Being more aware of our thoughts, letting go of judgments and frustration, and focusing on what really matters are just a few lessons we can learn from choosing laughter as a tool for wellbeing in our lives.
The following article was first published in the Shift Network’s online magazine on April 5, 2018. To see the article in all its glory, with photos and a sweet layout, you can go to The Catalyst. During 2018, I offered a workshop called “Laughing Matters: What Laughter Teaches Us about Living & Dying” to over 150 people in California, Oregon, Vermont and Maine. What a treat!
In a future article, I will share some of the lessons from the classes and what we discovered together. For now, here is why the class came about to begin with . . .
I never expected to laugh for a living. Nor did I expect my primary focus to be death and dying. But a funny thing happened on my way to my current life: after some twists and turns, these two paths became the same road.
For most of my life, I allowed my mind to dictate what made me laugh. We each have different funny bones, of course, and my sense of humor used to be fairly sarcastic. As an economic and social justice activist, I tended to laugh primarily at witty political satire. I thought there was too much pain and suffering in the world for frivolous amusement.
My life-partner Kate, on the other hand, could laugh for ten minutes nonstop with a friend while I wondered what was so hilarious. When I asked, she’d say “nothing” in between snorts. She laughed easily, for no apparent reason. So when we decided to take our first laugher yoga class, one of us was clearly more enthusiastic. And the other was a bit more anxious (hint, that was me).
Needless to say, I was quite surprised when we both became Certified Laughter Yoga Teachers a few months later. I did the weeklong certification for personal development, not as a career move. Yet soon thereafter, I left my job at a non-profit and Kate and I began offering laughter trainings on the west and east coasts as our main work in the world. And guess what? I loved it!
The momentum built quickly. We created a laughter CD. We were invited to conferences. We hosted free weekly classes in Mt. Shasta, CA and locals referred to us as “the laughing girls.” Laughter became our life.
Then a few years later, when life was unfolding beautifully, a more dramatic and unexpected shift turned everything upside-down: Kate was diagnosed with advanced stages of cancer at age forty-one. She died twelve weeks later. Suddenly, the woman I called my soul mate was dead. That’s when death became my life.
I knew that according to conventional wisdom, I would likely be devastated. We are taught that grief is proportional to the depth of our love for someone. But early on, I discovered there isn’t a “grief to love” ratio. Instead, I mostly experienced gratitude and deep inner peace. I celebrated that Kate had been promoted to her “next assignment.”
And it was time for me to begin my next assignment too.
I spent the next five years asking myself what contributed to my experience of connection and happiness even after the love of my life died. I knew I wasn’t sugar-coating my emotional well-being. I was truly feeling centered and in awe of life. What influenced such a positive response to Kate’s death? At the top of my list was my spiritual practice, which included unconditional laughter.
I’d like to share a story of mine that Marilyn Schlitz included in her book Death Makes Life Possible:
“After Kate died, I was faced with the true test of what we both taught—using laughter as a way to cope with challenges and shift energy. I remember one day when I was driving home, I felt the heaviness of missing Kate and knowing I wouldn’t see her when I walked in the door. I thought, ‘Well, Jen, here’s your chance to practice what you preach!’
As I drove down Mount Shasta Boulevard, I decided to experiment. First I just told myself to smile. Then I faked a soft laugh. I certainly wasn’t feeling happy in that moment. But I decided I would laugh for at least ten seconds. Laughter yoga is a body-mind practice, and so I simply asked my body to laugh. All it takes is willingness. Before I knew it, the laughter grew and became more genuine. I could feel my whole mood change. I wasn’t focused on the future I’d never have with Kate. Instead, I was enjoying the present moment.”
The “yoga” of laughter yoga is the breathing and the natural deep exhale, as well as the yoga of inner alignment. Learning to laugh for no reason, simply deciding to laugh and allowing my body to join in, taught me lessons that could be applied to anything in my life.
I could no longer pretend my inner joy depended on external circumstances. I couldn’t even use death as a reason to be sad or heartbroken. I knew if I was willing, I could choose to tap into the energy of joy and playfulness, no matter what. I knew I could redirect the downward spiral of grief, without repressing it. I could choose to allow emotions to flow, and I could choose where I focused my attention at the same time.
For me, the most important lessons are about willingness and choice. When Kate was diagnosed with advanced cancer, she was willing to acknowledge she was dying and to have open conversations about this reality. She was willing to choose to be engaged and honest about her experience.
In this process, we both learned to let go of the person we knew as “Kate Asch.” One of the first laughter exercises I ever did was to say my name in front of a group, and then to laugh. Something about that deeply resonated inside of me. Who am I? Who is Kate? Am I my name? Am I my mind? Am I my body? Unconditional laughter points me in the direction of greater truths, without providing the answers. Together, we can embrace the mystery.
One of my favorite things I learned is that giving myself permission to enjoy life is one of the best ways I can honor loved ones who have died. Kate showed me again and again that joy is a courageous act, especially in challenging times.
A few weeks after she was diagnosed, one of Kate’s brothers and his family came from Vermont to spend the weekend with us. When it was time for them to go, we stood on our front steps as they all got into the rental car to go to the airport. As they began to drive away, Kate quickly turned toward the house. She promptly pulled down her sweatpants, exposed her skinny bare ass, and “mooned” them in the afternoon sun. I could see our teenage nieces laughing, tears streaming down their faces, as they waved from the backseat. The point wasn’t to make them laugh or diminish the pain of this final goodbye. Kate’s bold move was to remind them to not take life too seriously, and to remember how to find lightness in even the most difficult moments.
They still talk about their last view of Aunt Kate, with smiles on their faces. The lessons of laughter and playfulness inform not only how we choose to live and how we choose to die, but also how we choose to respond to just about everything.
Try unconditional laughter yourself with this simple exercise: Begin by giving yourself a deep breath. Exhale. Then give yourself another deep breath, smile (even if you don’t feel like it), and let out a big sigh with your exhale. Give yourself one more deep breath, smile, and laugh it out on the exhale! Laugh it out gently, enthusiastically, quietly, audibly, whatever you’d like. Notice how you feel inside. Repeat throughout the day. Enjoy!