Laughter and Mental Flexibility

Article by Steve Bhaerman

Swami Beyondananda has said, "The only thing certain in life is uncertainty, and come to think of it, I'm not even sure that is true."

Certainly the changes in life can bring uncertainty, and there's nothing like humor to help us develop the flexibility to release old mental habits and find new ways of seeing. For laughter is indeed a mind-altering substance. A good paradoxical joke can wrestle the mind to the ground and allow surrender to a deeper reality.

There's an old story about a reporter interviewing Albert Einstein at his laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey. The reporter was surprised to see a large horseshoe hanging over the professor's office doorway.

"Professor Einstein," she asked, "you're a great scientist. Surely you don't believe a horseshoe will bring good luck." "Of course I don't," he replied. "Then why is the horseshoe up there?" the reporter insisted. "Because it works whether you believe it or not."

For centuries, zen masters have been using the "zen koan" to trick the logical mind and elicit moments of enlightenment. Like the classic, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" paradox forces the mind off of its usual pathways and offers a glimpse of the infinite.

More and more, people are putting the mind in its proper place — as a creative servant of the heart, rather than a ruler bent on control. One of the important pieces of wisdom that we can glean, is that being in the flow works far better than being in control. Humor and laughter can help stretch us beyond the borders of our usual thinking and put us in the flow of creativity. The following humor-cultivating practices can help you use the mind to generate creative options rather than to obsess, worry and control.

  1. Pumping Ironies. Swami Beyondananda has uncovered a debilitating mental condition which keeps us from truly using our power — irony deficiency. "Seeing a doctor won't help," Swami says, "but seeing a paradox will." Irony deficiency results not so much from lack of irony in our lives — ironies abound in our insane society — but rather from our inability to see or process these ironies. How else could a "freedom-loving" country such as the U.S. have more people behind bars than any other country in the free world? Or help other nations negotiate for peace yet be the largest exporter of arms in the world?

    As we pump these ironies — bring them to consciousness through humorous exaggeration — we take the first step at resolving the glaring contradictions in our culture and our own lives.

    The simplest irony is the oxymoron, which can be as innocent as "jumbo shrimp" or as tragic as "holy war." I suggest you find yourself a list of oxymorons — they seem to be circulating all over the web — and see if you can add a few of your own. Next, look to your own life and begin to notice incongruities that you can bring to light through humor. You might begin with the phrase, "How come ...?" "How come I am so insanely busy during my leisure time?" "How come I spend almost as much on child care as I earn after taxes on my job?" "How come I am willing to drive around aimlessly for forty-five minutes rather than 'waste time' asking for directions?" As we bring paradox to consciousness, we are more likely to see solutions that fall outside the box of our "normal" thinking.

  2. Reframing. Reframing is a shift in context that allows us to look at a situation in a more useful way. For example, singer-songwriter Jana Stanfield's tune, "I'm Not Lost, I'm Exploring" has helped countless listeners reframe overt chaos as covert growth.

    Perhaps the master of reframe was the gifted hypotherapist, Dr. Milton Erickson, whose work was the foundation of what is now called Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). When Erickson was a young resident at a psychiatric hospital, one of the inmates had delusions of being Jesus Christ. One day, Erickson approached him and said, "I understand you have some experience as a carpenter." The man, of course, could not contradict this suggestion without denying his delusion — and went on to become a competent woodworker.

    How can you humorously reframe your challenges and failings? As the Swami says, "Never, never, never call yourself a failure. Instead say, 'I am tremendously successful at failing'." Taking a cue from Jana Stanfield, fill in the blanks: "I'm not _____, I'm ______ing." Once you learn how easily the mind can be outwitted, you will learn to outwit it yourself!

  3. Practice Seeing Funny. Sometimes people mistakenly believe that to appreciate and share healing laughter, you have to be funny. As the Swami would say, "Don't worry about being funny. You're already funnier than you can ever imagine."

    The key to using humor to free your mind is to practice noticing multiple layers of meaning. Just this morning, I was looking through a newspaper, and an ad for a law firm caught my eye. These feisty attorneys were aptly named "Armstrong and Rangel."

    A good way to practice seeing funny is to get a copy of Jay Leno's book on funny headlines or the National Lampoon photos of real signs or books of bloopers, and just enjoy seeing how unintentionally funny we can be when we only see one level of meaning.

    The good news is, seeing funny can be learned — and it's contagious. I recently had to decline being part of a Beatles revival at an upcoming conference because of scheduling conflicts. To soften the situation somewhat, I wrote, "I won't be able to make it, by George. Hope this doesn't send you running to the John or otherwise cast a Paul on the event. You'd better give another musician a Ringo."

    Within hours I had an e-mailed reply from the otherwise-serious conference coordinator: "OK. Guess I'll have to find some local Yoko."