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Easing the Journey Through Shadow & Light

  • Dawn

Lugubrious ha-ha.

Wait, what?

Laughter is good for you, right? I think most of us would agree.

In Embodying Wellbeing: How to Feel as Good as You Can in Spite of Everything, Julie Henderson's book about zapchen, she notes that "laughter pulses all the diaphragms in the body...pumps all the organs and fluids, stretches all the fascia, strengthens the immune system, brightens the mind."

On the Mayo Clinic website, there is an article about the benefits of laughter which cites various research studies, many of which back up Julie's claims.

But lugubrious laughter?

Sometimes we just don't feel like laughing. So Julie suggests a good way to get yourself to laugh: assume "as lugubrious a posture as possible" then say some laugh-type syllables, like ho-ho-ho-ho or ha-ha-ha-ha. "Keep it up until you feel the humor of TRYING to laugh, and laugh."

Some words are so delicious—or so deliciously ridiculous—that I want to eat them. Like lugubrious.'s definition is: "mournful, dismal or gloomy, especially in an affected, exaggerated or unrelieved manner." Think of Eeyore in Winnie-the-Pooh (the non-Disney version, that is). Eeyore is almost always lugubrious. And Eeyore is pretty funny—at least to me. Endearing might be another word for him. He is, after all, a caricature of an all too human trait. Who among us never complains, never over-dramatizes their problems? So my laughter at Eeyore is, in part, tender self-recognition mixed with chagrin.

In any case, part of why I love the word lugubrious is because it sounds like what it means. Like "plink" for the sound that water makes in a bucket. That is to say, it is onomatopoetic (another delicious word). Just saying lugubrious makes me want to laugh, because it is so...absurdly down.

So a lugubrious posture might be kind of deflated or collapsed, with the head hanging down. Try that, and then try saying "ha-ha-ha-ha" several times in a lugubrious tone of voice.

I offered this suggestion the other day in a zapchen class I am teaching and was a little surprised. My students, who are generally quite enthusiastic about learning the various zapchen techniques, seemed a little reluctant to give the lugubrious ha-ha's a try, at least initially.

Maybe it felt like trying to fake an emotion? Or maybe they worried they wouldn't be able to laugh and would just end up feeling a bit foolish?

We usually assume that our emotions take the following path: Some event or memory occurs --> our brains react --> we have an emotion --> our face/body expresses that emotion. And it's true; that happens all the time.

But what if there's another pathway as well? Like this: We move our face and/or body to mimic an emotion --> our brain says, "oh, my body is experiencing _____ [some expression and/or posture] therefore I must be feeling that emotion" --> we have that emotion.

There's lots of research-based evidence to support the reality of this alternate pathway. However, since we've all grown up assuming the first pathway is the only one, we tend to get stuck there, to feel like it is the only valid one. The second pathway might even feel like cheating. Maybe that's part of why my class was a bit reluctant to try a lugubrious ha-ha or two. But really, it is just using the brain—making a conscious decision to try changing an expression or posture—to outsmart the brain, in order to feel better.

But if trying to get yourself to laugh feels uncomfortable, how about a smile?

If you read Elizabeth Gilbert's book, Eat. Pray. Love., you may remember that Ketut Liyer, the Balinese medicine man, gave "Liss" instructions for a special kind of meditation: "Only you must smile. Smile with face, smile with mind....Even smile in your liver....Too serious, you make you sick. You can calling the good energy with a smile."

In Alex Korb's wonderful book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression One Small Change at a Time, he discusses research on smiling and laughing (Chapter 9). He says that one very effective way to trick the brain into feeling happier is to turn up the corners of your mouth AND crinkle up the outside corners of your eyes. Try comparing a crinkle-eyed smile with just turning up the corners of your mouth and see what you think.

Life can be tough. The world is often a crazy place. Bad things happen way too often. So why not try to lighten things up, for yourself and for others, with a laugh or a smile, even if initially it feels a bit forced? Try it. You might be surprised.

Next time I'll write about the fellowship of grief.

Until then,


photos: Caroline Hernandez, unSplash

Tong Nguyen Van


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