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When It's Funny and When It's Not

Comedy, Politics, and Mindfulness

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Certain comics make life worthwhile. They help us see the world, the one we’re horrified by, the one that scares or infuriates us, and they make us laugh about it. This is a good thing. It’s part of what helps us survive being alive.

But as much as I love great comics, and as much as I need to laugh these days, I don’t have the tolerance anymore for my usual line up of late night talk shows. I don’t enjoy myself as a viewer. I get this queasy feeling of shame, and it doesn’t go away. Shame at our political leaders. Shame that I’m not doing more to prevent our downward spiral. But mostly, shame that I’m using all of this as entertainment.

Political humor targets egos. We think it’s aimed at their egos, but really, it benefits ours. We all agree that That Idiot (fill in the blank about anyone on the political spectrum) is clearly the punch line establishing our collective (obvious!) superiority. We’re so much better than them it makes us laugh.

When I experience this kind of humor mindfully, it’s uncomfortable: Someone comically astute exposes another human being whose ignorance is out there for all to see. Now swivel the camera toward the audience. There I am, laughing, pointing, hoping that the ignorant human falls into an abyss of their ignorance, never to return.

I don’t want to be in that audience, and yet there I am.

This is important information for me. This is the terrain that might lead me to patches of rich, loamy soil just right for my own awakening. If I’m willing to work with it.

One of the Donald moments burned into my psyche is the clip showing him ridiculing the disabled journalist. I mean. We can all agree, right? That was out of bounds. And yet, superimpose Stephen Colbert ridiculing Trump’s gestures, aping his way of speaking — just like Donald did with the reporter. And then superimpose me, laughing with Colbert just like Trump’s audience laughs with him.

What’s the difference? You think it’s that Stephen and me are the heroes and Donald and his crew are the villains? Right there. That’s my plot of land, the soil I want to plow up and seed with awareness.

How to begin?

There’s a simple Buddhist prayer known as the four immeasurables. The first one is: May all beings be free from suffering.

Everyone in this world is suffering. You, me, African Americans, Muslims, Israelis for sure, Palestinians for damn sure. The people of Ukraine, Russians who don’t agree with Putin. Pregnant teenagers in Texas. Women everywhere. Gay men. Immigrants dying at our southern borders, or perishing beyond them, or vanishing within them. White men. Straight men. But even Marjorie Taylor Green is suffering. Even Donald Trump.

Did you feel yourself shut down there? Those last couple names? My heart became a fist. My chest got tight, and those two people were immediately exiled from who I was praying for when I said “May all beings be free from suffering.” Yeah, everyone but them.

So, let’s take Marjorie Taylor Greene for instance. Basic human decency dictates that you don’t harass a young person who’s already survived a mass shooting. Period. As I revisit her behavior, the horror I feel, the outrage, the big fat NO roils up in me. What do I do with that?

My tightfisted heart swings against the inside of a massive mindfulness bell. The tighter my heart, the bigger the sound. A long, loud gong resonates in my consciousness, interrupts my previously scheduled freak out.

How to work with this moment:

Come back to the body. Breathe in consciously. Breathe out.

But she’s out there somewhere, doing damage! Things are dire! I have to stop her!

Come back. Can I notice my hands, the temperature, the volume of my hands?

But what about Donald? What if the Supreme Court is corrupt and civil war erupts and nobody’s safe anymore, anywhere?

Come back. Come back a hundred, a thousand, a million times.

Experiment with softening the heart — not for anyone or toward anyone, but just for its own sake. Can it be soft and permeable and open?

That’s the beginning of how I work with troublesome public figures in the world when they sneak into my living room through late night comedy. Eventually, someday, maybe I’ll awaken to the point where my heart is a vast, infinite field of love and compassion. No one will be outside of its reaches, because I won’t be “me” anymore, just pure awareness.

But in the meantime, I’m going to keep working my little patch of land to the best of my ability. Staying aware of when thinking has hijacked the body and run off with it. Coming back home over and over.

And if something tickles my funny bone when I wish it hadn’t, then there’s compassion for me, too. Sometimes, we just can’t bear what’s happening, so we poke fun at it. We find the buffoonery in the absurd. We loosen our death grip on everything, and let a big belly laugh push fresh air through our lungs.

This, too, is spiritual practice.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings have happiness and the cause of happiness.

May all beings never be separate from joy that knows no sorrow.

And may all beings dwell in equanimity, free from attachment and hatred.


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