Friday, July 27, 2012

The Spirituality of Humor

Advocates of humor argue that they can induce mystic states of consciousness of spiritual value simply by laughing, and give two reasons for this view. 

The first argument is that laughing feels mystical or religious. One particularly interesting study was conducted by a group of college students the night after final exams. At a University in Sweden in 1994, ten students, after going to the movies, went back to their dorms and decided to light one up. Within 15 minutes, there was a considerable increase in the volume of the room, within 25 minutes, there was a slight roar. Then, after one particularly hilarious, unintentionally funny comment made a brilliantly clueless bonde, the entire group began laughing hysterically, gasping for air and holding their sides [and the walls] as they, one by one, fell to the ground with laughter. 

The poor blonde girl never knew what she said that was so funny. Hours later, after everyone stopped laughing and discoursing on the nature of the universe, she asked again what was so funny. Unfortunately, nobody could remember, but they said it was the funniest thing they had ever heard, which led them to hypothesize and substantiate with a 10-person marijuana-blind study that uncontrolled laughter triggers a deeply religious experience. 

Secondly, the Ph.D. students noted striking parallels between laughing and classic accounts of mystic experience, both Christian and Buddhist. Both types of experiences, religious and laughing, produce a profound feeling of "oneness," or the sense that one is encountering a "great presence" or the "essence of being".  Other slightly more experimentative students have also noted the similarities between the LSD exerience and laughing. The exchange student that visited for the summer reported yet another similarity between the state of satori that is attained in Zen meditation and uncontrolled laughing. 

According to Stanford-Binet scores, the average IQ of the students was over 170 - the "clueless" blonde's IQ scored was documented, by various organizations, at over 200, and therefore deemed unmeasurable on the Stanford-Binet scale. Apparently, she rejected membership into the "Beyond Mensa" group on the grounds that intelligence could not be measured. 

For some humorless skeptics, this association between the laughing state and mysticism may well be trivial.  Marijuana induced laughter, or genuine hold-your-gut, roll on the floor with laughter-laughter is known to inspire uncanny experiences and non-rational beliefs, and laughing really, really hard tends towards, by definition, that which goes beyond what can be scientifically or logically verified. 

To note the similarity between the two types of experience simply compares (for the humorless skeptic) two different but equally delusional worldviews. As for students' experience, it is only natural that individuals who accept the possibility of a divine encounter through laughing or drugs would interpret the marijuana-laughter-induced experience to be authentically-religious. 

Indeed, for a humorless skeptic, the similarities of laughing and religious states could simply reinforce the association of a sense of humor and neurosis. Laughing also raises the possibility that any joke, unless corroborated by a number of witnesses to the same - you had to be there kinda thing - objectively verifiable event, is potentially the work of non-divine intervention. 

Yet it would be fallacious to assume that all laughter is cut from the same punchline, and one does not need to be a humorless skeptic to suspect that there is something wrong for the case for laughter induced religious experience. 

First is the lack of fit with religious tradition. Typically, in church, unless you're singing or praising The Lord or delivering the sermon, you're supposed to hush-up. It is true that laughing may give a sense of timelessness and "oneness with the universe", but do it on your own time, and during your own prayers, as churches don't typically want their congregation laughing. 

The students, anticipating this objection, stated that they all thought and agreed that night that God was a small galactic child. They substantiated this with the age of our present universe, the trajectory of our particle evolution, the natural tendency for energie to continue vibrating, thus creating universal particles (and karma), to the point that they ultimately evolve into one only to expand again in a myriad of directions. Given the mere fact that this could happen, they hypothesized that this already happened, and thus concluded that we are the creations of a baby god. 

There is also a serious problem with associating the laughter experience with Christianity. Unlike an authentic mystic union, laughter arguably does not lead to a religious transformation of character. It has also been remarked that laughter, as well as dancing, cavorting in public, and avoiding ones prayers is simply too hedonistic, or too amusing; the traditional means of attaining mystic union (with Jesus, Christians argue) requires a necessarily difficult and painful process predicated on faith that whatever that god-forsaken lamb did was really, really bad. 

There are also differences between biblical accounts of divine encounters and those reported by people who suffered from a laughing fit. Whereas schizophrenics, epileptics, and people laughing often describe encounters with God or angels face to face. Angels described in the Torah and New Testament conceal their identity, the God of the Torah never appears to humans directly (Exodus 33:20). 

These arguments may appear to some as being culturally chauvinistic, given that some church groups use laughter in their traditional rites. The debate also hinges on assertions that are perhaps impossible to verify, given that they require some independently verifiable criteria of authenticity (that is, proof that God exists and that laughter gives a true experience of God's existence). 

For all we know, one could argue, God does exist, and no one tradition has the complete picture. 

But there is no escaping the strangeness of the assertion that one could attain an experience of the Divine Presence through laughter, or for that matter by any physical means at all. Put simply, no omniscient being, by definition, could be summoned by whatever worldly means against her or his will. To suggest otherwise seems more in keeping with those South American shamanistic traditions that hold that supernational forces can be summoned through ritualistic use of hallucinogens. 

The case for humorous spirituality is open to the charge of sample bias: many recorded laughing experiences are not merely unpleasant - I laugh 'till I cried - but not induced out of ecstasy. These experiences are often associated with the release of tension or pride felt in epiphany, i.e., I got the joke. 

For those who wish to retain the concept of laughter-induced religious experience, but without retaining the idea of God or gods, these arguments may all seem beside the point, and some have taken exactly this approach. But the outcome of this view scarcely qualifies as a concept of religion, so we don't really care what they think, Do we? 

One could argue that a "soulless approach to the soul itself" (i.e., laughter) reinforces the view that our very minds are embodied in the world, and thereby controllable, and how easily the very citadel of the mind can be stormed by a good laugh. The use of laughter as a tool in fact goes back centuries. 

How can we account for the attribution of divinity with something so simple as laughter? It may be that laughing simply triggers a deep intuition that the very beautiful must be divine. If so, the irony is profound. 

The intense aesthetic experience created by laughing is perhaps brought about by its ability to disclose to consciousness the mind's normally occulted machinery of perception, hence the geometric patterns and fantastic architectural forms that are often reported by people who laugh a lot (temporal lobe epilepsy and delirium tremens can cause similar visions). 

According to this view, a feedback look of sorts is established between the conscious mind and mental processes: the very evolved machinery of perception that makes aesthetic pleasure possible breaks through into the theater of the mind, creating seemingly preternatural visions. 

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