Waking Up With Laughter: New Year, Nothing Holy


On New Year’s Eve this year, I did what I usually do:  in the midst of celebration, I got serious. I made a list of hopes, goals, and dreams.  I meditated on each one and visualized their realization.  Then I burned the list and watched the smoke dissolve.    As easy as that.  As good as done. I felt better already.

“This is the year it's going to happen," I told my friends, raising a glass of champagne, "I'm finally going to fix what’s broken in my life."  

Like a boat taking in water, my life, I explained, had been feeling so vulnerable.  A thing close to capsize.  A vessel too sensitive to storms.  My resolution was to figure out why. And then I would patch the holes that cause leaks: energy drain, resource drain, mental drain, physical drain.  I would create more practices that support and encourage growth over time, rather than feed a mindset of scarcity and lack. I would take the long view and build infrastructure - however boring the work, however slowly it needed to happen - that would contribute to long-haul, ocean-crossing steadiness.  Nothing too romantic, my goals felt commendable.  Just one foot in front of the other effort towards keeping myself above water. 

“To a boat that floats!” we shouted, and I felt good, I felt serious, I felt grown up.

Maybe you're laughing already because if you know anything about resolutions, prayers and intentions, you already know this:  when we say them with sincerity, we will be given immediate opportunities to embody them, actualize them, and make them real.  But not necessarily in the ways we expect to. 

Day one, 2019, twelve hours after dissolving my prayers into the air.  I woke with my sinuses aching and my lungs on fire.  I dropped my beautiful red teapot, smashing it into several pieces.  I snagged a hole in my favorite sweater.  A heavy mirror slipped from its wooden frame and slammed onto my foot, leaving me bruised and bleeding.

Regretting my resolution to focus on all that needs fixing, I howled in pain until a voice interrupted my pity-party.

“Maaaa -maaaa!” my four year old sung from across the room. “You really should be more careful.”

I turned sharply towards him, ready to give him a good talking-to about compassion, but when I saw him - cross-legged in his too-small tiger costume and grinning mischievously as he began to deal a hand of Old Maid - all I could do was laugh. And then he was laughing too. And together our laughter was as sharp as the sound of a breaking tea-pot, as sudden as the pain in my foot. It woke me right up out of my busted ego.  It pulled the rug out from my self-pity and frustration and too-serious high hopes and edgy expectations.  It interrupted my habitual mental patterns and flooded them with pure, irreverent light.

There are three things which are real:  writes Aubrey Menen in his retelling of the Hindu epic The Ramayana,  God, human folly, and laughter.  The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.

The thing about new years’ goals, resolutions and plans is that there’s rarely anything fun or light about them.  We don’t approach them with laughter.  We don’t chuckle as we say, I can’t wait to lose 10 pounds.  We don’t smile as we announce our intentions to be a better parent, spouse or friend.  Instead, these goals come from an intense focus on our personal human folly (whatever we deem broken) and a just-as-intense belief that we can somehow control and improve on that folly (patch the holes).  At their best, these resolutions are born from dissatisfaction. At their worst, they are conceived in self-hatred.  Both ends of the spectrum include aggression, however subtle, and what we often remain unaware of is how the essence of that aggression accompanies, instigates, and infiltrates all further action towards improvement.
Habitual patterns never unwind when you’re trying to improve, writes Pema Chodron in Start Where You Are, because you go about it in exactly the same habitual style that caused all the pain to start.
When I was a teenager, I kept lists on my ceiling.  That way, before I slept I would be sure to follow-through on my daily expectations.  Sit-ups?  Check.  8 glasses of water?  Check.  Prayers?  Check.  Gratitude list?  Check.  There could be no rest until I had done them all.  No-nonsense and unforgiving, the list – and, more specifically, the hand that wrote it - functioned like a version of God without grace... which is nothing like the God I knew and was raised to believe in, and yet, there it was, this part of myself that kept another part of me in line and focused and on a straight, clear path towards whatever goal I had set for myself.  Failure was unacceptable and the punishment, like the expectations, came only from within. 

Fast forward 25 years and thanks to time and age and parenthood and my yoga practice and a family that loves and teases me, I have relaxed quite a bit!  But of course, I am me.  I'm still hard on myself.  I still suffer from self-doubt and a sense of failure.  I sill love lists - even if now I keep them on the kitchen table instead of the ceiling.  Alas, enlightenment  - a state of being and remaining fully awake - has not been achieved. Rather, I've realized it is a dynamic, in-process situation. Always and ever, as myself, I am waking up to my habitual, deeply-rooted way of being that impacts all that I do. 

Rather than feel discouraged about the fact that I haven't really changed all that much – or that, as Pema Chodron writes, the first thing to realize is that we’ll never ever get it all together – I delight in this truth.  It makes me laugh, thinking about how seriously we all take ourselves and our ideas of ourselves, how in trying to feel better, do better, be better (presumably because it will make us happier) we’re actually just getting tighter and more tense and more single-minded and more disappointed when our plan does not execute in quite the way we had intended.  Human folly is a fact.  Laughter is the best response.

So I have a leaky boat? Ha ha! That just means I get to stay more aware and more awake... or else I drown!  So I often need help from others?  Ha ha! That just means I get to feel how loved I am when people give to me.   So I’m not the grown-up version of an independent woman I had always imagined myself to be?  Ha ha!  That just means my life is full of surprises, definitely not boring, definitely not predictable, and something I can always be curious about. When I look with this lightness and laughter, a different picture emerges.  This ever awake, needy of help, turbulent existence has, in fact, tenderized my heart into an ever-more spacious place of love.   In that sense, I am, in my heart, exactly as I've always wanted to be.

So, what if nothing actually needs to be fixed or improved?  What if instead of directing our efforts towards shifting the external circumstances of our lives, we directed them towards what might bring us back and back and back into the tender kindness and humor of our hearts?  What if my lesson for Day One, 2019 was that seeking growth or change or healing without a light, humorous spirit will only result in more pain?  Please help me to fix my boat, I prayed on New Year's Eve.  You got it, God answered... but only if you laugh while doing it!

But how do we laugh when our foot is swollen and bleeding?  When our hearts hurt?  For insight on this, I look no further than the greatest spiritual teachers of all time. Very often they are smiling and laughing.  Just read The Book of Joy about Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama if you want to know more.  Just look at the statues of the Buddha who is, if not cracking up, smiling tenderly.  Just look at the pictures of Jesus grinning as children play near him.  Wisdom, humility and humor are inextricably connected. One way to lighten up then is to surround ourselves with people who both love us dearly and also will poke us into laughter when we start spinning off into our all-too-serious, heavy handed schemes of self-improvement.

A year ago I was driving with a new friend, someone who could be very funny and irreverent and who made me laugh but who was being careful with me, still getting acquainted with my levels of comfort/discomfort.   I began to tell a long, involved story about myself and my past and my theories about this event and that event, and I was truly on a roll, going on and on, feeling well-spoken and smart and interesting and happy that he seemed so into what I was saying and finally I took a breath, waiting for his response, and he said, very very sweetly, “Sara, I’m listening to your voice and I’m watching your face move and the light around your hair is so lovely." He paused, letting the image sink in, and then he added, "but all I hear coming out of your mouth is...  QUACK!”

The sound of a duck. So strange and unexpected and loud and ridiculous.  Like a child in an overgrown tiger costume interrupting my self-pity.  His quack shocked me out of my self-interest so intensely that all I could do was laugh and he laughed and we laughed together for a long time, and I was finally like, "I can't believe you just did that," and he was like, "I know I know, I'm terrible, but it had to be done," and I said, "I see that, yes, I do see that now," and we kept on laughing until I was crying a little too, and now it’s a funny and friendly shorthand between us.  His way of poking me out of habitual, deeply-grooved ruts of seriousness and self-aggression.  Of course, it works only because I trust him and his playfulness is rooted in a foundation of deep respect and a love for the whole of who I am – one who likes to talk, who takes herself seriously, who loves a good list, who always finds a way to make more lists.  Because that care and trust form the foundation, the teasing and the laughter not only wake me up but also invite me to playfully see and love my whole self, too.  

When asked what enlightenment was, Bodhidharma, a 6th century Buddhist monk, responded, “Lots of space, nothing holy.”  

Do I still want in 2019 to dial in my life in real, practical ways?  Yes.  Should I still make an effort to strengthen the infrastructures that support my best self?  Of course.  But, most importantly, can I do it with an attitude of humor and lightness and space?  Yes! As long as I don’t add that to my list of resolutions, too.  Laughter?  Check!  Knowing me, that’s what I’ll be tempted to do!  But with my little tiger running around to distract me and my friends and family to keep my laughing at myself and this unpredictable life to surprise me, it will all be okay.  It already is okay.  Perfect and ridiculous and unholy and never quite completely together.

Please, come to the studio this winter.  Come with your lists and resolutions and desires for improvement.  Come with your disappointments and hopes.  Come as you are. There's tons of space and nothing is too precious.  We'll laugh about it all and find ways to lighten up and make our way through this wild life together.

As always, I am yours in movement, quacking and laughing,