Mindfulness & The Big City: Sense of Humor

A smile, childlike in simple joy and delight, lights up the Dalai Lama’s face. I am reading The Book of Joy, the chronicle of a meeting between the Buddhist Dalai Lama and the Christian Archbishop Desmond Tutu, written by Douglas Adams, a Jew. Although it might seem these men with such different perspectives would find little to agree on, but actually they have everything to agree on, since the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop seem to spend most of the meeting giggling and cracking childish jokes.

I had expected more seriousness from such spiritually evolved leaders, but the Dalai Lama makes the claim that a sense of humor is the mark of a spiritual attainment. Laughing is more than just a response to stand-up comedy routines. Appreciating the humor of life means being fully in the moment, a feat many of us struggle with. Laughing at ourselves involves surrendering the ego, a Herculean task for many of us brought up in the West.

What is humor anyways? The Buddhist monk Cholgyam Trungpa defines it as, “Seeing the basic irony of the juxtaposition of extremes” (Trungpa, 115). There are certainly enough extremes in Cairo: heat, traffic, tempers, dust, flies. Those extremes most often provoke irritation, annoyance or anger, reactions which do little to ameliorate the situation. For me, Cairo’s extremes tend to strengthen my already over-stretched sense of ego. I want it to be cooler, so I can go running. I want the cars to move more quickly, so I can get where I am going. I want that fly to stop buzzing, so I can meditate. While my selfish egotist perspective sends my cortisol levels soaring, it does nothing to change the reality of the situation. Cairo’s rose is still a rose, whether I like it or not.

The social pressures of modern life can make it difficult to be flexible. I need to get to work on time, even if the traffic is bad. I rely on jogging to blow off stress from work. The perpetual dust from the Sahara makes my friends think my apartment is dirty. These pressures from the outside make us rigid, and deaden us to experiencing the arcane beauty of life like it is. Trungpa writes about rigidity, “The rigidity of this living corpse expresses the opposite of a sense of humor. It is as though somebody is standing behind you with a sharp sword… If you are not dealing with life properly, honestly, directly, someone is just about to hit you. This is the self-consciousness of watching yourself, observing unnecessarily” (Trungpa, p. 111).

The reality of life is not likely to change because I am irritated by it, but my experience of reality could shift. “If we regard the path of spirituality as a battlefield, then we are weak and feeble. Then our progress on the path will depend upon how great an area we have conquered, upon the subjugation of our own and others’ faults…” (Trungpa, 113). The practice of meditation is learning to accept my world and myself, the way it is, and to laugh at the place that doesn’t quite fit. “A sense of humor comes from an all-pervading joy, joy which has room to expand into a completely open situation because it is not involved with the battle between ‘this’ and ‘that’” (Trungpa, 113).

I put The Book of Joy down for a moment, cross my legs, and straighten my spine to meditate. A fly lands on my nose. I inhale through my heart -- he is a part of the city, just like I am. After a moment, he buzzes off, his crazy zigzag course tickling a smile on my lips.

Outside a car alarm shatters the morning stillness. I push my annoyance out through my stomach, and focus on the silliness of such a loud alarm on a deserted street.

The traffic might be bad on the way to work, and I resolve to contemplate the irony of rushing to be there and never fully being here. Who knows what other bits of humor the day will bring. Cairo is, after all, full of surprises.


Abrams, Douglas. The Book of Joy. Random House, 2016. Print.

Trungpa, Chögyam. Cutting through Spiritual Materialism. Boston: Shambhala, 2008. Print.