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!!!!!