him deepen his enlightenment. He spent nine years in a spiritual school that was stiff upper lip serious. The men had to wear suits and ties and the women long skirts, even in sweltering heat. When people laughed at themselves, they did it in a robotic ‘Haha, look at me, I’m so asleep!’ like when they cut their finger and were painfully bleeding. He was so out of place there but stayed because there was a lot of teaching that was good, including his initiation into meditation.
He saw almost immediately, however, that people were not growing as they could have toward their true Self because they took themselves so seriously. Forced laughter in spite of what they were really feeling was another way to put themselves into a box, another layer of hiding from what they really felt because their pain and suffering were messy and real and not fitting into the staid facade the school projected to the world. At some point, my teacher could no longer stay and broke out on his own to find his own way. And I’m so glad he did, not only because he was able to find his own way and not be stifled, but because it gave me a chance to find him.
My Personal Journey
I feel so fortunate to have met him when I was 22, just out of college and had been struggling and suffering from addiction and emotional problems. I had been searching for a community and digging at everything to get at the essential truth ever since I’d had an understanding that our appearances (race, gender, religion, etc) were results of circumstances, and that there was something bigger and common that unites us all, but just didn’t know what it was.
I felt deep down in my gut that if I could find that something, I would have found the true treasure. That search led me to cross my teacher’s path and not to have to suffer unnecessarily much longer. And I will tell you now that laughter, lots of it, every day, has been essential in the course of facing the obstacles to understanding that treasure is covered by all the beliefs and ideas I’d been cringing from and running from, just like the people in that school.
Laughter in Spiritual Work
My teacher is not the only one who emphasizes humor. Anyone who has studied with a Soto Zen master has encountered humor too. If you read the writings of Suzuki Roshi (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and Not Always So, or his biography Crooked Cucumber), there is a lot of humor in the things he says. In many of his photos, he is laughing or wearing a smile in which you can see his wisdom and humor.
He was also a very earthy person. In his biography, there is a scene where he farts loudly in front of his wife and tells her, “That was for you.” How can you not love a teacher like that? He is one of my absolute favorites and I have learned so much of him because of that warm humor and ability to accept all the part of himself and a whole person. He did not compartmentalize the way we have been conditioned to do in our western society. As humans, we LOVE to laugh. There is probably not a culture on Earth that does not have its own humorous way of facing suffering and using humor to help us understand the human condition. How many comedies are there on TV? Browse on Netflix for just a minute or two and you’ll find countless stand-up comedian shows.
We need laughter. It’s healing. It’s unifying. It releases pressure and opens our minds and hearts. Why separate this compassionate, beautiful need from the path that is the deepest and most pressing of our lives? This is not to say we make light of our situation or of our spiritual work. Just the opposite. We must take our situation and our work seriously. The spiritual path is what will help us overcome suffering. But a sense of humor helps us to avoid taking our personality too seriously, something that reinforces our fears of exposing it. If you can’t laugh about these things from time to time, you will never be able to find freedom.
When I first began on the path, I was, like everyone in the beginning, raw. I wanted to fix the things that were “wrong” with me so I could be a better, more acceptable person. Those characteristics I hated about myself were bad and ugly and there was no way I could see any lightness in them. After 27 years and counting, I still have raw spots, of course! (That’s where patience comes in.) But things are definitely better. I am able to laugh at myself sometimes and other times, to feel and have compassion for the pain behind them. As always, I am grateful for the years of patient and humorous teaching I have been given that has helped me to accept my wholeness and not to hate my humanity. This is what I wish for everyone. I hope this is at all helpful.
In humor and peace. Namaste.
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