“Thy priests go forth at dawn; they wash their hearts with laughter.”
I have always loved this saying from the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead – how delicious it sounds to wash one’s heart with laughter. When I was a very small child I would sit in the wings of London’s West End and watch hundreds of people enter the theatre with all their rustling, jostling, chatting and coughing. The cacophony of sound would settle into hushed expectation as the lights went down and a single spot light splashed a bright yellow blob on the stage. I used to tremble, picking up a deep sense of back stage terror as my step father would step out of the darkened wings into that light – it seemed an impossible career that he had chosen.
He was paid to make people laugh. Yet from the first moment he stepped onto the stage he created a ripple of delight. I observed this lone man, fascinated as he talked to his audience as he would his closest friends, gaining their trust as he delivered his laconic observations of everyday life. The sounds of chuckles, giggles and guffaws grew into a roaring force that would explode into laughter. It was a marvellous sensation to sit and feel all of that energy, which literally shook the very foundations of the building. I guess you could say I felt the good vibes. All my fears would melt away and I would revel in the wonderful atmosphere of happiness that magically seemed to permeate everyone and everything in the building!
As with many famous comedians, there was a dark side to my surrogate father’s nature. Often after shows his mood would plummet and a cruel monster would somehow take a hold of him. Systematically this inner demon would try to destroy everything in its path, including my mother, my brother and me. I remember one night being locked in the kitchen and hiding behind curtains, my mum holding a huge frying pan aloft ready to protect her terrified babies. In a different take on The Shining, my stepfather actually jumped through the door, screaming and ranting with the full force of madness. As he ripped the curtain from its pole revealing his terrified family, something unexpected happened. My mother started to laugh. She laughed so much she was crying and I just had to laugh too as it was so infectious. Then my brother joined in and all the fulminating rage and threat of violence evaporated into night air.
A LOVE AFFAIR WITH LAUGHTER
So you see, my love affair with laughter began at an early age. I knew, even then that there was a mystical quality about true, belly-shaking joy. There was no need for analysis as it was obvious to my infant mind that this was a power that produced miraculous results. Now, many decades later, Oxford University scientists have actually proved that laughter is good for us. And that does not mean polite titters but rather the experience of uncontrolled mirth that leaves us exhausted and thereby triggers the release of protective endorphins. These endorphins, one of the complex neuropeptide chemicals produced in the brain, manage pain and promote feelings of well being. These boffins tell us we are thirty times more likely to trigger this state of blissed out wonder when we share the experience with others. No surprises there then!
"A merry heart doeth good like a medicine" - Proverbs 17:22
Psychologist Jack Panksepp proved this in his experiments with animals. Want to see a rat laugh? Then tickle it. Rats laugh, chimps laugh and so do dogs but they aren't laughing at jokes. They laugh when they're playing, in the same way humans do, to show that they're happy and to encourage bonding. The rats that played more, laughed more. And the ones that laughed more preferred to be around other rats that laughed. There is something inherently infectious about surrendering to joy. Try being around a chuckling baby or ‘grinning’ playful animal and remain serious – impossible! In all the thousands of languages and means of communicating that exist, the expression of laughter is universal. Every being upon this earth has a primordial knowing of how to express mirth and happiness.
LAUGHTER HOLDS THE KEY
Laughter holds the key to that extraordinary state of lightheartedness. In these various studies of infants and animals it is clear that they laugh a lot more than adults, delighting in simple fun and games. I am convinced we all have a hidden chuckle muscle hidden in the vocal chords and it needs exercising every day. I’ve always felt that youthfulness and vocal versatility is directly linked to our ability to be happy. My autistic brother, Martin, tells me that when we laugh we ‘go all sparkly round our heads’.
Our mother Jenny certainly had an outrageous sense of fun and she remained a vibrant and attractive woman, until she became unable to forgive something. The first thing she lost was her ability to sing. That precious chuckle muscle wasted away and she lost her vitality and joy, becoming a sad and bitter woman. A sorry state that reflected in her face until she faded away and left this earth in a pool of tears and pain. I miss her very much and especially her ability to make me laugh. The sound of her mirth would always set me off too, utterly infectious, highly inappropriate, I was most often rendered helpless into a weeping, shaking heap. As the old joke goes, sometimes I laughed so hard the tears ran down my leg.
WASH OUR HEARTS WITH LAUGHTER
Let’s grow old together with laughter in our hearts. Let’s accept our earthly duties, Dharma with a sense of joy and enthusiasm. Let’s be kind to one another. Let’s really make a difference to this world by spreading our delight and sharing our laughter, as friends of old. May our youthful spirits learn to treat this life as if it were a trip to a great movie or play. May we learn to be the Witness and enjoy being a player, on the universal stage of the Divine Comedy. As my beautiful brother Martin said, may we make our world brighter and happier by allowing ourselves to become ‘sparkly around our heads’. May we all come to know the incredible Lightness of Being and have at least one opportunity a day to wash our hearts with laughter.