Saturday, July 6, 2013

Humor and Spirituality

            I was recently pondering the meaning of spirituality and how we could understand the term differently. I do not write as an expert on the topic but simply as someone who believes that he has something to add to the mix. I have spent much of my life as a devotee of religions and have explored the many forms within monotheism (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) and without, such as Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, native and indigenous beliefs.

            Spirituality has been defined historically and culturally in a variety of ways and it remains quite slippery. Looking about, it seems that there are at least two kinds of spirituality. The one which I see quite frequently is a dry, floating, hold-your-breath kind of spirituality. This approach focuses upon ascent, an upward escape away from the mundane, boring, flawed, frustrating, ordinary qualities of existence. It is suited to those seekers who reflect T.S. Eliot’s opinion that “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” It is a spirituality directed toward fending off the vividness of life. Typically it is an ascetic, moralistic, methodical, discipled, detached style of spirituality severed from the juiciness of living. This type of spirituality stems from dissatisfaction with one’s life, the feeling that self and/or situation is not good enough. We hold the desire to be something other than we are in this moment. This, of course, is the fatal trap which keeps us stuck.

            The second kind of spirituality appears more closely related to the root of our word, spirit, in Latin, spirare, which means “to breathe.” This spirituality is characterized by breathing, breathing deeply of the world, being immersed in life. This kind of spirituality is a way of looking deeply, of seeing through appearances to the heart of the numinous or sacred which is behind, beneath, and within all things. This approach keeps us attached to the world in the sense of caring and honoring each thing fiercely because of its rarity and fragility. This erotic attachment to the depths of things invigorates and inspires us to continue to breathe life deeply until such time that we ourselves expire. It is the kind of spirituality which recognizes every breath of the wind as our own and every pulse of the tide as our heartbeat. 

            One additional aspect of this kind of spirituality is an exuberant, robust, spontaneous, sense of humor. Humor is a word etymologically rooted in a term meaning “to be wet.” Humor is fluid, flowing, quick to ‘break the ice’ (a phrase related to the same word stem). Humor quickly fills us with good feeling while deflating some of our self-importance, keeping us humble. Without humor, fear, defensiveness, rigidity, alienation, and isolation set in.

            Jungian counselor, Helen Luke notes that our sense of humor originates in our sense of proportion, the capacity to discriminate and respond to the relationship of the parts to the whole.  This knowing the ‘place’ of things in life keeps us in our place, away from hubris and toward humility. It allows us to laugh at ourselves, to feel our own folly, and also to recognize in T.S. Eliot’s words, “the laughter at the heart of things.”

            The philosopher, Goethe once wrote, “The man of understanding finds everything laughable, the man of reason almost nothing.” Meister Eckhart, 700 years ago, warned us to never trust a so called spiritual person for whom laughter did not lie at the center of his or her spirituality. Laughter is an act of letting go and letting be. It is a kenosis, a self-emptying which allows us to be filled with the spirit anew.

            Luke notes further that there is “in fact no real spirituality without the laughter that the sense of humor brings. It is not to be confused with frivolity and it cannot exist in anyone who is not a serious person able to explore the darkness and suffering in life.... It simply begets in men and women a true perception of all the suffering and the joy, the tears and the laughter, the seriousness and the fun, inherent in our experience.”

            Humor strikes suddenly and allows grace to enter when we least expect it. The 19th century Zen master, Sengai stated, “There are things that even the wise fail to do while the fool hits the point. Unexpectedly discovering the way to life in the midst of death, he bursts out in hearty laughter.” It would seem then that in our own journeys we would want to make a place for the power of humor, to express that hearty belly laugh in the face of this marvelous and terrifying existence.

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