Mind Matters — Laughter and Hope

Kudos to Irene Doniger and her laughter workshops that Richard Schwartzman wrote about in last week’s edition of this paper. I am in wholehearted agreement that laughter is the best medicine, but admittedly I teach what I need to learn. I know that Norman Cousins laughed his way out of cancer years ago by watching his favorite Marx Brothers movies. And I advise my clients to view comedies that will get them laughing. But I need reminders to prescribe the medicine to myself as well!

Synchronistically, after reading the laughter article, I switched on PBS and there was John Cleese (Monty Python fame) conversing in India with Dr. Madan Kataria (www.laughteryoga.org), the man who has begun laughter clubs all throughout that country, even (or perhaps especially) with prisoners. You could see in the background that even the guards were laughing. That had to be good medicine for releasing the tension of that existence.

Let me make some further meandering associations with India, laughter, and hope. I visited India in January of this year on pilgrimage to a Catholic ashram that integrated Hindu spirituality and ritual within its daily monastic practices.

There were many themes that I could address that this journey evoked. What becomes figural for me in relation to laughter, however, is how much people smiled and how much both children and adults were delighted to have their picture taken. With other countries I have visited, my photos and memories mostly consist of monuments and landscapes, occasionally persons—little boys playing in front of the great Louvre in Paris; or a Polish peasant with his hay wagon and horse contrasted against a nearby airport runway.

In India, however, my photos are of many smiling faces of all ages. I wondered if this affinity for photos had anything to do with the Hindu culture. (Of course, there are also Christian and Muslim Indians.) Hinduism, as I understand it, is not about “worshipping many gods.” The belief is in one Divine Spirit and that the various deities are different aspects of that one God. And in Hinduism, as in Buddhism, the greeting Namasté—which means, “I honor the God in you”—is used.

So I pondered, maybe the joy of having photos taken is an extension of Namasté—honoring the divine within each human being. The Namasté, this sense of the Divine within, gets expressed in a laughing smile that can be contained and honored in the photograph. The Divine within is seen and remembered!

Traditional Navajo Indians don’t want their photos taken for fear of their spirit being captured. Maybe their view arises from the same sense of the Divine within but with concern for opposite consequences. Given what genocide occurred with Native Americans at the hands of the whiteman with guns, the camera perhaps transmuted to just another weapon to snuff out spirit!

Ah, but today we need to get back on the trail of laughter, smiles and hope! Laughter and smiles are a way to reconstruct hope.

In the aftermath of traumatic experience or in the face of adversity, we find connection in the laughter or smile of another, and we mirror back with our own smiles and laughter. What arises from the mirroring (and we even have special neurons in our brains for this activity) is a glimpse of hope that maybe we can get through this difficult experience to celebrate life again. If daffodils can push through the dark ground of winter to bloom in spring, certainly we humans have the same urge for life. As Norman Cousins has said, “The human body experiences a powerful gravitational pull in the direction of hope.”