Is Enlightenment Funny?



Overcoming the 'addiction' of life is really very funny.

Ordinary human existence can well be separated into two facets, the ‘fun’ part and the ‘serious’ part. There is a time to kick back and amuse ourselves, and each other, just as long as we remember when to take things more seriously. Why is this?

To discover why this is, we need to start at the most basic of levels. We seem to have an innate instinct that forms what you might call ‘appropriate’ reactions and attitudes according to the situation we find ourselves in. We don’t need to make a conscious decision to be serious when, for example somebody tells you they aren’t feeling well. The switch is automatic.

But taking a step back, we soon realise that this is not an innate process at all. By examining other cultures, and provided we keep an open mind, you might start to look at your own behaviour, not as automatic and ‘natural’, but as constructed and arbitrary. You only need to look at the various ways in which death is treated from country to country to understand this.

Growing up in middle-England, most are afforded the kind of lifestyle where we are permitted to enjoy our childhoods. However, there were always two aspects of early life we were instructed to take very seriously, and those were school and church. If we did not take school seriously, our education would suffer, and if church and religion were not taken seriously, far worse things would befall us. Religion, particularly those of the Abrahamic variety, are awfully serious matters. The way one is expected to conduct themselves in a church is very particular. There is a rather amusing lecture by Alan Watts where he describes heaven as like being in church for eternity, and that is enough to put anyone off the idea.

And this is not to belittle religion in particular. Many areas of our life are like this. The workplace, for example, or being taken round ancient ruins by a tour guide on holiday. That ‘I’m really taking what you’re saying seriously’ face is almost our default setting.

What is being suggested here, is that religion has a place in life, but it does not have to be taken for granted that we are dealing with something important and serious. What of enlightenment in Eastern religions? Perhaps the biggest contributor to taking life seriously is taking oneself seriously. If you are intertwined with your ego, as most of us are, then you are something that you believe really matters, and it’s terribly important to prove your worth to others. An ego is never satisfied, as we well know. It clings to things outside itself, like money, houses, cars, jobs, relationships, summer breaks, patio furniture, Game of Thrones, and so on and so on. It is important that we acquire this stuff, we say, and when we have it, it’s just as important to keep hold of it.

But, when things become this important, what is often lurking around the corner? Fear. When we locate fear, fear of losing what you have, or not getting what you want, we are naturally on route towards the ego. What this does, I think, is create a response within us that we cannot afford to take life in a care-free manner, because if we don’t keep an eye on all of this, we are going to lose it.

This is why enlightenment, from a personal perspective, is quite an amusing thing. I don’t think I ever truly understood enlightenment until I laughed out loud at its implications. In Buddhism, in place of where you might expect to see sermons, you find what are known as ‘Koans’. And without attempting to come across as an expert in Buddhism (I most certainly am not), what is telling about Koans is how similar they are to jokes, especially in their delivery, and in the expected reaction. Your hope is that the other person instantly gets why your joke is funny, and lets out an instinctive laugh. As we all know, if you have to explain a joke to somebody, it’s often not as funny. And the best jokes, I think, are those with a bit of a story, where the listener is lead somewhere but then the punch line completely blind sides them.

Something else you might notice about Buddhism, is the way in which the Buddha is often depicted as smiling or laughing. A Buddha is an enlightened individual, seeing life for what it is, and knowing that what we think of as serious, if often anything but.

Coming to the realisation that you are a fabricated ego with no free-will, in the ordinary sense of understanding free-will, should be an amusing experience. You are living on a rock, which is orbiting a massive ball of light and heat. There are 8 other balls of rock and/or gas doing the same thing, and countless others a bit further away. We open our eyes when our part of the ball of rock is facing the light, and we close our eyes and lie down when it is not. We travel from one location to another location (often the same location day after day), act seriously, then return to the original location and act less seriously. We get into a sitting position and look at other people doing things, things we wish we were doing ourselves but can’t because when the ball of rock has moved sufficiently, we are required to return to that other location again. It’s all very odd.

Life, looked at in this way, is a bit like an addiction. When you come across somebody with a drug addiction, for example, and they don’t even realise it themselves, you think there is very little hope of them ever recovering, The first step to overcoming an addiction, so the saying goes, is to realise you have one. When you realise what your addiction is doing to you, everything you thought that made perfect sense before, soon becomes very illogical. You hear people say things like, ‘It wasn’t me I was looking at in the mirror, but someone else altogether’.

Life is something that we just assume ‘needs to happen’. And to come to the realisation that it does not, is not some kind of nihilistic, depressing attitude, but something in fact very liberating. The only true Philosophical problem is whether or not to commit suicide, to paraphrase Albert Camus. And when you think to yourself, no I’m not into suicide just at the moment, everything else becomes far less serious. When seriousness subsides, so should fear, and a life lived without fear is basically one big joke.

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