I recently took a class about the intersection between clown and Zen Buddhism. If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you might know I practice Zen, but I knew nothing about clown. I took the class because I found just the idea of it ridiculous. And I go in big for ridiculous, absurd, and unapologetically silly. It’s fun!
It turns out that there’s a lot to know about clown. If you can get the image of Pennywise out of your head (which is a big ask, I know), clowning is a style of performance where you’re actively bringing your audience in on the joke, and even involving them in it.
As an art form, it seems particularly well suited to the internet age in a way that straight up comedy performance is not – the mechanisms of the medium are made for interactivity.
If Zen (and mindfulness in general) is about bringing your awareness to the moment just as it is, clown is about doubling down on that and bringing not just your awareness, but a sense of playfulness and humor. Which also seems particularly well suited to the way we live now.
In many conversations lately I’m likely to bring up that the split between the digital and physical world that we inhabit worries me. How our digital interactions neglect a large part of our reality, which is that we’re highly advanced animals with animal senses and bodily intelligence. And how if we lose sight of that, we risk losing access to the full magic of this giant field of awareness we’ve evolved over millions of years.
What clown can teach us is that humor is actually a sophisticated tool for bringing humanity into our interactions, even the digital ones. As Moshé Cohen, one of the teachers of the class I took, says:
“One thing that may surprise the reader is that clowns are all about mindfulness—yes, it’s a hot topic these days. Clowns have a somewhat different version of mindfulness as their awareness is more focused on being present with others, on their outward interactions rather than inner navel gazing.”
“Perhaps Interactive Mindfulness is a good term. Whereas many mindfulness practices are centered around meditation with objectives of stress reduction, resilience, and self-inquiry, here the objectives are on presence, social sensitivity, and authentic interaction. In this context, humor acts as a facilitator, lubricant, and communicator for mutual understanding.”
In the class we talked about how frustration arises when our expectations are thwarted. How our inherent desire to understand and control situations is naturally at odds with reality, which is messy and chaotic and does not often go to plan. And how the antidote to that is not to throw up our hands and adopt an attitude of hopelessness and cynicism, but rather to meet the moment just as it is. To bring all the knowledge we’ve accumulated over the course of our lifetimes to bear on whatever comes up without clinging to our preconceptions and judgments of how things “should” be, and to be open to what is. To adopt Beginner’s Mind, which was made famous by Shunryu Suzuki, one of the Zen masters responsible for bringing Zen Buddhism to the West.
If you spend a lot of time online (and I’m imagining many of you do), it’s common to see the phrase “read the room” in response to an unpopular remark; the inference being that if you come into a situation, it’s important to understand what’s already present so as to avoid alienating everyone.
And one way to do that is to adapt some of the techniques of the clown. Instead of entering a room with an agenda, pause for a moment and bring in your curiosity. Bring in your intuition, your compassion, your willingness to explore what’s happening now. Use the expression in your eyes, your body language, your overall way of being. Feel out where there’s pleasure, where there’s tension, where there’s confusion, where there’s appetite, and navigate to the lighter places accordingly.
Ultimately we can choose what energy we bring when we show up, wherever and however we show up. Even to the hardest, darkest interactions. We can choose to find lightness and common ground instead of staying mired in pessimism and despair. It just takes some effort is all.
More thoughts on the role of the fool, and why you might like to play it:
If you knew you’d never get stuck in a wrong situation, you’d have no qualms about going all in, no fears. A lot of us require wild horses to haul us screaming from places we have no business being and it shows. Not the Fool. They know immediately when it’s time to go and get right down to the going. There is something sacred about this.
Writer/tarot-er/social worker Jessica Doré on the energy of The Fool in the tarot.
What is truth? This question propels the Clown into the sacred dimension. The Truth the Clown intuits is the interconnectedness of all life. She KNOWS (although she cannot prove) that no part is more important than any other part—no matter how big or how small—and that the tiniest change in one part produces a profound change in the Whole. She SEES (although she cannot explain) that imbalance or blockage of the Life Force is the result of a person or group believing themselves to be more important than another. And she can’t help puncturing that over-blown self-importance with her sharp humor!
Peggy Andreas on the Path of the Sacred Clown in Native American cultures.
There is a danger that comes with expertise. We tend to block the information that disagrees with what we learned previously and yield to the information that confirms our current approach. We think we are learning, but in reality we are steamrolling through information and conversations, waiting until we hear something that matches up with our current philosophy or previous experience, and cherry-picking information to justify our current behaviors and beliefs. Most people don’t want new information, they want validating information.
We can make sounds when we're laughing like that that probably, all other things being equal, we'd probably prefer not to make. It can be extremely - well, very animal. And it is animal. It's linking us. It's exactly the same way that other animals make sounds.
An excellent episode of the podcast Hidden Brain about how neuroscientists are finding that laughter is mostly a social phenomenon, and the various ways it unites us.
Playing the naive fool is perfect for asking “dumb questions” that provoke reaction and surface truths - ideally some truths about the organization, the situation and your point of contact as a human - and allow you to get some insight into “what is really going on here?”
To me, playfulness, at its purest, is a form of imaginative exploration focused on enhancing how we experience life — our culture, our environments, our relationships, our wellbeing — in ways that are as surprising as they are joyful or rewarding.
Is playfulness the creative tool we’re not making the most of? Some great suggestions in this article by Karl Toomey.
A Tiny Assignment
See if you can inject some levity into a tough situation this week. How does it change the dynamic?
Thanks for all your positive feedback on last week’s interview with Mason Currey! Going to start making interviews a thing around here. Hit me with any suggestions for subjects.
p.s. Thanks for reading, as always. The biggest compliment you can pay me is sharing this newsletter with someone who’d appreciate it!