Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Best Medicine

Q: What did the Zen monk say to the hot dog vendor?
A: Make me one with everything.

Sometimes meditation can seem like very serious business. That's certainly the impression of meditation that a lot of non-meditators have. I suspect that a lot of meditative traditions cultivate an aura of gravity and solemnity to discourage the uninitiated from noticing that practitioners are sitting around doing nothing. In my own experience, some of the most profound moments of insight have come with a healthy dose of levity. One such experience led me to ponder the nature of deep humor, and I thought I'd share what I came up with.

We laugh for all sorts of reasons. One of the most eye-opening presentations of research I ever attended was given by a sociology student named Tobiah Brown. Her disarmingly simple research question was this: Why do we laugh? She played snippets of conversation from brave souls who had allowed their phone calls to be recorded for research purposes. What surprised me was that the conversants' laughter had little to do with humor; mostly, they laughed due to discomfort or embarrassment. Even when it comes to humor, this article makes it clear that there's no consensus about what makes something funny.

I have no idea whether there is a common foundation underlying all humor, though I am skeptical of the notion. What I do know is that there is a common thread running through the humor I find most nourishing and profound: it provides a fresh perspective that snaps me out of the story of a separate self. Often, it is a reminder of the universality of human experience: either the situation described in the joke has happened to me, or the pattern is familiar enough that I can follow the other person's turn of thought. Meditation allows us to find this shift in perspective within ourselves, and when we do, it's hard not to be bemused by the limitations of our habitual ways of thinking. I like the way Hafiz describes this delight in possibilities:

What is the difference
between your experience of existence
and that of a saint?
The saint knows
that the spiritual path
is a sublime chess game with God
and that the Beloved
has just made such a fantastic move
that the saint is now continually
tripping over joy
and bursting out in laughter
and saying, "I surrender!" 
Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
you have a thousand serious moves

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