Student: At a recent retreat, one of the facilitators mentioned that if I am not having fun, I am not practicing awareness. So far my experience of practice is that it is hard… it’s not fun.
Teacher: For whom is it not fun?
God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh. —Voltaire
“For whom is it not fun?”
What a profoundly simple question, and yet one that has the power to confound us completely!
“Wait a minute!” we might exclaim in response. “I just said I am not having fun! What does the teacher mean by ‘for whom is it not fun?’”
If we stick with the invitation, implicit in the question, to continue the inquiry, the Zen teacher is likely to continue to ask questions that confound us.
- What is your experience of fun?
- How do you know you are having fun?
- How do you know you are not having fun? Is there a voice in your head telling you that you are not having fun?
- How do you know what practicing awareness is? What tells you that you are or are not doing awareness practice?
- In fact, how would you know who you are if you were not listening to a voice in the head that uses the personal pronouns me, you, and I?
Soon we are wondering….
“Is this teacher crazy, or am I? She must be because she is talking about voices in the head…”
However, if we are lucky CURIOSITY may start to take over.
- “Does she have a point?”
- “Do I have a voice in my head?”
- “When is the last time I had fun? What was my experience of it?”
- “What is awareness anyway?”
- “How DO I know who I am?”
And, as we start paying attention to the energy of the interaction, we are struck by something else! The teacher is smiling. She seems to be enjoying this process that so discomfits me. Why?
When we open ourselves to this practice of questioning modeled by the teacher, we might begin to experience the source of the Zen teacher’s enjoyment:
that “assumes it knows”
and thrives on refuting or accepting without examination
what is stated.
It’s ONE of the things that makes practicing awareness enjoyable. We finally get to turn the tables on the system that has been controlling our lives and making us miserable since before we can remember.
Being curious has another benefit. It moves us from the habitual orientation of being lost in a conditioned conversation to being PRESENT, interested in the NOW, AWARE of what is. And what is, we discover, is diverting, entertaining, joyous, and interesting. Even the shenanigans of ego can be witnessed and seen to be absurd.
In fact, if we keep the questioning going, we reach a point when we’ve made “nonsense” of everything we “know” and give up in a fit of helpless giggles. At which point, we have truly dropped into the place from which the Zen teacher smiles.
We suffer because we take seriously what the Gods made for fun.
We often refer to egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate as the process of “something wrong and not enough.”
that is always focused on the negative,
on what’s not working, on finding fault and assigning blame,
that is petulant, peevish, irritable, grumpy, and grudging,
that is constantly judging, criticizing, grumbling, complaining, and whining
about someone or something,
are we surprised that fun is not our experience?
What “I” thinks is fun is almost always a set-up for going unconscious and feeling bad afterwards. For ego-I, fun is usually about:
Excess: I am so looking forward to the evening. A bottle of wine, a tub of ice-cream and seven episodes of my favorite TV show! Never mind that each time I do this, my body pays such a price that I swear I will never indulge this way again.
Distraction: It’s going to be so much fun to watch that new movie. Never mind that it is a violent, post-apocalyptic celebration of all that is cruel and hateful and makes me wonder what the world is coming to.
Novelty: Life is so boring! I need something new in my life. I can’t bear to be with what life is. I have to leave this moment to find something more interesting. Never mind that the novelty wears off and I am left feeling dissatisfied.
We are bamboozled into believing that the reason we are not having fun is because life is so hard, the pressures of day-to-day living are too much, and the secret lies in getting away from the drudgery of everyday existence by undertaking an activity that is fun. But how often have we gone on vacation or a get-away weekend and had a miserable time because we took those pesky voices along?
If we drop into an experience when we were “having fun,” we notice the conspicuous absence of the voices of conditioned mind. No matter how hard the voices try to convince us of the contrary, fun is not the result of what we do.
The secret to having fun no matter what we are doing is to refuse to let the voices come along for the ride!
“What is this precious love and laughter budding in our hearts? It is the glorious sound of a soul waking up!” —Hafiz
When we step out of the process of “something wrong, not enough,” we move into an awareness of what is. Only then does the possibility of enjoyment actually become available.
We can be completely captivated by the brilliance of a dragonfly’s wings,
be delighted by the astounding perfection of a praying mantis,
be enchanted by the antics of a furry brown squirrel.
A mundane task such as washing dishes
becomes a playful adventure of slippery soapsuds and dancing bubbles.
The “boring” commute home is suddenly transformed
into a comedy of errors,
of red lights, shaking fists, blaring horns
and unexpected stops and starts.
We dropped into Awareness. Attention is on awareness and we are wholeheartedly absorbed in this moment. It does seem true that “wholeheartedly absorbed” is a good synonym for fun. For when there is no attention or energy given to egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate, there is no “conditioned mind” to ask the question “Are we having fun?”
“Laughter is the cancellation of ego.” —Katsuki Sekida
If the ego is doing Awareness practice, we can be assured that practice will not be fun. Since the ego takes everything seriously, its not surprising that it would make spiritual practice a very grim pursuit. This is why Zen teachers the world over repeatedly recommend the cultivation of a sense of humor.
In the words of Mark Twain, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand." Not even egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. Nothing dissolves the illusion of separation like a hearty laugh. We cannot laugh and be identified with a “self” at the same time. “Wholeheartedly absorbed in the moment” is instantly available when we are laughing hard.
Laughter certainly is very special. Your whole body laughs. Each atom, each cell of your body laughs, participates in it. Seriousness can never be total. It is always partial, the very other extreme of laughter. It goes on becoming narrower and narrower and narrower. The more serious you are, the narrower you become. The more you go towards laughter, the wider and the more open, the more vulnerable, the more total you become. Laughter has something religious. Seriousness is sick and irreligious. —Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
Laughter restores a wholeness that is fractured by the illusion of separation. When we laugh the ego out of existence, it may dawn on us that what we are seeking is not merely to “have fun” but a more permanent connection to eternal delight.
Saints are neither double-minded nor half-hearted, but single and, however great their intellectual gifts, profoundly simple. The multiplicity of Legion has given place to one-pointedness not to any of those evil one-pointednesses of ambition or covetousness, or lust for power and fame, not even to any of the nobler, but still all too human one-pointednesses of art, scholarship and science, regarded as ends in themselves, but to the supreme, more than human one-pointedness that is the very being of those souls who consciously and consistently pursue man's final end, the knowledge of eternal Reality. --Aldous Huxley.
To ego-I, the single-minded pursuit described above, implies giving up everything that is fun, denying all pleasure and enjoyment, eliminating all that makes the human experience what it is.
While it’s true that if we are not having fun we are not practicing awareness, it might also be important to recognize that what we are seeking on this path is of a different order than mere “fun,” and what it takes to achieve what we are seeking does require “effort.”
We’ve been bamboozled into believing that fun and effort are incompatible. We are told that if “effort” is involved, it cannot be fun, and if it is not fun it’s not worth doing and we should quit. Ego is especially vociferous in articulating this argument around any activity that is in the service of transcending the ego.
It is in doing the work of transcending the illusion of a separate self that we arrive at the “cosmic joke,” the source of the Buddha’s serene smile or the jolly laughter of Ho Tai, the ah-ha that is expressed in the spontaneous laughter of insight.
There are things that even the wise fail to do,
While the fool hits the point.
Unexpectedly discovering the way to life in the midst of death,
He burst out in hearty laughter. —Sengai
It must bring a smile to our face that we’ve chosen a tradition of spiritual practice that uses humor as a tool for awakening and in which the highest form of wisdom is the fool.
The fool in the Zen tradition is the warm, simple, kindly, tolerant, and generous vagabond who plays with children and dances in the street from the sheer joy of being in the moment. Because he has let go of the ego, the monkey mind that is “not-fun,” he is the embodiment of the Zen attitude toward life described by Bhagvan Shree Rajneesh as “that of laughter, of living, of enjoying, of celebrating. [For] Zen is not anti-life; it is life affirmative. It accepts all that is!”
There’s a Zen story about Hotei. When asked “What’s the significance of Zen?” he put his sack down on the ground. When then asked “What’s the actualization of Zen?” he picked his sack back up and walked away.
It seems that the only thing that does not have fun is ego-I. So we can take a page out of the Laughing Buddha’s practice by just dropping it and walking away.
For the next 48 hours, practice having fun and doing awareness practice. Like the Laughing Buddha, drop whatever you are carrying, whatever it is you are clinging to, whatever conversation has your attention. Then practice enjoying whatever is thisherenow. Practice having a good time! R/L