Personal Growth

Divine Comedy: Where Humor and Spirituality Meet

Laughing senior friends sitting together on a park bench
Two senior female friends talking and laughing together over coffees while social distancing on a park bench

Nothing is left to you at this moment but to have a good laugh. – Unknown Zen Master

Laughter is one of the great joys of life. Whether it’s a subdued snicker, an uncontrollable giggle, or a full-blown belly laugh, very few of us don’t relish moments of humor, comedy, and laughter. Human beings like funny things, and we like them so much that the estimated worth of the comedy industry in 2017 was well over 42 billion dollars! But what is it about comedy that makes it so appealing to us?

To begin, it may be that comedy and humor evolved in humans as a form of mental processing to help us manage challenging and fearful messages in our brain. Cognitive neuroscientist and author of the book Ha! The science of when we laugh and why, Scott Weems observes, “My first thought when I think about humor is it’s a great way for us to have evolved so we don’t have to hit each other with sticks.”

In other words, humor and comedy may be an evolutionary coping mechanism to help us not be quite so overwhelmed by a sometimes terrifying and dangerous world. Being able to laugh at our circumstances (or ourselves) could help to break the tension of the fight or flight response that might otherwise keep us paralyzed with fear.

Even if it wasn’t relieving the anxiety and existential dread of our early ancestors, comedy historically served to help us take life a little less seriously. The role of a court jester, for example, was to lighten the otherwise somber and serious tone of a medieval ruler’s life. But regardless of its origins, the message of humor and comedy is clear – human beings aren’t meant to be scared and serious all the time.

Over time and due to social or geographical uniqueness (or its inherent creative nature) comedy developed into a wide variety of forms, each having its own unique appeal. Perhaps this was also part of a larger intention to continually adapt to our underlying need to laugh.

The diverse forms of comedic genres

SlapstickExaggerated physical gags, including intentional and unintentional violence
Parody or SpoofMocking or imitating others or a piece of work
SatireUsing exaggeration or ridicule to expose flaws in human nature
IronyConveying something opposite from the literal meaning
SarcasmUsing words to mock or annoy another
FarceUse of highly exaggerated, extravagant, or ridiculous situations
Dark ComedyMaking light of a subject often considered serious or taboo
Absurd or SurrealBizarre and illogical situations and events that defy common sense and reason
SophomoricJuvenile and immature gags and situations
Self-DeprecatingCalling attention to one’s weaknesses in a humorous way
SituationalA recuring and fixed set of characters involved in unique and unexpected situations
Stand-upA comedian telling jokes or stories to an audience

Irrespective of your sense of humor, it should be clear that when it comes to comedy, there’s pretty much something for everyone. This further underscores the way in which humor and comedy meet us where we are. However, it’s important to note that humor is a subjective experience. What’s funny for one person may be boring or offensive to another. This is because your sense of humor is filtered through your unique state of consciousness. Your past experiences, karma, and perceptions become the lens through which different types of comedy are interpreted. Some jokes may pluck a specific karmic thread that resonates more deeply with one person than another. Others have a broader, more collective appeal that speaks to a larger audience.

Despite these differences, the unique qualities of comedy can open the door to a deeper and more profound spiritual experience. Let’s explore the following 6 principles to discover the crossroads where comedy and spirituality intersect.

Comedy and laughter can be healing.

There’s no escaping the fact that laughter feels good. We like comedy in no small part because the physical sensations of laughter make us feel buoyant, uplifted, and joyous. Although laughter may have evolved as a coping mechanism, it also helps to stimulate several organs (heart, lungs, diaphragm), increases oxygen intake, and stimulates the brain to release endorphins.

What I’m doing is assisting you to release those chemicals in your body to make you laugh uncontrollably. – Stephen K. Amos, Stand Up Comedian

Laughter also helps to cool off the fight or flight/stress response, upregulating many key factors associated with increased wellness such as lowered heart rate and blood pressure, strengthened immune response, and the release of muscular tension.

Comedy causes a shift in perspective.

One of the key drivers in many forms of comedy is a radically unexpected (and often absurd) change of perspective. Comedy often allows us to witness a series of events or a story from a topsy-turvy point of view. We see things in a completely new and unexpected context which forces our rational minds out of their linear and predictable ways of thinking and into an unforeseen framework. Getting the punchline of a joke is an “Ah-hah!” moment in which the intellect loosens its grip to allow for a new and creative burst of insight to arise. In this way, comedy often hits us with no warning, pushing us into a different state of consciousness.

Comedy helps us form a connection.

Our ability to enjoy comedy often depends largely on our capacity to step into the shoes of a character or comedian. When we do so, we sometimes see our own behavior mirrored in the situations, speech, or thoughts of another, perhaps taken to an extreme. We frequently laugh the hardest at standup comedy when it reveals something with which we can personally relate. When we experience a moment of, “That exact same thing happened to me!” we feel the connection of our shared humanity. We find it funny because we’ve been in a similar situation that a comedian or filmmaker exploited in such a way to make us laugh, while simultaneously recognizing our shared humanity.

Comedy helps expose the truth and breaks taboos.

Performed well, comedy can be a delivery system for the truth. Through the use of parody, satire, and farce, comedy can help expose injustice and wrongdoing and shine the light of awareness on topics that might otherwise be easier to laugh at. Comedy can act as a buffer for sensitive or painful truths that we might have a hard time seeing if we looked at them directly. But perhaps the greatest taboo comedy can sometimes help us see through is what philosopher Alan Watts called the taboo of knowing who you are. Certain films and standup comedians have a knack for what could be called “deep” or “philosophical” comedy that helps us glimpse the “inside information” behind the veil of our human condition. Such experiences, while funny can also be profoundly thought-provoking in much the same way a Zen Koan leaves one contemplating “the sound of one hand clapping.”

Comedy helps lighten the heaviness of existential suffering.

The comedy has had to get so good because the news has got so bad. – John Fugelsang, Comedian and Political Commentator

Performing perhaps one of its most important roles, comedy and humor help us to “lighten up” in the face of sometimes overwhelming suffering. The Buddha was keen to remind us in the first of the Four Nobel Truths, that life contains suffering. The undeniable reality of suffering often compels us to take our lives very seriously. But just when the somber tone of life seems too much to bear, humor can be a wonderful respite to help us take life less seriously. Humor is a pattern interrupt that breaks us out of our dreariness and shows us that despite the inevitability of suffering, life is ultimately a very silly, odd, and quirky experience. Comedy lets us laugh at ourselves, to relish in the dance of life rather than getting all caught up in the drama. We lighten up in all areas of life, knowing that seriousness is the refuge of the ego that only dulls our spiritual progress.

Comedy helps us become established in the paradox of life.

Life is contradiction. It’s an eternal coexistence of opposites. Despite our need for stability and certainty, life is unpredictable, uncertain, and confusing. Humor and laughter, however, show us that we can not only be okay with the paradox of life, but that we can, in fact, embrace it. The lightheartedness, creativity, and paradox of humor allows us to lean into insecurity and the unknown with confidence, knowing that the play or Lila of life is open to revision. We can choose a drama, a tragedy, or a comedy. The decision is ours. When we write a story that embraces the paradox of life, we live in peace, harmony, laughter, and love. We experience the lightness of being that fills us with joy wherever we are and whoever we are with.

In the end, we need comedy; we need humor and laughter and the joy they bring. Comedy is truly divine, for it is through laughter that we may open the doorway to the liberation of our spirit.

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