Essays Opinion

Humour, Dancing and Dying

Humour is the only test of gravity, and gravity the only test of humour. For a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious; and a jest which will not bear a serious examination is certainly false wit.’ Leontinus

For a brief time ago our lives contained some serious absurdities. Personal growth boom of the 1980’s and early 90’s dragged some of us from badly lit consulting rooms into nude marathon encounter groups and a whole host of other diverting forms of therapy by the sunny sides of swimming pools. We were living in the damp towns. They were part orgy (though we never saw much of that) and part journey into inner space. Even those fleeting adventures ware laced with old-fashioned, inverted Puritanism. Any incidental enjoyment was drowned in a compulsion to be spontaneous and insightful, “come on. Be more spontaneous!” Nowadays, regretfully, we have sunk into a quagmire of self-importance, verging on pomposity.

I much prefer gallows humour, once so common in mental hospitals and other grim institutions. It has an intense vigour. Many years ago I talked with a young social work student at the time at St Luke’s Hospital, in Huddersfield West Yorkshire. She complained about various hospital professionals, including me. “You don’t take the work seriously. You don’t recognise their pain and suffering. I asked her to explain. “You are always laughing and making jokes”. I pointed out the distinction earnest and serious but it was a waste of time. Despite her accusations, we took the work very seriously but we also knew we were living close to farce. She was involved in a sprint and ours was a marathon. The humour recognised the impossibility of our work. Daily we face profound human suffering and neglect in a place that was doing enormous damage to people – not just the patients but also the staff.

I’d like to see the late Ruth Picardie go ten rounds with my earnest student.

‘A few people, I think reckon that cripples can help them to get to heaven, including, my born-again former school teach who this week sent me a book of true-life stories of Christians who have experienced tragedy of one sort or another… all of them have found hope in their suffering through knowing God, who suffered first. In an accompanying letter, she urged me to allow the peace of God into my heart at this difficult time. To her, I say, sorry Miss, but I was the one who carved ‘666’ on the desks, I’m still half-Jewish (sadly the wrong half) and no death-bed conversion looms, despite the scary grim reaper ad.’  Picardie 1994

One major discovery after twenty years was that client’s ability to get into trouble always exceeds the facility of professionals to rescue them. Of course they’re really supposed to rescue themselves, as in the story of the two Rogerian therapists. The two wise men were standing by a large pond discussing the finer points on non-intervention. They observed in the distance a woman struggling in deep water. She seemed to be in trouble and there was fierce struggle, her arms waving for a few moments until all was silent in the mixture of water and weed. After several moments of contemplation one therapist commented: “What a shame she didn’t cry out for help”. 

Some jokes reveal a serious side to our human nature. Chogyam Trungpa, a late great Tibetan lama, writes directly about seeing through the great joke:

‘So a sense of humour is not merely a matter of trying to tell jokes or make puns, trying to be funny in a deliberate fashion. It involves seeing the basic irony to the juxtaposition of extremes, so that one is not caught taking them seriously, so that one does take seriously their game of hope and fear. This is why the experience of the spiritual path is so significant, why the practice of meditation is the most insignificant experience of all. It is insignificant because you place no value judgement on it. Once you are absorbed into the insignificant situation of openness without involvement in value judgement, then you begin to see all the games going on around you. Someone is trying to be stern and spiritually solemn, trying to be a good person. Such a person might take it seriously if someone offended him, might want to fight. If you work in accordance with the basic insignificance of what is, then you begin to see the humour in this kind of solemnity, in people making such a big deal about things ‘. Trungpa 1969

Trungpa points to the essential pomposity and absurdity of our professions. Every profession has a vibrant version of the policeman’s imagined thin blue line. I never visited or worked with any organisations for the mentally ill, learning disabled or homeless that didn’t believe it tool in and cared for people ‘nobody else would touch’. Most of us have to believe in our singular importance; that we stand as warriors, the last line of defence against the overwhelming forces.

Some of us earn a reasonable living by charging distressed people folding money for simply talking to us. We mostly listen and they mostly talk about loneliness, despair, having little intimacy, not being understood by ‘significant’ others. Our heads nod gently and mouths go “hmmm” and “hmmm”. I’ll never forget one of my early experiences in counselling, the counsellor nodded off during one session. I went on babbling on regardless. I can laugh about it now…

Several years later in the Manjushri Buddhist centre in the Lake District I was doing a long period of silence. I sat in their beautiful grounds with card round my neck: ‘Lee is doing a period of silence’. Several people I’d previously counselled came to talk. It was relaxing just to listen and not to think of something wise to say. One told me afterwards, in a rather back-handed compliment, that it was the best session she’d ever had.

We’re all pioneers  of a sort – rough frontiersman and women. The so-called helping professions are at the beginning of an exciting journey, that attempts to explore and enlarge human awareness and establish new disciplines echoing some of the experiences of the sixteenth-century physics – the age of Alchemy. Like then we are attempting to transform base metals into gold. There is that sense of arrant nonsense and profound wisdom jostling side by side – often very difficult to tell which is which.

Mostly though the picture is of isolated and earnest therapists and other helpers, silently inventing overcomplicated theories, facing distressed clients and both agonising eternally. It is rather more like chess than dance. Vicarious suffering meets individual pain – the fixed grimace rather than the spontaneous smile. The mouth may smile but the eyes rarely. Professional, some of whom had a traumatic time in training, like I did, with a sodding miserable Western European teacher, seek unconsciously to wreak some kind of vengeance in turn on their own students. And so the negative Karma continues.     

I suspect that Psychotherapist are rarely writers, poets or musicians, with the ability to capture the butterfly wing quality of dynamic encounters with people, My experience in meeting with distressed people owes more to the Marx Brothers than to Karl Marx, or Sigmund Freud for that matter. I suspect that therapy sessions with large helpings of frothy bubbles and joy are considerably more typical than the po-faced and respectably accounts common in books. Of course there is considerable suffering but many sessions are punctuated with jokes and laughter. At least I would hope.

Some years ago I visited a bright young lady at her home. She had a learning disability, was cancer-riddles, had about two weeks to live and was just about to enter the local hospice. Her mother, a devout Roman Catholic, was painfully angry. She was especially furious that her daughter has summoned for me to be with her in the final days. I was adding to the already immense problems. The atmosphere was deeply fraught.

Lying quietly upstairs in her bedroom, the daughter asked weakly, ‘I would really like to learn to relax. Can you teach me? I replied smiling “Aren’t you cutting it a bit fine?” The acute tension was suddenly released. We both collapsed and laughed and took several minutes to recover. She was the best student (and teacher) I ever had. Her concentration was completely undivided and she died peacefully a few days later.

Humour and laughter aren’t chocolate and whipped cream in therapy but the genuine bread and butter, milk and apples. They aren’t optional luxuries only to be indulged in several hours later of bawling your eyes out. Laughter doesn’t have to be painfully earned.  It comes free. It comes bubbling up like a warm spring. Humour is the core. It’s the yeast that gives life to important processes by which we expand our awareness of ten thousand different realities.  – all inconsistent with one another, but it doesn’t matter.   Through humour, we toss life in the air lightly like a pancake and flip it un-neatly over, eventually becoming the pancake ourselves.

Humour can help free us from many fixed illusions. It shakes our attachment to the ego. We don’t know whether we are Chou or the butterfly, or even if it matters.

Once I dreamt that I was a butterfly, fluttering here and there; in all ways a butterfly. I enjoyed my freedom as a butterfly, not knowing that I was Chou. Suddenly I awoke and was surprised to be myself again. Now, how can I tell whether I am a man who dreamt that he was a butterfly, or whether I am a butterfly who dreams that he is a man?

I believe there is no answer for that, but in any case we must remember that the ‘Toa Te Ching’ of Lao-tzu (who almost certainly never existed) and the utterances of Chuang Tzu are not to be taken too seriously for the sake of you spiritual health. You can hear these ancient Chinese masters laughing on almost every line. Watts puts it uncharacteristically soberly: ‘It must be understood, in passing, that both Lao-tzu and Chuang Tzu enjoy the humour or overstating their case – the latter sometimes choosing truly preposterous examples to illustrate the point.’

Humour provides an immensely earthy challenge to established realities and psychological concepts. Somehow, in the same moment we can be both in the clouds and standing firmly on the earth. Life is never as we imagined or expect it to be. In a single moment we are surrounded by immense high stone walls topped by electrified barbed wire of human suffering. There seems no escape possible, only dreary life imprisonment. In the same moment the walls and wires fall down in a large pile of rubble, turning into a giant duck, topped by a face that looks exactly like our own.

A good friend came to see me the other day. She is a painfully thin woman with Anorexia Nervosa, highly anxious and her appearance was accompanied by an agitated gait or shuffled from years anti-psychotic medications. She said nothing for a long moment between us. “You seem quiet?” I said. Then as if out of nowhere she said  “Apparently the Sioux (Native Americans) when under stress because of the declining buffalo herds, become collectively and electively mute during the last Century.”

I wasn’t prepared for this and didn’t know how to use this genuine nugget of information. I think it sat with me like a small confused piece of jigsaw in a great puzzle that was beyond us both.  My immediate response was a considerable mixture of helplessness and love. I looked a genuine fool with an impressive array of felt-pens of various colours and several large notepads, like a timekeeper at the Olympics, much too late for the race. I asked her to draw picture of this and she took the pens from me and began to draw the most amazing array of sketches depicting ancient herding buffalos. Then she stopped and waited silently, sitting sideways to avoid my gaze.

 “Have you talked to someone about this before, your muteness?” I asked her. She replied slowly but in a clear voice “No, nobody wanted to listen”, her slow and scratchy voice ran round and round my empty head. I just wanted to give her a hug. Instead I said nothing, my detailed and intimate knowledge of the Sioux was rendered useless at a stroke. As I looked at these drawings I was flooded in an overwhelming feeling of humility. Great! She’s cracked it. She’s identified herself with the Sioux Indian’s because they lost their voice when they lost their herd. She’s drawn them back into existence, in her own vision and in doing so, found a voice. We talked and laughed together from that point onwards.

The thing is that in the west Psychotherapeutic ideologies they discourage dancing barefoot in the long wet grass. How can you dance with the term ‘ongoing Dyadic relationships’. This language doesn’t smell right. This and other terms like ‘cathartic’ and ‘transference’ are the purgatives elixirs of human growth. The taste is so dreadful it must be doing us some good. There the language used is classy nonsense. The language is of the supermarket. Mearns and Thorne use such phrases such as “to open myself to myself” and “to trust the feeling of inter-relatedness” , the use of crude tools applied to the ‘client’  and “my spiritual experience is to ‘capitalised’ on, all sounds unlike the music of spirituality but of inflating egos.

Nothing in genuine spirituality prepares the students for hammers and spanners. Are we running away from our own shadows because we can’t think of anything else? Or is it just fear? Surely we realise this strategy can’t succeed. Are we simply searching over in the light because we’re told to do so and it’s where everyone else is looking? “I know it’s over there because that’s where everyone is.” Are we afraid to stick out in the crowd, to take up unpopular causes? Are we condemned eternally to search uselessly amongst crowds, rather than where the key, or Buffalo, was lost in the certain knowledge we’ll never find it?  

Growth can take place can take place anywhere and everywhere depending on our attitude and skills, and yet we still associate growth with pain. Somehow we’ve learnt to trust suffering with meaning and mistrust both laughter and joy. If someone is crying in deep sorrow, they are obviously facing harsh realities, because they are having a bad time. Must realities be so harsh? If we are relaxing, laughing enjoying ourselves, we are obviously escaping something deep and painful. But why? If laughter can be an escape from difficult and unpleasant realities, then so can crying and pain. Are misery and mania so different? I see more people running away from in tears than running away in laughter. What prevents jokes and joy from being a floral gateway into new perceptions and less that tears and pain?

When we lose sight of the far horizon, we can also lose our sense of humour, or proportion of things. We lose our ability to roll over and over, seeing the world and ourselves from many different and disturbing angles. We can no longer see the cosmic joke. The joyous mystery had fled and only oceans of self-pity remain. The sparkle and lightness have disappeared. We take ourselves all too seriously, too earnestly, much of the time.

I recall distinctively my own years of depression where every morning seemed grey, even when the sun shone brightly. I found it difficult to appreciate anything or anybody – the flowers in the garden, the taste of an orange, the love and nourishment of a partner. For me every slight movement was an effort. I nearly drown in misery. I couldn’t make any sense of how or why other people found ordinary life so enjoyable. What did they find to enjoy? I’d ask myself. I was envious, puzzled and often furious. I couldn’t begin to see the wonderful and changing world as they saw it and felt it to be. Instead I was full of enormous rage about life. Life has failed to deliver what I’d expected. I had, without intention, built a grim prison inside myself. 

Without humour, ordinary humour, our mind loses capacity to move in a thousand different directions, to laugh at its own weakness and stupidities. We call that process negative and destructive self talk or thought patterned – becoming depressed. We are pressed down in a hundred different ways. One major indication that oppression lies in dragging ourselves heavily through life, hardly able to hold the mind together form one moment to the next. Getting through each day requires supreme effort.  Yesterday, last week or month or year, we walked the high tightrope of ordinary life without even realising the difficulties. We didn’t give it a second thought and could fall to the ground at any moment.

Humour invokes that gossamer subtly of shifting through different realities without making judgement of what is more or less real. Shakespeare said: ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’ The tufts of that flexibility of mind float lightly on the breeze. Weighed down with self-conscious, heavy fears and ideas, we cannot fly at all. We are blinkered with only the most restricted view, though a commonly held one.  Our minds become chronically conditioned. Suddenly, through a flash of humour, the world can turn on its axis and we see everything from a startling new and wider angle. What we’d thought was everything is now only a tiny splinter of the expanding universe.  

Trungpa again links this suffocating process with ‘Big Me’ – ‘having to be good, having to behave myself’. This kind of moral straitjacket is a black parrot that sits on my shoulder screening out my failings and shortfalls. At all cost I have to ‘do it right’, whatever that might mean. The spiritual pathway can easily be a souped up exercise in ‘doing it right’ to the power of ten, not a genuine search for truth but a hollow acting and posturing. Humour sees directly beyond that crude duality, observing both situational poles as they really are.

I wonder if most of us can identify with the great struggle with the ‘Big Me’. Maybe we have become firmly attached to particular image of ourselves, so we sell people attractively packaged icons – reflecting how we wish to be seen, cunningly concealing the inconsistencies and brutalities. There is a sophisticated social game in which the talker and the listen collude. ‘I’m not like that. I’m really like this…. I’m not untidy; I’m really tidy and neat. I’m not aggressive…’

When we misconstrue the mask as ourselves we become deluded as to who are. Until we learn to slip out of that carefully packaged identity. We learn to comment internally: ‘That wasn’t really me, I don’t know what came over me…’ But sadly a lot of people go on to painful lengths to develop more elaborate mirages, to deceive people rather than simply be as we are, whatever type of chaos that might mean. In playing these social games over many years, we can acquire lots of adoration, lots of friends and yet we lose intimacy with ourselves.  We begin to believe in our own press releases, but no matter how chic we try to appear to world we have still yet to gain intimacy real with ourselves.   

Oh for the joy of throwing over the social straitjackets and begin dancing barefoot in the wet.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen teacher, wrote:

Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also in touch with the wonders of life. They are within and all around us, everywhere, anytime. (Hanh 1982)

Pleasure and pain come equally to us. One day it rains; the next day it shines. We have to avoid getting hooked on rain (or pain), sun or pleasure. Whatever comes can be equal to us, is important for our life-long learning. To become a part of the planet’s wonders, both inside and out, we need to learn to dance and play like little children. ‘Ring – a- ring a roses, we all fall down.’ We need to recognise our fragility, to value our inconsistencies, to live daily with our mysteries. We learn to wheel and whirl, everything from the foxtrot to rock and roll to the cha cha, but particularly to relearn the dance from our birth. That means really hearing the natural music – the Nada – of our life and moving in harmony with. Our bodies sway subtly like leaves in the autumn wind – spiritual Fred Astaires and Ginger Rogers, wheeling and whirling away into nothing.

So many people who came through my door for assistance of one kind or another, had never learn to play. They didn’t know how o magic a vast and ever-changing universe from a few wooden bricks and a tin of soup bubbles, or to conjure up a rail network  from a row of old shoe boxes. They didn’t know how to move in subtle circles or hold hands in fairy rings, or receive a foot massage, or spend days to fantasy rabbits. They only knew how to be responsible, how to make money, how to sit on committee; most of all, how to be what others thought they ought to be. Perhaps they’d dream as small children flying kites over the Andes, but now they were qualified accountants, social workers or estate agents, and suppose to behave themselves.

Real and creative playing is essential for spiritual growth; in fun, throwing ourselves into the flow of life; of flexibility in thought and movement. We can forget ourselves completely in the absorption of the moment. We learn to move in a myriad of way and simply create, For many even leisure has become just another way of achieving yet more, of destroying ourselves. I talked recently to a businessman whose golf game had become as stressful as his work. He worried about his swing and lowering his handicap. He strove tensely to become more competitive, then took regular lessons to become less and less tense because it ruined his swing. Far from being a way of relaxing, he has made the game yet another handicap.

The unexpected worries and disturbs our ego. Why? Maybe because our egos like to be the fount of all wisdom, a know-it-all like the Delphic oracle. It manufactures its own distinctive version of the world – a virtual reality.  It likes to know what is coming next. We haven’t grasped or understood what the Chinese Mandarin means in the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness:  ‘A planned life can be endured, but no lived’.

There can even be playing, or dancing, in our dying. We must die – all creatures do, but this relationship with ourselves in the same. Dancing in living and dancing in dying. At the moment of death we can dance the whole of nature, to forget who we are. What stops us from dancing is fear – fear from the unknown, we might fear looking stupid, fear of trivial secrets, fear of pain, fear of losing contact with other who meant  so much to us. Saying goodbye? But who or what is dying? What else is there left to do – to dance and then to die?

We return and conclude with Trungpa who recalls a wonderful story:

There is a story of a person who died laughing. He was a simple man village person who asked a teacher the colour of Amitabha (Buddha of Compassion) that traditionally in iconographical terms, is red. Somehow, by mistake, the thought the teacher had said the Amitabha’s colour was the colour of ash is a fire. And this influenced his whole lifelong meditation practice; because when he practised visualising Amitabha, it was a grey Amitabha. Finally he lay dying and wanted to be completely sure, so he asked another teacher the colour of Amitabha. The teacher said that Amitabha colour was red and the man suddenly burst into laughter: ‘Well, I used to think him the colour ash, and now you tell me he is red’. He burst into laughter and died laughing. Trungpa 1987

What an absolutely marvellous way to die! Most of his earthly life spent meditating on totally the wrong colour of Amitabha. It turned out to be red rather than the colour of ash. If he ever reached Nirvana, would he ever be forgiven for his inaccurate iconography? Could Amitabha got over the affront to his colour? So what the hell! Fortunately he realised at the very moment of death the ultimate absurdity of it all. From ash colour to ashes. Or as Blyth once observed: ‘All beauty, all music, all religions, all poetry is a dance of the mind. Without this dancing of the spirit there is no true Zen.’


Blyth, R.H. (1960) Zen in English Literature London. Dutton.

Chuan-Yaun, Chang (1975) Creativity and Taoism. New York. Wildwood House

Hanh Thich, Nhat (1982) Peing Peace London. Rider.

Picardie, R (1998) Before I Say Goodbye. London. Penguin

Trungpa, Choygam (1969) Meditation in Action. London. Stuart and Watkins.

Trungpa, Choygam (1987) Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism Boston. Shambala.

Dedicated to Janet, a survivor of the Cambridge mental health system and to Serife a wonderful dancer in life who came to death with a couragous and open spirit, for whose kindness and patience I am indebted.

By 67paintings

A dialectical site of poetry, painting and the odd musical excursion into the unknown.

8 replies on “Humour, Dancing and Dying”

“I’ll never forget one of my early experiences in counselling, the counsellor nodded off during one session. I went on babbling on regardless. I can laugh about it now…”

When was this?

Oh god, it must have been 1985 – way back in my high school days. The teachers referred me as they thought I was madcap and unruly. I suppose I was a little eccentric, preferring to recite monty python to the classic texts. The counsellor didn’t want to be there anymore than I did… I must have disrupted the afternoon nap when I, purposely slammed the door closed behind me..

Thanks !! Vita you’re right about all of us learning to lighten up more. Even without a calm mind, nothing breaks down the doors of resistance than that of belly filled laughter. Perhaps no one knew this better than the late Tommy Cooper.for his was a potent mixture of madness and magic.

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