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Taking Things Seriously

In my little book Augustus Finds Serenity, the sage Takygulpa Rinpoche has been asked to give advice to a religious community. Among other things he tells the assembled throng:

Do not take life too seriously. The glue that holds our communities together best is made from shared joy and good humour. Just as we are mindful of their hurts, be happy for the success of others as well. Above all, laugh often!

Whilst that may be sound advice, it is wisdom that many will struggle to apply.

There are several reasons why some will find it difficult to find “joy and good humour” in their lives. One is that many of us seem genetically disposed towards pessimism and therefore find it difficult to see the joy in life. Pessimism brings with it other disadvantages.

The father of “positive psychology”, Martin Seligman writes:

Literally hundreds of studies show that pessimists give up more easily and get depressed more often. These experiments also show that optimists do much better in school and college, at work and on the playing field. They regularly exceed the predictions of aptitude tests. When optimists run for office, they are more apt to be elected than pessimists are. Their health is unusually good. They age well, much freer than most of us from the usual physical ills of middle age. Evidence suggests they may even live longer.

[Mind you other research suggests that pessimists are often more realistic than optimists.]

Abd ar-Rahman III was a tenth century emir living in Spain and seems the exemplar of a melancholic, pessimist. He was first Caliph of Cordoba. His efforts made Cordoba one of the greatest cities in the West.

Despite this he is quoted as saying:

I have now reigned about 50 years in victory or peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honours, power and pleasure, have waited on my call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot. They amount to fourteen.

Life has other devices which seem designed to ensure that we take life more seriously than we ought.

Alan Watts, American lecturer and author and fabulous interpreter of the Eastern wisdom traditions, wrote:

………when the unenlightened man attains to any degree of responsibility, he develops a heaviness of touch, a lack of abandon, a stiffness which indicates he is using his dignity as stilts to keep his head above adversity. His trouble is that instead of ‘playing’ his role ’plays’ him……

The message of the Eastern wisdom is that all forms of life are ‘maya’ and therefore profoundly lacking in seriousness from the point of view of reality. For the world of form and illusion which the majority take to be the real world is none other than the play of the Spirit, or as the Hindus have called it, the Dance of Shiva.

It seems to me that in seeking the meaning of our lives, we often constrain our vision by taking ourselves too seriously. Most of the conventionally religious seem only able to conceive of a humourless God who is wont to punish and admonish us. And unfortunately most of those who see their role in life as promoting such a God are equally humourless.

Watts went on to write:

For the gods (or buddhas, or what you will) are simply our own innermost essence, and this could shatter the universe to nothingness in a moment if it willed. But it does not, and it keeps the world moving for the divine purpose of play, because like a musician, it is a creator and delights in the fashioning of a rhythm and a melody. To play with it is therefore not a duty but a joy, and he who does not see it as a joy can neither do it or understand it.

This understanding has been captured by the Tibetan Buddhist monk, Anam Thubten, when he wrote:

It comes about when we learn to love this great unknown and when we realize that it is, indeed, the foundation of all existence. It is the foundation of our lives. Once we can surrender and love this great unknown, there is only freedom; there is only joy. Then we can let go of these long-held chains binding us up inside; the chain of hope and the chain of fear. Then we can be the happiest people who ever lived on the planet.

If we believe that the physical universe is all there is and that man’s lot is confined to a temporary physical existence, then surely we would want to make the most of it. Under these circumstances we should be seeking to milk as much joy out of this ephemeral existence as we can.

However, for many, our spiritual beliefs lead us to understand that we are more than this physical being fated to live and die in a relatively short period of time. If those are our beliefs, then what happens to us in this physical manifestation is not of great import. Surely then we can take life lightly knowing that it is either a precursor to something else or alternatively largely an illusion!

But no, we cannot it seems, but help to take life seriously. Richard Bach, in that lovely little book Illusions wrote:

The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy. What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls a butterfly.

Surprisingly, whilst many would adjudge Islam as one of the most austere religions, one of its offshoots, Sufism, which promotes the mystical side of Islam, has a decided sense of humour. The writer Idries Shah, in the early twentieth century, reacquainted us with many of the parables of the Sufis. Their parables often contained stories about the mythical Mullah, Nasruddin. Nasruddin seems to be an ignorant fellow, prone to folly, but underlying these stories, told with great humour, are many essential truths which confirm that Nasruddin is indeed wiser than he might first appear.

But a sense of humour mainly comes in two varieties.

One form of humour delights at demeaning others. As I have often written in my essays, such a disposition stems from a fragile sense of self. Such people are constantly looking to bolster up their own lack of self-esteem by denigrating and belittling others. Such humour is deliberately intended to be hurtful.

On the other hand those with a robust sense of self are non-defensive, self-deprecating and a delight to be with.

So although Takygulpa Rinpoche was right to promote “joy and good humour”, such a state of affairs can never be realised merely by exhortation – it relies on deeper qualities.

And in contrast with Watts observations about an unenlightened man assuming responsibility taking on an undue air of gravitas, it would be my observation that good leaders don’t take themselves too seriously. As we saw above, an ability to laugh at oneself requires a robust sense of self which is perhaps the most important characteristic of leadership.

There is more than an element of truth in the whimsical statement by G K Chesterton, the British, Christian writer who is reputed to have said:

Because they take themselves lightly, angels can fly!

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