I have been having difficulty on my spiritual path lately, though not the kind you might imagine. Mostly, I am struggling with inappropriate laughter.
It happened recently at my local vihara, the Buddhist word for “place where we don’t worship because we don’t believe in God.” It was the beginning of an hour-long meditation session — 10 minutes of walking, the rest sitting — and I noticed how forcefully the leader struck the gong. It brought to mind the bell that introduces a round of boxing, which is sort of antithetical to the nonviolence of Buddhism.
In my younger days, I was an earnest if not fear-inspiring boxer, so I appreciate the sweet science, and thought how refreshing it might be to set aside our peacefulness, lace up the gloves and go a couple of rounds. Sort of a Buddhist boxing scrum, just for fun and to get the blood moving, because Buddhists sit around doing nothing a lot. (This is why the Buddha is often depicted as fat.)
But then walking meditation began and the boxing vision faded. And I noticed our bare feet — you remove your shoes as you enter a vihara — and Paolo Nutini started playing in my mind, and I heard the music breaking the silence, and saw us erupting from our solemn circle into Steve Martin-esque dance:
By now, my suppressed giggle was about to erupt in an embarrassing guffaw. I was going to have to exit the vihara and put myself in Buddhist time-out if I didn’t get a grip. So I recruited a secular strategy invented by a high-energy friend, who, whenever she was seized by the impulse to laugh inappropriately, would think exceedingly sad thoughts. “Dead puppies,” I thought. “Dead puppies.”
It seemed to work. By the time we began sitting meditation, my monkey mind — which I was supposed to be observing in a Zen-like, detached manner as I focused on my breathing — was happily plotting how to write this post, an activity that continued until the boxing bell sounded again, and my daily spiritual practice was complete.
My current giddiness seems to be an annual expression of personal sap rising; I wrote about something similar last March. Now as then, my sorrowful self is awakening to the sun and warmth and shaking off its usual soft sadness.
Which feels wonderful, though in Buddhism, it’s all to be regarded with equanimity: the tears and the laughter and everything in between. Some spiritual philosophies suggest you might be magnificent — made in the image of God and all that — only to throw in some spoiler like original sin, which means you actually are a bit of a worm and sorely in need of redemption. Others have the opposite, mildly (or severely) jihadist tendency: The problem is not with you, but with everyone else.
But Buddhism affectionately embraces the inner carnival of human experience, which helps you see that the good stuff and the bad stuff is in you and in all of us: the cotton candy and the midway, the haunted house and the freak show. And especially the house of mirrors.
Lately, I am spending a lot of time on the rides. As a child, I especially liked the Round-Up, which spins so rapidly that the centrifugal force pins you, standing, to a circular wall. And then the floor drops out from beneath you. I’m beginning to like it as an adult, too, which is a really good thing, because life is pretty much like that.
I’m also well-acquainted with the haunted house, and masterful at losing myself in the house of mirrors. But until recently, I’ve felt repulsed by the freak show.
Buddhism encourages us to fully engage the totality of our experience. This is easy when you’re all proud of your inner hero or tender about your warm and fuzzy aspects. Even the anger and sadness feel OK — at least until they morph into rage or grief and overstay their welcome.
Then, they’re apt to become part of the marginalized minions, aspects of ourselves that feel embarrassing at best and monstrous at worst. Psychologists say they originate in childhood as defense mechanisms, but where they come from doesn’t much matter. What matters is simply accepting those feelings in the present moment — neither repressing them, nor acting out — which requires not only courage, but compassion and a sense of humor.
For instance, I have an inner pissant, and her main spiritual practice seems to be schadenfreude — taking pleasure in others’ difficulties. This used to make me feel bad about myself, but as I stepped back a little — always wise, in spiritual work — I realized my little pissant feels this way about people who have hurt me; she wants them to hurt right back.
I know; I know: Not spiritual. But I see my inner pissant is trying to protect me, in an illogical, too-little, too-late way. So while I am careful not to take direction from her, I feel less ashamed and more tender. She’s probably about 5, and could do with more cotton candy and naps.
There are other freaks of my nature: A powerful judge, who has also appointed herself jury and executioner. And a coward to match my hero; she specializes in wetting herself when, really, nothing that scary is happening, at least not in the present moment. You’ve got your own assortment, no doubt, born in darkness and emerging unbidden under real or imagined threat. It’s probably a lot like mine.
And so the carnival continues: the thrills and the chills, the expected sorrows and horrors. The candy apples and wild rides and freak shows, populated by the demons of our lesser natures, who once were angels and who wait each minute to be redeemed by our acceptance.
And the whole spectacle visited, every so often, by the unexpected: the clowns who can’t stop laughing, dancing exuberantly out of the shadows in their goofy new shoes.