I once heard a contemporary spiritual teacher declare quite emphatically that in order to get anywhere on the spiritual path, one has to be “deadly serious” about waking up and being free. It seemed to me to be an odd admonition, given that enlightenment means, among other things, “to lighten up,” and every enlightened person I’ve ever met has also been outrageously hilarious. I once heard a Tibetan Lama at a monastery in Nepal laugh so deeply from his belly for about ten minutes, continuously, that it felt like a direct transmission of the Great Cosmic Joke. (If I could remember the punch line, I’d tell you.) Stewart Emery, the founder of Actualizations in the 70s, used to say that one sure way to know you’re off course is if you’ve lost your sense of humor. When you come across a spiritual group whose adherents seem to “haunt houses for a living,” he said, it should tip you off. Being grim and joyless is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Now sadly, the truth about me is that while I have approached writing about my spiritual path in a humorous way, I have always been quite serious about the pursuit itself. You don’t spend over 30 years doing the kinds of things I’ve done if you’re not taking it seriously. Maybe not “deadly serious,” but serious in the sense that I wasn’t just some cynical journalist reporting on all this stuff from the outside, or from an emotional and psychic distance. I was always deeply involved with whatever I was exploring, if for no other reason than because I was always genuinely suffering and looking for a solution to the fundamental problem of my existence.
The enlightened ones kept saying there is no solution because there is no problem, which they seemed to find endlessly amusing, but if I understood that, I wouldn’t have been seeking a solution in the first place. I hated when Buddhist teachers would make gleeful pronouncements like “No self, no problem,” because as far as I could tell, I did have a self, and hence “many problems.”
But in fact the awakening process is about untying that illusory knot of self, a transcending or relinquishing of one’s identification with that voice in our heads that keeps calling itself “I” and “me.” The moment of spiritual epiphany reveals that one’s true identity is not merely this “feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances,” as George Bernard Shaw put it, but rather, one is in actuality and essence an infinite blank slate of primordial awareness. And if that’s not hilarious, what is? Of course, there’s nothing worse than when the infinite blank slate of primordial awareness has to perform ordinary life tasks, like buying pants, or worse, earning a living. That’s usually where all the trouble starts.
So although I have perhaps been too seriously pursuing a path towards wholeness for three decades, thankfully a lot of funny events happened along the way to keep things in perspective. Like the time I found myself in a therapy group at Esalen Institute with a very obese female therapist who decided to sit on my head for a half hour so that I could re-experience being smothered by my mother. And don’t even ask about the Tush-Push partner exercise I participated in at a Human Sexuality Workshop. Suffice it to say that it involved Vaseline, and sharing your feelings.
I spoke to my first spiritual teacher recently, Ram Dass, on a video call, and he told me he thought there was too much sarcasm in my new book about my journey (The 99th Monkey), and I realized he was right, in that I wanted to be able to court the cynics and skeptics out there by being that way myself, for fear of coming off like some New Age flake or True Believer. But short of wearing a pyramid on my head while chanting in Swahili on one foot, they don’t come much flakier than me. I mean, I got rid of my microwave because I was told it made my chakras spin counter-clockwise; I’ve had the coffee enemas and the decaf colonics; a Feng Shui expert came to our house and told us to paint everything salmon, and a Pet Psychic came to the house and told us to re-spay our cat. (But here’s the really scary part: we did.) How many people do you know had an 8-foot long isolation tank installed in their living room, containing 800 pounds of Epsom salts dissolved in ten inches of water? I ordered one the day my wife and I got engaged, because I figured I might need some alone time.
It goes on and on. I sat alone for 40 days and 40 nights on a secluded mountaintop with no power or plumbing, took ancient shamanic potions in middle-of-the-night arcane rituals in the forests of Brazil, did a ten-day retreat at Auschwitz. After trying to wake up for so many years, I took a workshop with a guru who specialized in “waking down,” but I wasn’t any better at waking down than I had been at waking up. I went swimming with the dolphins in the Bermuda Triangle but they completely ignored me while frolicking with everyone else.
In the end, as Wavy Gravy famously put it, “If you don’t have a sense of humor, it just isn’t funny.” In “Hannah and Her Sisters,” the Woody Allen character cures himself of suicidal despair by watching a Marx Brothers movie, and it just might be that a good Seinfeld episode can be as spiritually rejuvenating as prayer or meditation, possibly more so. Aldous Huxley had his priorities straight on all this: when he was asked at the end of his life to sum up what he had learned from all his spiritual studies and practices, he said, “Just be kinder to one another.” That’s the Dalai Lama’s approach as well. And while I don’t know if Huxley was a barrel of laughs to be around, surely the Dalai Lama, whose people have faced enormous hardship and suffering, has retained his light-hearted nature and is well known for his enlightened chuckle. So after 30+ years of spiritual searching, maybe it really does come down to a few simple things like laughter and kindness. I’ll take it.
Something else to consider when things are getting too serious, from a sign on a monastery in Thailand: Cut yourself some slack: 100 years from now--all new people.