Q. I read somewhere that for a spiritual practice to be genuine, it must include a measure of humor. Should I really look with suspicion on any religious group that takes things too seriously? It seems they all do. What does humor have to do with tapping into the divine?
-- Betsy R., Lexington, Massachusetts
A. I have to agree with the value of humor in matters of spirit. Be wary of people in any walk of life who take themselves too seriously, especially if they profess to know anything about spirituality. Seriousness is almost always the sound of one ego clapping -- for itself. Laughter is the music of the human heart. It offers, perhaps, the single best way for us to open up and get out of our own heads.
Divine inspiration rarely occurs during those moments when you grit your teeth and struggle to get it "right." When we laugh, we loosen our grip on how things "must be" or, more accurately, how we want them to be. Poking fun at ourselves allows us to step away from our egos. We feel physically lighter (laughter releases beta-endorphins), and we open ourselves up to more readily accept the spiritual wisdom available to all of us.
Tales of the self-righteous -- and their self-inflicted challenges as they learn their life lessons the hard way -- have appeared in countless fables, proverbs, and stories throughout history. I saw this same transformation in a friend from my USC film school days. He'd left the Jesuit seminary to pursue a movie making career. After graduating, he worked his way up the ranks of the film industry to make quite a name for himself -- but he slowly cut himself off from his spiritual life as he progressed. One morning, he forgot his studio ID, and the guard on the set refused to let him in. My friend screamed, "Do you know who I am? Do you have any idea who I am?" But when he heard himself yelling, something incredible happened: He dissolved into laughter at the cliche. Later, he told me he realized something from the experience. "I actually didn't know who I was anymore. My laughter led me back to my faith." From there, he built a life that included his faith and his creativity, and a much more peaceful man emerged.
Personally, I couldn't follow the advice of any group or spiritual teacher who lacked a basic sense of humor. Laughter encourages questions and opens us to learning difficult truths by softening the pain of our own shortcomings. I can't help but think that overly serious spirituality leads to blind faith -- "Don't question, just follow." It certainly serves to slow down the learning process. And what else does a spiritual path offer, if not the chance to learn?
Jennifer Louden is the author of six books, including "The Life Organizer: A Woman's Guide to a Mindful Year." She leads workshops on self-care and creativity around the country. Visit her at jenniferlouden.com. If you have questions about some of the life issues you face today, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.