Let’s begin our discussion of laughter with a scientific explanation, just to establish a point of reference, of what is happening on a purely physical level. Laughter, in its most basic form, represents a rhythmical, often audible contraction of the diaphragm and other parts of the respiratory system. It is a response to certain external or internal stimuli.
As you laugh, fifteen facial muscles contract and stimulate your zygomatic major muscle (the main lifting mechanism of your upper lip). Meanwhile, your respiratory system is upset by the epiglottis half-closing your larynx, so that air intake occurs irregularly, making you gasp. In extreme circumstances, your tear ducts are activated, so that while your mouth is opening and closing, you struggle to intake oxygen, and your face becomes moist and often red (or purple). The noises that usually accompany this bizarre behavior range from sedate giggles to boisterous guffaws.
On what might be considered the positive side of the equation, things like joy, happiness, mirth and relief can activate this response but so can embarrassment, apology, or confusion. Things such as your age, gender, education, language, and culture also play a role. Laughter can even be contagious; it is mysterious indeed!
What follows is a personal example of a reminiscent event filled with laughter. While visiting my father several years ago, we were all relaxing in his living room watching television post dinner. We had purchased key lime pie and were settling in to eat it. My Dad, now comfortably settled in a recliner, spoke up and indicated he had forgotten to grab a fork and could I grab him one. Being the jokester, I sometimes am, I opted to toss a fork to him from where I was seated across the room. It landed perfectly on the edge of a paper plate he was holding, flipping it and the pie into the air with the pie ultimately landing directly in the middle of his chest. The laughter that ensued was uncontrollable, and probably lasted a solid twenty minutes. To this day, the mere mention of this event triggers that same laughter in an instant.
Laughter researcher, Robert Provine stated: “Laughter is a mechanism everyone has; laughter is part of universal human vocabulary. There are thousands of languages, hundreds of thousands of dialects, but everyone speaks laughter in pretty much the same way.” Even babies have the ability to laugh before they ever speak. Children who are born blind and deaf still retain the ability to laugh. Provine argues that “Laughter is primitive, an unconscious vocalization.”
Furthermore, humor researcher, Peter Derks describes the laughter response as “a really quick, automatic type of behavior.” “In fact, how quickly our brain recognizes the incongruity that lies at the heart of most humor and attaches an abstract meaning to it determines whether we laugh,” he says.
Now, how does laughter affect our health, you ask? Let’s shift to a deeper analytical level. There are physiological changes that take place in our body when we laugh. Laughter is linked with the activation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, that produces endorphins. Norman Cousins, one of the veterans of mind-body medicine, introduced the idea that laughter can improve our health. He himself was the case study in his research when he used laughter therapy to treat his autoimmune disease into remission. Since that time, further scientific research has uncovered many benefits of laughter which include: boosting your immune system, lowering your blood pressure, improving your cardiac health, reducing your stress and treating depression.
Likewise, shamans the world over have known the value of laughter for many millennia. An excellent example is found among the Huichol Shaman in Mexico. They believe laughter is a key element to healing, living and being a whole person. In refreshing perspective, Huichol Shaman don’t believe there is any situation that is beyond the realm of humor. It helps us shift our perspective and just plain feel better. The Huichol Shaman are in no way stand-up comics or joke tellers but rather their humor often involves helping others take themselves and their problems less seriously; whether they are ready or not.
There are other Shamanic traditions where the Shamans take on the role of the “sacred clown”. There are the Ne’wekwe “mud-eaters”, who are the Zuni equivalent of a sacred clown. The Cherokee too had sacred clowns known as “Boogers”, who performed “Booger dances” around a community fire. In Tibetan Buddhism, this is referred to as Crazy Wisdom, which the Guru adopts in order to shock their students out of fixed cultural and psychological patterns. But. perhaps the most popular type of sacred clown is the Lakota equivalent of Heyoka, a contrary thunder shaman who taught through backwards humor. No matter the tradition, the objective is essentially the same. . . to combine the trickster spirit with shamanic wisdom while creating a kind of “sacred tomfoolery” which is designed to keep the zeitgeist in check.
In the end, the role of the “sacred clown” is to deflate one’s ego, and to to poke holes in things people take too seriously. Through acts of satire and showy displays of blasphemy, sacred clowns create a cultural dissonance born from their Crazy Wisdom, from which anxiety is free to collapse on itself into laughter. Sacred seriousness becomes sacred anxiety which then becomes sacred laughter.
If you really think about it, the best examples of a sacred clown were . . . Christ, who mocked orthodoxy, Buddha, who mocked ego attachment, and Gandhi, who mocked money and power.
In conclusion, Thomas Merton wrote, “In a world of tension and breakdown, it is necessary for there to be those who seek to integrate their inner lives not by avoiding anguish and running away from problems, but by facing them in their naked reality and in their ordinariness.” Hence, researchers, philosophers, Shaman, and I all belief that laughter is the best medicine that helps us heal and let go of one’s ego.