Laughter is therapeutic, a balm for body and soul. Being constantly serious during an illness, no matter how challenging the diagnosis, adds heaviness to an already difficult situation. One thing I love about Buddhists is that they laugh and giggle at everything-illness, death, pain, heartbreak-not disrespectfully, but with innocence and cosmic lightness about the very real, sometimes excruciating trials of the human predicament.
My eightysomething best friend, Berenice (her patients call her a psychotherapist who's really a shaman), was laughing on the phone with me the other day even though she was enduring a grueling health challenge. I asked her, "Why are you laughing?" Unfazed, even cheerful, she answered, "Why not?" Yes, Berenice has courage. But even more, she has lightness in the face of pain, a degree of spiritual attainment I am aiming for in my lifetime, though I still have a way to go.
Laughter is profoundly healing on many levels. Physically, muscular tension loosens, energy increases, fatigue lessens. Emotionally, laughter lifts your mood and softens rigid defenses and worries that keep you uptight and unsurrendered. Studies have shown that laughter elevates our immune response and endorphins, our natural painkillers. It takes the edge off stress, anxiety, and depression, and prevents heart disease. Journalist Norman Cousins, beloved father of laugh therapy, treated his own pain from a life-threatening joint disease with a daily ten-minute dose of laughter.
I routinely prescribe laughter to my patients. It’s a surrender to hilarity, a way to get out of your head and into your heart. You’re pressing the pause button on problems so you can be silly and carefree. The worried mind may have difficulty allowing you to laugh when there may seem to be no good reason to do so. However, I urge you not to indulge your inner worrier. Its tendency to stay miserable seems logical, but it is really off base. My consistent message of surrender is to fight to find the cracks of light in everything-not to succumb to misery even when circumstances are grim. One friend says it well: “I was born with cerebral palsy. I have had many aches and pains. Still, I always found a way to joke about it and not have a pity party. When your desire to live fully is stronger than any pain you experience, laughter pushes you forward.” Like my friend, keep surrendering to laughter. Try to respond to illness differently. Let laughter reveal the light that exists in even the darkest places.