In the dim light of the Meditation Room in the basement of the Memorial Chapel, we lay in a circle on our backs, heads in the center. Aside from the ebb and flow of our breathing, the room was still and completely silent.
Then somebody started giggling.
It was Jenessa Duncombe ’14, the leader of this weekly meditation group. Her laughter rang through the room, provoked by nothing in particular. After a few seconds, this absurdity was too much to handle. Somebody else burst out laughing, and soon we were all pretty much convulsing on the floor.
We laughed for 20 minutes straight—at each other’s laughter, at the situation in general, and at nothing at all. Sometimes it tapered off for a bit, but then somebody would break down again, and the entire room would dissolve into another fit of hysterics.
This was the third session of Laughing Meditation, brought to the University this semester by the residents of Buddhist House. From 12:30 p.m. to 12:55 p.m. every Wednesday, students are invited to the Chapel’s Meditation Room for this weekly giggling gathering.
Duncombe, a Buddhist House resident, thought that Laughing Meditation would be a valuable activity to bring to campus.
“First off, it’s fun, and second off, it challenges what many people think of as ‘meditation,’” she said. “From a scientific standpoint, laughing releases endorphins and naturally lowers stress hormones. It also creates a sense of community in the room.”
Laughing is indeed recognized in many circles as a therapeutic activity for both the body and mind, and Laughing Meditation is gaining ground as a practice. Some laughter-based meditations are more structured, incorporating stretches and breathing exercises, but the lunchtime meditation in the Chapel is primarily centered on mindful laughing.
Duncombe noted that each meditation session so far has been unique.
“The first time, I felt like the kid who the scary adult scolded for laughing inappropriately—‘No laughing! Be quiet!’—but I kept on laughing anyway,” she said. “The second time felt very light and relaxing, and the third time was full of energy and playfulness.”
Energy and playfulness certainly dominated the most recent meditation. Although the occasional silence is allowed and embraced during Laughing Meditation, there was barely a second of stillness throughout the session; the laughing was contagious. It ended only when Duncombe’s phone alarm went off, signifying the end of the meditation—and even then, it was hard to stop giggling.
The concept of Laughing Meditation may come as a surprise to those who think of meditation as a silent, introspective activity. It’s a far cry from Zen meditation, which generally involves sitting still, centering the mind, and focusing on breathing. Nonetheless, participants attest to the benefits of Laughing Meditation—many of which echo the benefits of more traditional types of meditation.
“Zen meditation has always been really difficult for me, but laughing meditation is an easier way to access the same peacefulness,” Rachel Warren ’14 wrote in an email to The Argus.
Warren has attended one Laughing Meditation thus far and found it an absorbing, joyful experience.
“I have found that while doing it I am completely engaged, and engaged in the expression of joy,” she wrote. “There is no reason for laughter beyond the open expression of an existing and universal joy.”
Leaders of Laughing Meditations emphasize the importance of full engagement in the practice. Dhyan Sutorius, a Dutch doctor who founded the Center for the Promotion of Laughter, spoke to this in an August 2009 interview with Ode Magazine. He noted the importance of mindfulness and acceptance when guiding participants through a Laughing Meditation session.
“Every second of your attention should be directed to whatever presents itself to you at that moment, whatever it may be; laugh or cry with it, or be silent,” he said during the meditation session referenced in the article. “The essence is acceptance, letting go and being aware. The moment you totally accept the situation, the other person or yourself, you can laugh with it.”
Duncombe echoed this sentiment, calling upon Sutorius’ instructions for inspiration.
“Meditation is not a solitary, quiet act only to be achieved sitting cross-legged on the cushion,” she said. “I believe it is more of a way of being. Laughing Meditation also fits with our mission here at Buddhist house to be a spiritual presence on campus and to vary how we practice to in order to reach many types of people.”