The Day of Laughter

Self-realization is not for sissies. Transformation comes at a cost. We may be shattered and freed by hardship – eventually – but the process requires a stomach for change. “A condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything)” was T.S. Eliot’s way of saying what happens when we’re stripped and remade by twists of fate. Because this process is spiritual, it requires a mental turnaround (“conversion”) whose trials may seem counter-intuitive, even perverse, to our rational, self-preserving minds.

Practice teaches us, in spite of ourselves, that even the most destructive forces are harness-able to constructive ends; and that pain we would much prefer to avoid can be used as a kind of battering ram for unearthing the true and beautiful.

This yoga – which comes from the Sanskrit for “yoke” (in the ying-yang sense of yoking opposite forces) – can begin immediately.

“What is on the day of laughter is also now,” a teacher of mine used to say. This saint had lived for 50 years on a mountain in south India. “What is on the day of laughter is also now,” he would repeat to his students, tossing the words out lightly, rubbing a palm across the gray stubble covering his shaven head.

What did he mean by this, I would wonder? What laughter could he be referring to? Then his meaning finally dawned on me. He was describing the laugh of a buddha, the sudden guffaw that seizes a person when he realizes who and what he really is. Siddhartha, the prince-turned-Buddha laughed after discovering his own true nature at last, the story goes.

Sometime after his enlightenment, Siddhartha was strolling along a country road when a passerby stopped him to inquire why he was smiling with such quiet joy. Siddhartha did his best to demur.

“Are you a magician, sir?” the traveler asked.

“No,” the master answered.

“Are you a god?” the passerby tried again.

“No,” Siddhartha assured him.

“Then what can you be?” asked the stranger.

The Buddha replied, “I am awake.”

Plato called this anamnesis, remembering what and who we are, underneath the camouflage of our lives, beyond what can be taken away. “The look of your face before you were born,” as a Zen koan describes this hidden self; the essence, the soul, the nub of you which transcends your shifting circumstances.

We are not, indeed, what we appear to be: This is the lesson sages have expounded since the days of the earliest seers and shamans. When we glimpse our true identities, it does inspire laughter, apparently. Derek Wolcott describes this recognition in one of his most beautiful poems.

The time will come
When, with elation,
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your own mirror,
And each will smile at the other’s welcome,

And say, sit here, Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

All your life, whom you ignored
For another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

The photographs, the desperate notes,
Peel your image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

When I visited India for the first time, I was a wreck, a refugee from the fast-track New York publishing life I’d coveted yet grown to dread. I was working for the pop artist Andy Warhol as an editor at “Interview” Magazine. Andy remains the most desolate person I have ever known, a genius without question but an alien figure on planet earth.

Several times a day, Andy would waft through my office trailing his vacuous atmosphere. He’d admitted once (after being shot in the abdomen by crazy fan, Valerie Solanis) that his emotional life had been gutted that day, leaving Andy to peer out at the flesh-and-blood world as if through a screen of a TV set. He infused the magazine offices with this same estranged, nihilistic chill.

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