Friday, August 17, 2007

Tantalizing Glimpses

''In New York City, they say you walk by the person you're gonna marry on the street three times before you ever meet them. The person next to you on the subway could be your soul mate. Anywhere you look, a stranger might leave you sudden inspiration. Every window is a view into another life. An untold story. A friend you've never met. A lover. A mentor. A rival. Some are on top of the world and plan on staying there. Some are on rock bottom, desperate for a second chance. On any street, any corner, you might find someone trying to clean up their act, riding lady luck for as long as she lasts. And some are gonna go through life with reckless abandon, hoping it doesn't catch up with them. All these people living lives on top of each other. And of them — anyone at any time — could be the one that changes your life...forever.''
Six Degrees

I recently read a very enlightening treatise that broke down human cognitions into three categories with corresponding percentages for each. These three categories are;

1. Thoughts about ourselves including thinking about things we have to do, guilt about the past, anxiety about the future, regrets, obsessions, daily activities, etc.- 65%
2. Thinking about our significant relationships. These are our thoughts about our husbands, wives, moms, dads, close friends, and significant others. 25%
3. Thoughts that contain an element of empathy for others. These are thoughts that put us in other people's shoes and consider the world from the viewpoint of others. 10%

How do we get so stuck in our own heads? Perhaps it is the inertia of the personality. As children we gradually learn that the world is bigger than our own selfish needs, and an important developmental milestone is reached when kids grasp the concept of sharing. What is that makes us regress back to such selfishness as adults? Guilt certainly plays a role, as regrets and feelings of shame regarding the things we’ve done make up a large chunk of the tape that continually runs in our heads. The rest of this tape is often devoted to thinking about the future. Our wishes, desires, fantasies, and worries for what might happen tomorrow often render the present moment obsolete. Meanwhile wonderful opportunities to find joy in the present continue to pass us by.

The psychologist Alfred Adler felt that ultimately all problems are social problems, and that our social interest in others was a strong predictor of our mental heath. Isn't this fascinating!!! We walk past each other like zombies stuck almost entirely in our own heads when the keys to our potential happiness constantly walk right past us. They too muttering silently to themselves as they miss out on the wonderful things we have to offer them. We anxiously await news from our heroes, forgetting that we too may be extraordinary to others.

With this in mind I decided to get out of my own head for a while and meet some new people. For years I've lived in one of the largest cities in the country and yet every day I pass thousands of people who I never quite get a chance to know.

How many times do we walk by someone we were supposed to meet? My guess is all the time. Somehow in the hustle and bustle of our lives we never quite find the time or courage to take a risk and start a conversation with the mysterious and intriguing strangers that pass us by. For whatever reason fear kicks in and we don't act on our impulses to introduce ourselves to new people. I've always loved the quote in the movie Six Degrees of Separation that "each person is a doorway to a new world." I firmly believe it. With this in mind, I vowed to take action, and over the last couple of weeks I have introduced myself to at least 5 intriguing strangers every day. My life has been deeply enriched,

I met......

A pissed off poet. An angry but interesting looking guy at a concert who was watching the crowd and muttering to himself. Instead of spending all day wondering what he was saying to himself, I approached him, and boy did I get an earful!!!! He's the kind of guy who is extremely mad at the word, yet brilliantly creative and down deep a very hopeful person. Through talking for a half hour I received an invitation to a poetry slam, which, if you've never attended one should be high in your list of things to do. I spent a fantastic evening drinking beer and listening to people's poetry, and met soem wonderfully creative and interesting people in the process.

A Beautiful nurse!!! Ever have a very attractive person look your way? When this happens to me I usually look behind me to see who the person is looking at, but in this case she wanted to talk. She told me all about her interest in alternative medicine and how she was writing a book of her own on her experiences working as a hospice nurse whose mission was to gently help people die as comfortably as possible.

An angry pizza guy, who nearly ran me over on the street. When I approached his car, he reached for his pepper spray, but eventually I was able to convince him I just wanted to talk. Talking to him for a half hour I learned about dozens of alternate routes to take in Chicago to beat the traffic during rush hour. He was a Zen master with shortcuts and it was definitely worth my time to make his acquaintance.
I met a number of other people in addition to these three, and all of them added something to my life, and I can only hope I did the same for them. This experiment certainly taught me that everyone has something to offer, and there is a lesson in every human interaction from the toxic to the sublime. I hope through doing this I have increased the “empathy” piece of my pie just a little bit, as I certainly got a number of glimpses into how other people see the world. This is the difference between really listening as opposed to simply waiting for your turn to talk. For most of my life I’ve been in the second category, but it has been deeply enriching to slowly work on becoming a person who really listens. The rewards thus far have been tremendous, and it has been a powerful lesson that sometimes the most powerful gift you can give someone is simply to shut up and listen to them.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Flying Spaghetti Monster

The other day I got a letter chastising me for "propagating the myth of the Christian God" after writing about C.S Lewis and quoting a passage from the bible. I found this a tad odd as I am not in fact a religious person. I have however found great comfort in the words of the historical Jesus when it comes to topics such as love and forgiveness.

How did these words get so distorted, twisted, and abused? It's hard to fully understand the historical forces and political inertia that explain this, but suffice to say the current state of religion in the world has strayed a long way from the common denominators found in nearly all religious texts about love, forgiveness and charity to others. Reading the newspaper in America today I am reminded of a quote offered by Mahatma Gandhi upon visiting the United States where he remarked; "I like your Christ, I dislike your Christians, they are so unlike your Christ."

With this in mind, a new religion has emerged in America based on the idea offered by creator Bobby Henderson that, "if there is a God and he is intelligent, then I guess he would have a sense of humor" and this religion is made up of "Pastafarians" who genuflect at the alter of The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster started in 2005 when Henderson wrote a letter to the Kansas State board of education in response to their mandate that schools teach intelligent design theory in the classroom. He reasoned that if the board decreed that schools had to make time to teach intelligent design, it was only fair that they also devote time to teach his doctrine of the flying Spaghetti monster as well as theories based on in his words, "logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence" in line with Darwin's theories of evolution. He magnanimously proposed a one-third split for all three in terms of equal time.

The reaction to Henderson's letter was swift and immediate. His website began to receive tens of thousands of visits each day, and ultimately went on to collect over 350 million hits. Many of the letters he received were intensely hostile, while others were wildly intrigued and expressed anxious interest to join his church. Some even took it in the spirit which it was intended, which was as a humorous and thought-provoking jab at how our country has regressed in terms of scientific education.

Henderson's doctrine makes us hold a mirror to our own hypocrisy in a light-hearted and humorous way. As opposed to ten commandments his church has

8, "I'd really rather you didn't's

  1. I'd really rather you didn't act like a sanctimonious holier-than-thou ass when describing my noodly goodness. If some people don't believe in me, that's okay. Really, I'm not that vain. Besides, this isn't about them so don't change the subject.
  2. I'd really rather you didn't use my existence as a means to oppress, subjugate, punish, eviscerate, and/or, you know, be mean to others. I don't require sacrifices, and purity is for drinking water, not people.
  3. I'd really rather you didn't judge people for the way they look, or how they dress, or the way they talk, or, well, just play nice, Okay? Oh, and get this into your thick heads: woman = person. man = person. Samey = Samey. One is not better than the other, unless we're talking about fashion and I'm sorry, but I gave that to women and some guys who know the difference between teal and fuchsia.
  4. I'd really rather you didn't indulge in conduct that offends yourself, or your willing, consenting partner of legal age AND mental maturity. As for anyone who might object, I think the expression is go f*** yourself, unless they find that offensive in which case they can turn off the TV for once and go for a walk for a change.
  5. I'd really rather you didn't challenge the bigoted, misogynistic, hateful ideas of others on an empty stomach. Eat, then go after the b*******.
  6. I'd really rather you didn't build multi million-dollar churches/temples/mosques/shrines to my noodly goodness when the money could be better spent (take your pick):
    1. Ending poverty
    2. Curing diseases
    3. Living in peace, loving with passion, and lowering the cost of cable
      I might be a complex-carbohydrate omniscient being, but I enjoy the simple things in life. I ought to know. I AM the creator.
  7. I'd really rather you didn't go around telling people I talk to you. You're not that interesting. Get over yourself. And I told you to love your fellow man, can't you take a hint?
  8. I'd really rather you didn't do unto others as you would have them do unto you if you are into, um, stuff that uses a lot of leather/lubricant/Las Vegas. If the other person is into it, however (pursuant to #4), then have at it, take pictures, and for the love of Mike, wear a CONDOM! Honestly, it's a piece of rubber. If I didn't want it to feel good when you did it I would have added spikes, or something.

Henderson also makes the case in his letter that Pirates were misunderstood prophets, whose reduction in number corresponds directly with the rise of the earth's average temperature. His argument was meant to demonstrate the absurdity of implying that correlation always implies causation,which is at the heart of many of the arguments proffered by intelligent design theory.

Eventually Henderson became a bit of a phenomenon, publishing books and being quoted and written about in many of our Nation's largest newspapers including the New York Times, and the Washington Post. His work has spawned a new generation of followers, rivals, and artists to take up his cause, while also rallying his opposition in their steadfast belief in what they see as his blasphemy.

So what is the lesson of Bobby Henderson and his use of humor in holding up a mirror to the current Zeitgeist in America? Perhaps it is that humor is still a most effective way of bringing attention to the rigidity and dichotomous thinking that often characterizes the debate in our current climate. While many choose sides and dig their boots deeply into narrow and decidedly serious trenches, people like Henderson remind us that we can also choose to occasionally laugh at our own human arrogance. Although his message is blasphemous to some, the laughter he has created with his work has shined a bright light into some of the absurdity that characterizes much of our shared humanity. He has made millions of people laugh and think together, and if there is a God, my guess is that he would surely appreciate this.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Some books that make me laugh

One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.
A.A. Milne

One of my favorite writers was the disorganized mad scientist Kurt Vonnegut, who often included a caricature of himself named "Kilgore Trout" in his work. This character wrote science fiction books that were only sold in pornography shops, and wrote like he lived, which is to say highly disorganized, messy, creative, and at times brilliantly, which was very much true of Vonnegut himself.

Reading Vonnegut you might guess that he had given up on the human race, while meanwhile he wrote hilarious books that all contained just a slight glimmer of hope. During some hard times in my very extended adolescence, Kurt Vonnegut's books were like a refuge in the storm. He constantly made me think, made me laugh, and ultimately made me write. Although I only met the man once at a writers' conference, he was a constant friend, companion, and advisor as I made my way from an angry young man into someone who now rarely gets mad at anything. I include here a link to his entire works online, with the hopes that you will read, or in many cases reread this wonderful author

Next I want to tell you about a book that in my opinion is one of the funniest things ever written. The books is a Confederacy of Dunces and I apologize but I have as yet failed to find the entire book online. I'm certain it's out there somewhere, but in the meantime check this out as a teaser.

This book will bring joy into your life, I guarantee it. I literally laughed until I was in tears the first time I read it, and every couple of years when I revisit this book I find it just as funny as the first time i read it. It is truly a gift of laughter, and if you haven't read it, please, please, trust me that you will be in stitches reading it.

A sad footnote to this story is the author John Kennedy Toole killed himself at the age of 32 before the novel was ever published. His mother dragged the novel into the famous Southern author Walker Percy who was sure it was going to be trash. He read it and realized it was a masterpiece, and one thing led to another and the book eventually sold millions of copies and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981, 12 years after Toole had died. The book is, in my life unequivocal in its ability to make me laugh. If you haven't read, again, please check it out.

Some other books that have made me laugh are The Catcher in the Rye, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Stranger than Fiction by Chuck Palahnuik, the works of Augusten Burroughs, and Catch 22, in no particular order. What books make you laugh? I'd love to hear. I firmly believe the next Confederacy of Dunces is sitting on someone's shelf somewhere just waiting to be read and discovered.

In the interest of sharing, here is one of my own short stories of something funny that happened to me.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Finding God through Billy Joel & Bud Light

One of the greatest ways people experience joy and laughter is through music. One of my all-time favorite examples of this comes in the movie The Shawshank Redemption when Andy locks himself into the prison's music room so he can play Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" for the inmates. The look of peacefulness and calm that comes over Andy's face during this scene provides a wonderful lesson of how music can lift our spirits in even the most hopeless of situations, and in this scene Andy realizes he can go to a place through music that they can't "touch or take away from him."

A second example of the power of music to connect people and provide joy comes in another wonderful movie Almost Famous. In this particular scene Russell, who is mentally and physically exhausted after an extended binge which has left him unable even to speak, is brought back to life after hearing the song "Tiny Dancer". What makes this particular scene so inspiring is that everyone begins singing along with the song, all of them enjoying their own memories it conjures up while also reveling in each other's company as they belt the song out together.

Last night I had a similar experience in Chicago on a rainy summer night listening to a wonderfully entertaining band called 16 Candles. What makes this band stand out is that they play a set list of 80's songs with a sense of unadulterated joy that never fails to bring the crowd back to a time and place in their lives when these songs were significant to them. I often find myself watching the crowd more than watching the band, as it is amazing to see the transformation that comes over people when they here a particularly memorable song. The range of ages runs the gamut from teenagers who know the 80s from an older brother or sister, to groups of women in their forties getting their own "band back together" as they belt out the songs from their youth. Everyone is laughing and dancing and having fun, and you can literally feel the positive energy move through the crowd as people exchange knowing glances.

This was especially true during the song Piano Man by Billy Joel which is an anthem that provokes people to throw an arm around their neighbor and sing the song together. Most people in the crowd knew every word. So it was after consuming a couple of beers where I was feeling especially pleasant that I joined in this chorus last night, and looking back through the crowd I saw literally hundreds of people had linked arms and began to sing along. The feeling was incredible. Whatever that feeling is, in that time, and in that place, I experienced a tremendous power of spirit. For those few minutes no one was aware of any differences between each other, and everyone was able to truly share a communal feeling of togetherness.

Eventually the song ended, and shortly afterwards so did the show, but the lesson and feeling from that experience will linger with me for a long time. The act of seeing that many people singing and laughing was extremely inspiring, and really got me thinking how powerful of force music really is. I've certainly seen the effects music can have on the elderly, as demonstrated by this story
from my book Stories of Hope and Courage, but I also forget what a powerful tool music is for everyone regardless of their age or station in life. I often recommend the patients I work with make some time everyday to listen to some of their favorite music, as this one little gift to yourself can pay tremendous dividends. We take for granted how music affects us physiologically and how much this can initiate the relaxation response. Music is also tied strongly to memory, and as I saw last night, returning through music to a cherished time in your life can be especially powerful. I would also highly recommend attending concerts of bands that play your favorite music, as the communal nature of this experience is amazing. I can't promise you will have a religious experience like I did, but seeing everyone around you so full of joy and happiness can't help but be contagious.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Joseph Campbell, C.S Lewis, Spirituality, & Joy

"For when the heart insists on its destiny, resisting the general blandishment, then the agony is great; so too the danger. Forces, however, will have been set in motion beyond the reckoning of the senses. Sequences of events from the corners of the world will draw gradually together, and miracles of coincidence bring the inevitable to pass. " -Joseph Campbell

When I was about 11 I got poked in the eye by the local bishop. I knew he did it and he knew he did it, but he quickly went back to working the room rather than acknowledge what he had done. From that day forward I have been pretty sour on religion, but my whole life has also been a slow walk back to finding and exploring the power of the spiritual in my remaining time here on earth.

The greatest advisor I've had in this quest has been Joseph Campbell, whose quote is listed above. Campbell spent a lifetime exploring the world's religions and especially their myths, and his work is among the most fascinating and inspiring you will ever read.

Campbell's entire philosophy is best summed up by his advice to his students to "Follow Your Bliss." Campbell believed that the heaven many religions seek in an afterlife is actually happening right here and right now on earth, and that by following the "bliss" and intuition inside of us, wonderful, rapturous adventures are there for the taking. I've certainly found this to be true in my own life. Campbell described this adventure in life through something called the "Hero's Journey" which is a series of steps people move through on the course of their own adventure, and this Hero's Journey was the basis of two of my own books, Barack, Lance, Oprah, & Rudy: Exploring Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey in Contemporary American Society & A Life Lived Twice-Elderly Reflections Using Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey.
In my second book I interviewed 4 extraordinary elderly people, and each of them talked about being guided by a "force" as they moved through life, and each of them thought this force was God who was guiding them through this life so they could enjoy an even better one in the next. One of these people was a nun, who described the absolute joy she got from serving others and therefore serving God, and hearing her talk about her faith was both moving and compelling. All of the people I interviewed found religion to be a strong positive force in their lives, and hearing their stories made me consider my own anti-religious bias. Perhaps things would have been different if that bishop had just admitted he had poked me all of those years ago. In any case hearing their stories made me want to further investigate the link between religion and joy.

A wonderful place to start this investigation was examining the life of C.S. Lewis, once a professed atheist, who found himself Surprised by Joy, which is the title of the book he wrote about his discovery of God and the joy this brought to his life. Lewis is best known for his Chronicles of Narnia tales, which many know is a wonderful set of children's books that uses allegory to tell a tale of spiritual faith. What many people do not know is that Lewis was a prominent man of letters prior to writing these books, and began writing children's books after having already made his reputation as one of the world's most important writers. Why focus on children at this point? Perhaps Lewis took notice of Jesus' words found in the biblical passage Matthew 18:1-5, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven"

Are there any words in the Bible that endorse the power of joy and laughter more than this? This certainly is powerful instruction and C.S Lewis seems to have heeded it in his own life. His path to Christianity was spurred on by an intense longing to return to a sense of "home" which he came to interpret as a desire to be rejoined with his creator in heaven. Lewis spoke of his longing in terms of "tantalizing glimpses" and "promises never quite fulfilled" Lewis described observing the beauty in the world and "wanting to be a part of it" which is a remarkably interesting idea which has undertones that also encompass Buddhism, Hinduism, and even Quantum mechanics. What Lewis seemed to be saying was that we are all made of the same energy, but that this energy also has an original divine source, which is where Christianity may differ slightly from other ways of thinking such as Campbell's, that understand the energy itself as the divine source. Whether we define this "guiding force" theistically like C.S Lewis did, or atheistically like Joseph Campbell did, following it appears to offer a blueprint for a life filled with joy.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Is God Reassembling Himself on the Internet?

From the incredibly thought-provoking book "God's Debris" which is available for free download over the internet................

“Think about this,” he continued. “As we speak, engineers
are building the Internet to link every part of the
world in much the same way as a fetus develops a central
nervous system. Virtually no one questions the desirability
of the Internet. It seems that humans are born with the
instinct to create it and embrace it. The instinct of beavers
is to build dams; the instinct of humans is to build communication
systems.” Rationality can’t explain our obsession with the Internet. The need to build the Internet comes from something inside us, something programmed, something we can’t resist.”

“Humanity is developing a sort of global eyesight as
millions of video cameras on satellites, desktops, and street
corners are connected to the Internet. In your lifetime it
will be possible to see almost anything on the planet from
any computer. And society’s intelligence is merging over the
Internet, creating, in effect, a global mind that can do vastly
more than any individual mind. Eventually everything that
is known by one person will be available to all. A decision
can be made by the collective mind of humanity and
instantly communicated to the body of society.
“In the distant future, humans will learn to control the
weather, to manipulate DNA, and to build whole new
worlds out of raw matter. There is no logical limit to how
much our collective power will grow. A billion years from
now, if a visitor from another dimension observed humanity,
he might perceive it to be one large entity with a consciousness
and purpose, and not a collection of relatively
uninteresting individuals.”
“Are you saying we’re evolving into God?”
“I’m saying we’re the building blocks of God, in the
early stages of reassembling.”

Now I include this exchange not to blaspheme, but to consider some modern developments in my own life that lead me to consider the possibility that this may be true.

Since I started this blog a few weeks ago I have received some of the most wonderful suggestions, links to songs, poems, books, jokes, etc. and each of these things has then spurred me to read something else, which then led me to write about these things, which then led to more links and suggestions. What a wonderful cycle!!! This is the power of connecting with people over the Internet. Although I would love to have conversations with everyone I know about "the healing power of laughter" the fact is many people I interact with on a daily basis have other agendas. So the irony then becomes, the anonymous people I meet on the Internet actually provide me with wonderfully powerful suggestions and encouragement, while I remain strangely distant with the people I work with and spend time with every day.

What is the reason for this? Occam's Razor might suggest that the problem is with me. Perhaps. But on the other hand another explanation may be that the internet is allowing people to mobilize, unite, share ideas, music, literature, psychology, etc. etc. and this trend is bringing people together like never before. Over the last ten years, roughly twice as many people in the world use the Internet than the year before, (some people place the number much higher than this) which even by conservative estimates means that the world is indeed flat as Thomas Friedman and many others have suggested.
This and all of my reading, interactions, counseling, teaching, and learning have led me to consider a most amazing idea that perhaps, just perhaps, that despite what we hear on the news every evening, is it possible that THE WORLD IS GETTING BETTER?

Now I understand this a radical suggestion in the wake of Iraq, global warming, disappearing oil, etc. but lets consider some other evidence.

I'd like to start by talking about a man named Norman Borlaug, who may just be the most important man who ever lived, but who is ironically a man many people have never heard of. By conservative estimates Borlaug has saved a billion lives in his time on earth, but the number may actually be much higher than that. Check out this article in Newsweek titled "He only saved a billion people."

Borlaug figured out a way to feed the world. In a large part because of Norman Borlaug, the percentage of people experiencing hunger around the world dropped from 60 percent in 1960, to 14 percent in the year 2000. That is literally billions of people. For his work Borlaug was one of only 5 people to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. He's in pretty good company there, the others to reach this pinnacle were Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, and Elie Wiesel.

So why the hell haven't we heard of this guy? Perhaps because on the night he received his award Paris Hilton had made headlines, seriously. Beyond Paris, Lindsey, & Brittney, (I don't even have to list their last names) the idea that "if it bleeds it leads" has become a mantra for reporting the news. Violent news stories capture people's attention, and murder, rape, and celebrity Dui's, have become more interesting than a man who has saved the lives of at least one out of every 7 people currently living on the planet. But nonetheless men like Norman do exist, and there are millions of us who would love to hear his story. Despite reports of how people have become lazy, apathetic, and uninformed, I have spoken with thousands of people online who utterly defy this idea. You out there who read, write, think, paint, volunteer, and serve your fellow men, and I know there are millions of you, I salute you. Optimism in the face of adversity is how people can change the world, and have always changed the world. We can chose not to read the news and we can chose not to watch Paris Hilton, and ultimately we can chose that life offers millions of things to be optimistic about. When I start doubting that sentiment I think of Norman Borlaug and the billion lives he saved. Then I read some wonderful blogs from people who haven't given up the fight. It gives me hope and it make me laugh and it makes me think, and ultimately I make the choice to focus on what is good in the world.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

George Costanza, Paradoxical Intention, Crazy Wisdom & Laughter.

I have wasted countless hours of my life watching TV, and the idea that television is "an opiate of the masses" is probably not far from the truth. That being said, I'm no snob and get hooked into shows just like anyone else. Of all of the shows I've watched in my life Seinfeld was truly the one that got me through some dark hours in my life, and the show continues to be a big part of my life years later in syndication.

I bring this up because I want to call attention to one particular episode called "The Opposite." For people unfamiliar with this episode, it is the one where George Costanza decided that, because his every instinct in life has produced an undesirable result, that therefore doing the opposite of what his instincts told him must therefore be right. When George implements this idea into his life all of a sudden wonderful things begin to happen to him. What George had unwittingly stumbled onto was a concept known as Paradoxical Intention.

The term Paradoxical Intention was originally coined by an amazing man named Victor Frankl who wrote Man's Search for Meaning
about his experiences in a concentration camp and subsequent life as a psychiatrist where he conceived his unique philosophy known as Logotherapy. One of the key treatments Frankl used was Paradoxical Intention, in a nutshell "suggesting to the patient, with expression of appropriate humor, that they do, or expose themselves to, that which they fear." One example would be telling someone who keeps struggling with dieting that you want them, for the next week to eat absolutely as much as they can. This kind of advice often disturbs a person's cognitions, and often the pure absurdity of the suggestions helps people to better understand their original self-defeating ways of thinking.

Related to the concept of Paradoxical Intention is the idea of acting "as if." This gives a person permission to act in ways contrary to their usual ways of dealing with the world. In other words a shy and isolated person could act "as if" their life was full of joy and laughter for a couple of weeks to see if this creates any changes in their life during this time, and you know what? It usually always does!! This is the power of emotional choice. This was especially true in the life of Victor Frankl, who, during his darkest days in a concentration camp was able to think about his love for his wife and experience happiness, even as the threat of continued torture and imminent death hung over his head. I try to tell myself that if a man can chose happiness under those circumstances, than I can certainly do so when some little thing in life doesn't go my way. This is the power of mindfulness and taking stock, often, of how good we often really have things.

On the subject of mindfulness and Eastern Religion, it is also interesting to consider an idea in Tibetan Buddhism called "Crazy Wisdom" or yeshe chölwa, which translates literally to wisdom gone wild. This was popularized by the erratic yet brilliant Tibetan philosopher ChogyamTrungpa Rinpoche, who, although thought to be a deity much like the Dalia Lama in his native Tibet, moved to America and opened up a number of centers for spiritual enlightenment with people such as Allen Ginsburg and William Burroughs as instructors.

Purveyors of Crazy Wisdom such as Trungpa were called Siddhas who "expressed the unconditional freedom of enlightenment through divinely inspired foolishness... vastly preferring to celebrate the inherent freedom and sacredness of authentic being, rather than clinging to external religious forms and moral systems. Through their playful eccentricity, these rambunctious spiritual tricksters served to free others from delusion, social inhibitions, specious morality, complacence -- in short, all variety of mind-forged manacles."

These spiritual fools had what was called a "cosmic sense of humor" that saw through the illusions of society's conventions towards a greater interconnectedness of being. Although this is certainly getting into the area of metaphysics, these teachers in a nutshell, were fools because they understood we are a universe of fools, who became foolishly attached to our possessions and our conventions, while failing to see how these attachments lead to suffering.

So do our attachments lead to suffering? Absolutely. We often cling to our own ideas and the seriousness of our little private universes, when in the grander scheme the things we worry about are actually quite silly. We waste so much of our precious time here on earth worrying about things that never come to fruition. Meanwhile we continue to hurdle through space on a little blue ball that cares nothing for our unpaid electric bills, unmowed lawns, and unfair bosses. The Siddhas understood this absurdity, and in their world these silly fools were considered the wisest of the wise. Perhaps there is a lesson here about not taking ourselves to seriously, as it is often the silly and the foolish who ultimately may be the wisest.

Humor, Intimacy, & Golden Anniversaries

You want to reach your Golden Wedding Anniversary? Than laugh with your partner, a lot. A great deal of evidence suggests that this is one of the strongest predictors of relationship health. One study conducted by Krystyna Aune in 2002 explored the relationship between the level of playfulness in a relationship and relationship satisfaction, and not surprisingly she found that the more couples incorporated lighthearted and playful behavior into their relationship patterns the happier they reported being. Aune found that people who were quick to use playfulness and humor in life tended to have higher levels of self-esteem, and also experienced higher levels of other positive emotions in their lives such as joy as a result of their lighthearted attitude towards life.

Playfulness in a relationship can also produce better levels of intimacy and greatly increase sexual satisfaction in a relationship. One wonderful movie that explores the relationship between sexuality, humor, and attitudes about sexuality in old age is called Still Doing It
which explores the sex lives of women over the age of 65. This movie includes a great deal of material of how humor bonds people together and is one of the tools that promotes a healthy sexual life for people, even as their physical bodies may be in decline. With the fastest growing population in the United States now consisting of people over 85, this film is a must see for anyone who wishes to better understand how the things such as our sexuality that make us uniquely human don't simply disappear as we age. The film also makes the point that having a good sense of humor is one of the strongest allies we have as our physical bodies change, even as we cope with the changes and loss that aging inevitably brings.

Through my own work in Nursing Homes throughout the years, I can assure you that sexuality is indeed one of the last things to go, and many people who work in Nursing Homes will tell you that in terms of sexuality these places are often more like college dormitories than hospitals. Many of the stories from my book Stories of Hope and Courage, including this one called "Love conquers all"
talk about how romance often thrives in a Nursing Home, and as a caregiver this was always inspiring and often deeply touching to see. Much like is probably true for Junior Highs, dating events, nightclubs, and any other places people go to meet one another, humor is the catalyst that often brings people together.

On a personal note to emphasize this idea, my grandfather Hank just passed away at the age of 90. He was one of the funniest men I ever knew, and his outlook on life helped instill in me a lighthearted template for life which I hope I will always be able to remember. He was married to my grandmother Lee for 67 years, and I have no doubt that the humor and laughter between them was one of the best reasons they were able to reach their Golden wedding anniversary and much, much more. A person could fill their home with books on maintaining relationships, but not find a simpler recipe for marital success than being able to consistently laugh at life's little moments together. This was the secret of my grandparent's success, and a lesson I hope I'll continue to remember.

P.S-- Special thanks to Ron Davidson who sent me this link to a band called "The Zimmers" singing The Who song "My Generation." This is a wonderful example of how humor doesn't decline with age, check it out!!!!!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Mirror Neurons and Laughter

Browse any college's library and you're sure to find several books on the use of humor in psychology. Many of these books are very serious in tone and explain humor using technical jargon and psychological terms many are unfamiliar with, and reading this material it becomes clear that often talking about why something is funny is a surefire way to slowly kill the joy in conversation. I am very wary of this, but am also endlessly fascinated by new research that explains how and why people build connections through humor. With this idea in mind, it is interesting to consider a discovery of something in the brain called mirror neurons, something renowned neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran says "will do for psychology what the discovery of DNA did for Biology." This is an extraordinary claim, and one that needs further clarification.

What mirror neurons essentially are is a group of neurons first observed in monkeys that "fire" not from the animals own behavior, but through watching the behavior of another animal. Mirror neurons in humans were also found in the interior frontal and interior parietal regions of the brain, and this discovery has potentially enormous implications for understanding and observing human behavior.

So why is this important and what does it have to do with laughter? The implications of mirror neurons begin with the idea that people tend to mimic each other and also feel pain when others around them feel pain. This idea was confirmed by an experiment that showed when people watch someone else get poked with a pin, their pain neurons fire exactly like the person being poked. These neurons came to be known as "Dalai Lama" neurons and showed how empathy works on a cellular level.

With this in mind I decided to conduct an experiment of my own to see the affects laughter had on mirror neurons. Although I didn't have magnetic imaging equipment or a fully equipped laboratory at my disposal, I did have the ability to measure hand temperature which is a standard technique used in biofeedback. I took 30 people ranging in age from 20 to 41 years old who suffered from headaches, and explained a little bit about mirror neurons and an interesting conversation ensued. Because these patients all had headaches and were all staying in close proximity to each other, someone suggested that perhaps their headaches were affecting those around them, which was exactly where I hoped the conversation would go.

A word about this. A common complaint from the hospital staff I know that works with headaches patients is that they commonly leave work with a headache. Although there are a couple plausible reasons for this such as the power of suggestion, I also believe that mirror neurons may provide an excellent explanation. With the thought in mind that mirror neurons may affect headaches, I wanted to see the effect a positive event such as laughter would have on headache patients, and with this in mind designed a simple experiment.

I first had the patients measure their hand temperatures under normal conditions and then measured the results. The scores ranged from 74 degrees to 93 degrees which is a fairly normal range for headache patients who are on a wide variety of medications that affect their temperatures a great deal. The idea is that the colder a person's hand temperature is, the worse their headache may be, as blood rushes to the head and away from the extremities during a headache. If a person can warm their hands up using biofeedback, they therefore can often reduce the physiological mechanisms of the headache. In my small experiment, the mean temperature at the beginning of the experiment was 83 degrees. The mode of the scores was 84 degrees, which 7 of the patients recorded.

The variable in the experiment was the movie Office Space, in my opinion one of the funniest movies to come out in the last 15 years. I had everyone gather in the common area to watch the movie, and, as I expected soon everyone was laughing heartily including myself. Beyond the fact that the movie itself was so funny, everyone also seemed to be enjoying each other's company.

At the end of the film I again had everyone measure their hand temperature, and this time the results were extremely interesting. Following the movie, the scores ranged from 79 to 92 degrees, but the mean score was now 87 degrees which was 4 degrees higher than at the beginning of the experiment, indicating that the laughter had significantly increased the relaxation response in the patients. More interesting was the mode of the scores. Following the movie 15 of the 30 patients recorded a score of 86 degrees. In effect half of the patients now had the exact same score following two hours of laughter. So not only did the laughter relax everyone, but it also relaxed half of the people in the room in so much the same way that their bodies were responding in an identical manner. This phenomena was also represented by the decrease in the range of scores, which was 19 degrees at the beginning of the experiment, and only 13 degrees following the movie.

So, although from a statistical standpoint my study wasn't big enough to make waves, I still became all the more convinced of the power laughter has on people's physical bodies and health. Beyond the measurements, people were also genuinely happy at the end of the film, and laughing together had provided some much needed pain relief for several of the participants. The positive energy in the room was clearly contagious, and much like the laughter clubs I visited, the act of laughter was all the more powerful when experienced communally. Although the study of mirror neurons on a molecular level is being done by much smarter people than me, I'm convinced of their power, and learning and studying about this discovery only strengthens my faith in the healing power of laughter.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Stumbling on Happiness

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death

Life is what happens to you while you're busy
making other plans.
John Lennon


One of the most interesting books I've read in the last couple of months is Daniel Gilbert's
Stumbling on Happiness
Gilbert's premise is that we often make decisions in our present with the idea that these things will benefit us at some future time. We deny ourselves things and save our money thinking that our future selves will enjoy and appreciate these sacrifices, only to arrive in the future full of regret about our past decisions. How can this be? Gilbert makes the point that we are often very poor at predicting what will make us happy in the future, and that we often arrive in the future baffled by the decisions we made in the past.

So what is the lesson here? I took this lesson as a kind of "Carpe diem" (Seize the Day) message, and that because our future selves are often so disappointed with us, perhaps the idea is to indulge in and appreciate the precious present.

I recently came to appreciate this lesson when I used a service called "future me." The purpose of this site is to allow people to send themselves an email at some designated point in the future and then reflect back on how they were thinking at the time they wrote this letter. I recently received one from myself I had written two years ago and it was filled with angst, unrequited love, anxiety about unpaid bills, as well as a glimmer of hope for the future. At the time I had never published a book, was pining away for some girl who I now barely remember, and was worried sick about some financial concern that I now see was ridiculous. Why was this guy so stressed out? I wanted to go back and tell him that everything was going to be fine, and that things were going to work out pretty well for him if he would just hang in there. I was also sad to see how little I was enjoying life at that moment, and how the things I was ruminating about at the time turned out to be virtually meaningless in the future.

So, although I was disappointed in seeing the lack of joy in my past self's life, I also learned a valuable lesson about how the things we worry and obsess about rarely come to fruition. I now do things with little thought for the future me, as I realize he is a very harsh judge and difficult to please. I try to constantly live in and find pleasure in the moment, and, although I now may error on the side of hedonism, I find that this is certainly the best recipe for finding humor in everyday situations.

The dangers of mortgaging the present to pay for the future was also demonstrated to me again and again when I worked in a couple of different Nursing Homes. Most of the patients I interacted with had experienced the depression, and this experience indelibly stamped the idea that money should be saved. Again and again I saw people who were struck with Alzheimer's right as they were getting ready to enjoy their "golden years" and it never failed to break my heart. I heard many stories of how people denied themselves everything during the first 65 years of life so they could finally travel and see the world when they got older, only to arrive at retirement to be struck by a debilitating illness. It wasn't uncommon for a couple to have saved as much as a million dollars for their retirement, only to see this entire amount disappear in a couple of years as the health care industry slowly ate away at their savings. This may in fact be the rule rather than the exception, and this is I hope a cautionary tale for anyone who continually denies themselves things in the present. Life is uncertain, but what is a virtual certainty is that as medical science continues to expand the ability to keep people alive, now roughly 80 percent of people will eventually die in a hospital, and this number continues to get bigger. This virtually guarantees a drain on people's savings, and my advice is to spend your money enjoying things now, as the medical system will find a way to get a lot of it before it all said and done.

So am I advocating not saving at all? No, but there is a lesson here about living in the present, and there is an even greater lesson here about the futility of ruminating about the future.
Most of what awaits us is simply unknown, and as we continue to worry about the future precious opportunities to experience joy in the present continue to pass us by. This is where the relationship between mindfulness and humor becomes essential. Every moment in life can become a wonderful learning opportunity if we stay in the here and now. Many people will tell you humor is about "timing", and when we use our time to obsess about some future or past event, the joy of the moment has past. This is the lesson of Gilbert's book, and it speaks directly to the power of mindfulness in alerting us to the comic possibilities around us.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Albert Ellis-Rest In Peace You Magnificent Bastard

Albert Ellis died today, arguably as one of the most widely disliked psychologists of all time. He was 93 years old and to his dying day espoused the principles of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy he had created over the last 50 years. He will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most influential psychologists of all time.

I had a chance to see Albert Ellis talk around the turn of the century when he was in his 80's and I was still very new to the field of psychology. I saw a picture of this little man with Harry Carrey glasses and wondered what the big deal was about this little guy; until he opened his mouth. In the first 30 seconds of his speech this nearly 90 year old man let out a stream of obscenities that would make a truck driver blush, and this was before he was even done with his introduction. I knew I liked this man immediately.

Albert Ellis used humor in therapy like no other therapist had before and likely ever will again. A favorite tactic was blowing up someones anxiety to comical proportions so they could see the absurdity of their faulty thinking. Ellis was not afraid to openly mock his client's thinking in a therapy session, careful to explain that he wasn't mocking the client but instead their way of thinking. He believed that by aligning with the client against their self-defeating behavior, he could create a situation where people could begin to get some perspective on how the way they thought about the world was responsible for much of their problems. Ellis created dozens of funny songs over the years about the absurdity of faulty thinking, and he passionately stuck by his principles despite being openly dismissed as irrelevant by most of the psychological establishment.

A 1982 survey listed Albert Ellis as the second most influential psychologist in history. Despite upsetting the powers that be in psychology for over half a century, his contributions eventually prevailed, and Cognitive-Behavioral therapy is now arguably the most widely practiced branch of psychology today. Although many disagreed with Ellis' particularly harsh brand of humor, he was undeniably one of the most influential pioneers of using humor as a way to cope with the world. He was also personally a very funny man, and his especially unique use of humor in the therapeutic situation will be analyzed and discussed for many years to come. As someone who was personally very much influenced by his emphasis on taking personal responsibility for one's actions, I am deeply saddened by this loss, but also know that his contributions will live on. Rest in peace you magnificent bastard.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The HA HA HA Prescription for Wellness

Ask nearly anyone you meet on the street to tell you a story about health care, and there's a good chance they'll tell you about their interactions with a particular doctor. Many of these stories will be negative. In my own case I checked into a hospital a couple of years ago after experiencing the most intense pain of my life. Sure I was dying, I waited for 3 hours in the emergency room before the nurse called my name, and, after a few short examinations and an X-Ray, I heard the two words no man ever wants to hear; Kidney Stone.

Ever seen one of those pictures of a snake that has swallowed a huge animal? That huge animal is the kidney stone in your urethra. It was not pleasant. When I finally saw a doctor 5 hours after I arrived he spoke to me for 10 seconds, prescribed some Vicodin, and sent me on my way. A week later I got a bill for 500 dollars.

All things considered, this is a minor story that pales in comparison to most people's misfortune. The point is, more than any other time in the history of the profession, doctors have lost the trust of their patients.

That being said, there are doctors like Clifford Kuhn who walk among us that truly represent the idea that a doctor is a "healer." Not Surprisingly, Kuhn believes laughter is one of the most powerful forces that stimulates this healing.

Kuhn is one of many cutting edge doctors who have come to understand the relationship between the body and the mind, and the role a person's attitude plays in their recovery. What is especially interesting in Kuhn's case, is, although he was prescribing laughter as a mechanism of recovery to the patients he was working with, those same patients told him, in a nutshell, that he wasn't following his own prescription. He had turned into a drip, and hearing this Dr. Kuhn decided to do something about it. Kuhn began hanging around comedians and observing how they worked, came up with material, and interacted with their audience. Soon he was doing stand-up himself, and he left his position at the hospital and began touring around the country as a stand-up comedian, hoping what he learned on the road would ultimately help him become a better doctor.

Kuhn's time on the road helped him create his HA HA HA prescription for laughter. His first "HA" is what he calls Humor Attitude. Humor attitude is a way of looking at the world and recognizing humor in everyday situations. Kuhn explains that many people are afraid to laugh at traditionally serious places like work or school, but that adopting an openness to seeing humor everywhere can lead to a major change in one's way of seeing the world. Kuhn emphasizes humor attitude is not about being funny but instead about having fun. Some people are more comfortable being in the audience than "working the room" and Kuhn emphasizes this is perfectly fine. Sometimes it is the people in the audience that ultimately have the most fun.

The second "HA" is what Kuhn refers to as Humor Aptitude. Kuhn emphasizes that as babies we are born smiling, and become especially delighted when we recognize a familiar face, but that somewhere along the way we lose this joy of simply being with others. He emphasizes that the simple act of smiling is itself contagious and leads to laughter, and that this one thing can help us take ourselves much less seriously.

The third and final "HA" is what Kuhn refers to as Humor Action. Kuhn describes how listening carefully is the key to humor action, as through truly listening as opposed to simply waiting for our turns to talk we can focus our attention on others, create stronger interpersonal connections, which ultimately establishes the trust necessary to share real laughter with another human being.

Finally Kuhn has come up with a list of "fun commandments" which he feels provide a recipe for a successful life,
Dr. Kuhn's Fun Commandments
  1. Always Go the Extra Smile
    Of all my Fun Commandments, this one provides you with the most energy. It is the one strategy most effective for increasing the fun in your life. Smiling is a way to open your heart and at the same time touch the hearts of others. We have measured decreased stress, improved immunity, increased tolerance for pain and frustration, and higher levels of creativity - even from a "fake" smile!
  2. Tell the Truth
    Of all my Fun Commandments, this one helps you keep an inventory of yourself. Our humor natures are open windows to the truth; therefore, if you want your sense of humor to be strong and available, you must make the effort to be true to yourself. This Commandment promotes trust in yourself and keeps you on a steady, forward pace since you will be much more cognizant of what is working in your life and what isn't.
  3. Laugh With Yourself First
    Of all my Fun Commandments, this one helps you take yourself less seriously. When you make a mistake, laughing with yourself keeps you from beating up on yourself. It is a boost to your self-esteem because it is a vote of confidence in yourself. This Commandment sends a clear message to you that you are okay. You know that your foibles do not form links in an unbreakable chain, because you are learning from them and becoming more effective.
  4. Welcome Your Mistakes
    Of all my Fun Commandments, this one allows you to stop being so hard on yourself. Jerry Lewis once told me that he is always nervous before he goes on stage, but "the trick is to harness the fear and make it your ally." In other words, don't be afraid of your mistakes - welcome them! In fact, your mistakes can be so helpful to you that I suggest making them on purpose. You're going to make mistakes anyway. Making them on purpose helps you turn your fear into fun.
  5. Listen Very Carefully
    Of all my Fun Commandments, this one keeps you from being too self-centered. Successful comedians will tell you that the capacity to listen is their number one creative tool. Yet listening is an often overlooked and under taught skill and most of us are very poor at it, preferring to form our next phrases rather than hear what is being said to us. To really listen we must turn the volume down on our own internal chatter and this allows us to communicate from our hearts rather than our heads.
  6. Let Go Frequently
    Of all my Fun Commandments, this one provides you with serenity. If you've ever learned to juggle you quickly discovered that we all have a tendency to hold on to objects for too long. The same phenomenon occurs in life and, since we are all jugglers - juggling our family, our work, our community responsibilities, and our own care, letting go is a vital skill that will prevent stress and give peace of mind.
  7. Challenge Your Assumptions
    Of all my Fun Commandments, this one keeps you open minded and learning. It is also an effective way to bring humor into your life. We make assumptions because it saves us time and energy in our busy lives, but assumptions can keep us from growing and changing if we are not capable or willing to see new perspectives. Get in the habit of seeing things around you in a different way and your sense of humor will become supercharged.
  8. Stay Focused, Yet Flexible
    Of all my Fun Commandments, this one eases you through changes and transitions. This strategy is about keeping your priorities clear, but keeping your options open. You can't help but become an inspired opportunist when you develop a trait for seeing the victories inherent in what you used to call defeats. As you'll come to find out, this trait is shared by all successful people.
  9. Act and Interact with People
    Of all my Fun Commandments, this one gives you a constant and reliable source of amusement. Reaching out and touching someone is often a learned skill, but it pays big dividends. Realize that taking chances means you will make mistakes, but they will happen less often if you are willing to learn from them. You'll also find that a failed action is much more valuable to your health and success than a failure to act.
  10. Practice Wanting What You Have, Rather Than Getting What You Want
    Of all my Fun Commandments, this one helps you attract, and hold on to, abundance. One of the great paradoxes of life is that, as long as you try to fill your inner void with things outside yourself, your void only gets bigger. Learning to love what we have and who we are - right now - opens us up to receive so much more, because we want things for the right reason. We're no longer trying to "fix" ourselves.
  11. Choose to Motivate Yourself With Fun Rather Than Fear
    Of all my Fun Commandments, this one teaches you how to set goals and achieve them. You really only have the choices of fun or fear when it comes to motivation and they both work well. The problem, however, with choosing fear is that it is impossible to sustain the motivation without harming ourselves through burn-out and stress. Choosing fun to motivate ourselves is the simple difference of striving toward positive goals, rather than escaping negative ones.
  12. Celebrate Everything
    Of all my Fun Commandments, this one provides you with abundant joy every day. If you make a practice of celebrating events you normally treated as mundane, you will be filled with an energy and spirit that you haven't felt since childhood. Left to choose between feeling like a jaded pessimist or a naive optimist (of course, I'm using two extremes as examples), why wouldn't you choose the latter? Either way, your life will still unfold around you - but you will see it as a gift.

Reading about Dr. Kuhn's life and work, I reconsidered my attitude towards doctors and better understood that despite the reputation many doctors have, there are those like Dr. Kuhn who really do "get it." Perhaps the lesson here is that, much like Dr. Kuhn's patients called him out on his own hypocrisy regarding humor many years ago, we as consumers can demand more from our own doctors. All too often I see the patients I work with cede all control to the all-knowing doctor, when they themselves are often their best diagnostic tool. Don't be afraid to tell your doctor to lighten up a little, and if they give you trouble I can supply you with a great deal of research about how the quality of the relationship between the patient and doctor is integral. Ultimately medicine is a business, and as the consumer you have the right and responsibility to demand more if you feel your concerns are not being heard. More importantly listen closely to see if your doctor has a sense of humor. Dr. Kuhn feels this is the single most important trait a healthcare leader can have, and if your doctor is missing this it may be a cause for concern.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Rain Man, Reclaiming Joy, & There’s Something About Mary

One of the pivotal scenes in the movie Rain Man occurs when Raymond, who has been repetitively repeating the "Who's on First" monologue from Abbot and Costello throughout the movie, finally comes to understand that the routine has no answer and is in fact a joke. Being autistic, Raymond didn't find funny what most people did, but finally understands when he bonds with his brother. He expresses this realization through humor, and it is a beautiful moment and a beautiful lesson.

This Rain Man analogy can also be applied to many people who seek psychological services, as they too have lost the ability to recognize the opportunity to appreciate humor in their lives. Often they come in bewildered that others "get" something about life that they don't, and that somewhere there is a parade passing them by that no one bothered to extend them an invitation to.

The beauty of the scene in the Rain Man  was that it wasn't that Raymond out of nowhere suddenly understood comedy, but his laughter was instead a reflection of the fact that he had built a relationship. This relationship with his brother was difficult, painful, and occasionally exploitative, but in the end it was something that dramatically changed and improved his quality of life. Friendships are sometimes like this. Although we may at times feel friends are a drain on our time and our emotional resources, it is ultimately our relationships with others that determines our happiness in life. 

The wonderful psychologist Alfred Adler suggested that all problems are ultimately social problems, and this is especially true with the amount of laughter we have in our lives. My experience teaches me that people who aren't laughing enough have almost always found a way to physically or emotionally isolate themselves from others. This is the rub. Often people who experience alienation feel that no one could possibly understand the world the way they do, and you know what? They're right!!!! The way we all individually process the world is so different that it is a wonder that we are able to make connections. But somehow we do, and in understanding why this is, I want to share a personal anecdote about my own road back from alienation.

The year was 1998 and I had been in Chicago for a couple of years. I moved to the city thinking I would be whisked away to Saturday Night Live within a couple of months in the city, but in reality I was often performing more for the busboys I worked with than the American Public, and I sank into a deep depression as my dream seemed to move further and further away. Alienation set in. I felt like I was the only one in the world who had a dream that didn't quite work out, and I stopped returning phone calls as I continued to wallow in my own pity. One day a friend came in to the bar I worked with and told me there was a movie I absolutely must see. It was called There's Something About Mary and, although I hadn't been out socially in months, I pulled myself together and went to the show.

Arriving at the movie, I took a seat in the back and settled in. Soon, although I was sure the movie wouldn't be that great, I began to laugh, and then I began to really, really laugh. In my laughter I looked around and saw that people were in near hysterics from watching the movie. Monitoring my own laughter and looking around and seeing people go so crazy, I soon got caught up in the hysterics and, for the first time in months, laughed so hard that my stomach hurt.

The next day I returned, but this time instead of watching the movie, I found myself watching the people watching the movie, and it filled me with a sense of pure, unadulterated joy. Seeing others happy made me happy, and for the first time in quite some time I felt that I was a member of the parade again. On my third day watching the film, Albert Camus' statement "In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer" rushed into my head, and this became a mantra that would get me through the next several months of my life.Looking back on those days, I now understand that it was the laughter that brought me back from the brink. Much like the Rain Man I had found a way to connect to others, and this connection reawakened me to the possibility of joy in my life. It was truly a magical transformation, and one I'll never forget as I work with people who have lost the sense of joy in their own lives.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Becoming attached to suffering

Much of the work I currently do is with headache patients, who many psychologists feel are one of the most difficult populations to work with. In many cases with a headache patient their symptoms don't show up on an X-ray or any other physical measurement of illness, yet they describe excruciating, debilitating pain that renders them unable to work and attend to their families, and often results in hospitalization.

Because many of their physical symptoms don’t register on medical radar, it is often suggested that these patients are faking or exaggerating their symptoms, and this then becomes a very difficult pain to treat effectively. Is the answer to provide them with large doses of pain medication? This has certainly been the most common approach to the problem, but it is also rife with difficulty. 

These medications are highly addictive, and become a crutch which may imprison the headache patient for the rest of their days. The fact is that pain medications often simply block the pain signal from going where it wants to go, without remotely addressing the source of the pain itself. The drugs in effect become a very expensive band-aid that one can easily become dependent on, and this creates the kind of “repeat” customer that returns to the hospital again and again and again.

Regarding this dependence on drugs, it is important to remember that everything a drug can do, THE BODY CAN DO BY ITSELF!!! This is why drugs work. They mimic the body’s own natural painkillers such as endorphins which are as powerful as any pain medications we have ever and likely will ever create.
So how do we access these endorphins? Many runners will tell you that the “runners high” that they experience during exercise is as pleasurable as anything they have ever experienced. This explains why exercise can become addictive as people want to duplicate this wonderful feeling as often as possible. A psychiatrist named William Glasser wrote a book about this very thing called Positive Addictions (1976), and his work has influenced an entire generation of people to replace unhealthy behavior with more adaptive ones such as exercise.

But what does all this have to do with laughter? The fact is laughter can activate these very same endorphins. According to Dr. Lee Berk ,
who has done a great deal of research on the study, laughter provides
“An increase in the number and activity level of natural killer cells that attack viral infected cells and some types of cancer and tumor cells.
An increase in activated T cells (T lymphocytes). There are many T cells that await activation. Laughter appears to tell the immune system to "turn it up a notch."
An increase in the antibody IgA (immunoglobulin A), which fights upper respiratory tract insults and infections.
An increase in gamma interferon, which tells various components of the immune system to "turn on."
An increase in IgB, the immunoglobulin produced in the greatest quantity in body, as well as an increase in Complement 3, which helps antibodies to pierce dysfunctional or infected cells. The increase in both substances was not only present while subjects watched a humor video; there also was a lingering effect that continued to show increased levels the next day.”
Pretty convincing stuff, yet still a lesson many people understand philosophically but still chose not to implement in their own lives. The single most common personality trait I notice in the patients I work with is a state of anhedonia, or lack of joy, that permeates everything in their lives and eventually presents itself as a painful headache. I don’t doubt their suffering when I see this, but also understand that there is a solution which has worked for thousands of years. As Nietzsche said it, “man alone suffers so excruciatingly in the world that he was compelled to invent laughter." Laughter and joy are the road back to life, and with these tools our pain can become manageable, and as the Buddha admonished, we can accept suffering yet still find joy in the simple act of being in the world.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Radical Honesty, Freedom, & Laughter

Brad Blanton believes in telling it like it is. His book Radical Honesty written in 1996 hypothesizes that much our personal unhappiness comes about as a result of the lies we tell to ourselves, and lies about ourselves we tell to others. He writes that we can become so obsessed with managing other's impression of us, that we eventually destroy our physical and mental health trying to keep this house of cards we have constructed from falling down. Blanton believes that by being totally honest in our lives we may liberate these bonds that constrain us, and in doing so find a way back to lives full of joy and new possibilities.

Is he right? Reading his book I was struck again and again of his discussion of honesty as a kind of liberation, and in reading this I thought back on my own life and how good it felt getting a particularly cumbersome weight of dishonesty off my shoulders. So what does this have to do with laughter? My thoughts are that much of the dishonest communication that occurs between people does in fact have to do with impression management, and that perhaps laughter can be the bridge across our obsession with what other may think about us. The people I like the most in my own life all have the same kind of self-deprecating humility that consistently comes out in their communications with others. Their willingness to laugh at their own limitations never fails to ingratiate them to the people they are around, and seeing them at work I've learned that it is often the people who are the most humble that I end up admiring the most.

So is there a relationship between humor and honesty? It has been my experience that the answer to this is unquestionably yes. The funniest things are often those observations that reflect pure honesty about the human condition back to us in a way that utterly convinces us of our shared absurdity. Rather than reject this absurdity as meaningless, we may find comfort in the fact that we are all going through this together. As Elvis Costello put in so eloquently in his song The Angels wannna wear my red shoes "I used to be disgusted, now I try to be amused." Good advice about the kind of passive volition that fuels the fire of wisdom.

One closing thought about honesty and laughter in relationships. Think about the people in your life you have shared a true, hysterical, rolling on the floor, out of breath, fit of laughter with. What did they all have in common? My guess is these people are nearly always those we have the most trust and honesty with in our personal relationships. It is these people who know everything about us, and have seen us at our best and our worst that we are able to really let ourselves go with, and it is personal honesty that likely makes this possible. These moments of true and unequivocal laughter with another human represent the most powerful kind of human connection we can find, and in these moments we are utterly and totally free of modesty, vanity, and fear. Dropping these pretensions makes this possible, and speaks volumes about the power and relationship of laughter and honesty in creating human connections.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Patch Adams-The Patron Saint of Laughter

"The creative individual cannot grow up because he keeps growing."
-Eric Hoffel

If Norman Cousins was the Lazarus of laughter, then Saint Paul would have to be Patch Adams, who has spread the word about the healing power of laughter into some of the darkest places on the globe. Many people are familiar with the movie about this wonderful man, but many may not know he also travels to places ripped apart by war and ethnic cleansing like Bosnia where he continues to spread the word. Patch and his clowns have worked with Aids patients in Africa, refugees in Afghanistan, as well as with children in Haiti and El Salvador, and have found that laughter can reach people even in the utter depths of despair.

What Patch also found was that beyond medical attention, what many people needed was stimulation and to reconnect with their fellow human beings. He found that many "medical" conditions were in fact a symptom of a loss of connection with life that manifested itself in a person's biological conditions. This was often the case with the elderly people I worked with in my own life, as the decline in their physical health often coincided with their loss of connection with the outside world. By providing stimulation and laughter we were able to provide a kind of reconnection, and this often had positive implications for their physical health that made even the most skeptical medical practitioners take pause.

In Patch's own words, "we found that the vast majority of our adult population does not have a day to day vitality for life (which we would define as good health). The idea that a person was healthy because of normal lab values and clear x-rays had no relationship to who the person was. Good health was much more deeply related to close friendships, meaningful work, a lived spirituality of any kind, an opportunity for loving service and an engaging relationship to nature, the arts, wonder, curiosity, passion and hope. All of these are time-consuming, impractical needs. When we don't meet these needs, the business of high-tech medicine diagnoses mental illness and treats with pills."

These are very wise words that got me thinking about the idea of loss as it relates to physical health. As Mental Health practitioners understanding what a person has lost in their life often reveals important clues as to what brings a person in to see us. Have they lost their job? Their marriage? A close friend? Their looks? Their youth? Asking these questions offers important clues as to the origins of a person's problem, and the answer to these questions may be a prescription for all of the things Patch Adams describes above as a "road back" to life. The key to this road back begins with laughter, as through laughing we can begin to filter life's losses through the wisdom and humor of our shared humanity. By learning to laugh at our own misfortunes we may develop a deep kinship with our fellow travelers as we take solace in our common fallibility. This creates connections, and these connections help us build relationships, and laughter is the glue that may bond these relationships together. Patch Adams has spent a lifetime demonstrating the power of this simple yet elegant principle, and his life has been an example of the power of this idea.