Home
Up
Evolution and the Anthropic Principle
Richard Dawkins vs Ken Wilber
Where Am I
The Cheshire Cat
I Could Have Been a Contender
What I Wish Id Said
Keeping Up with the World
The Flight of the Phoenix
The Power of Fog
Naming the Unnamed
Layers
Principles in Art
Spirit and Matter
The Enlightenment Conundrum
On Believing
Water? What Water?
Retro
Telling Stories 2
I believe in Rainbows
Whom Can We Believe
Patterns by Paul Simon and Douglas Hofstadter
Copyright Inheritance
Broad Minded
Beliefs Part Two
A Long drawn-out solstice
The Quest for, and the Illusion of, Certainty
To the Ends of the Earth
Astonishment
The Meaning Of Life
We Hold These Truths
There are Beliefs
Music and Language
Circular Thinking
Runaway World
Deep Playmate
An Alchemy of Telling
Habits
Cultural Genes
The Joy of Science
The Conundrum of Human Nature
No, The Computer Isn't Smarter than I Am!
A Rant on Religion
The West Wing Turning Right?
The Geometry of Spring
Music as Language
What is Art
Beauty and Spirit
You Don't Understand Us
The New God of Probability
Gene Hackman as President
Being Lifted Out of the Ordinary
The Head and the Heart
Pay Attention!
Music Poetry and Meaning
On Seeking Truth
Perceptions and Reality
The Marriage Bond
Taboo is a Right
Copyright versus Copyleft
Who
Analogue
Commitment
Cycles of Transcendence
Prejudice
Ego and Self
The Big Picture
Perspective
Mindfulness as Larger Mind
Assignment
The Power of Words
Meteors
The State of the Union
Click
Conversations
Intuition
Out of My Mind
Family Thoughts
One Life
Telling Stories
Small World
Bigger Realities
What Comes Next
Humor as a Higher Level of Consciousness
Sometimes Everything Goes Wrong
Emotional Resonance
Extraordinary Respect
Insight Meditation
Us and Them
Paradox and Paradigm
To Reach
I Don't Know
Don the Romantic
The Guy in the Blue Saab
The Sound of Silence
Eating is an Intimate Act
Evolution of Spirit
On Cloning and Other . . .
Creativity and Psychic Phenomena
Magic in My Life
My Difficulty with Aaron
Mindful & Mystic
Taste of Irony
Music Appreciation
Levels of Consciousness

Humor as a Higher Level
of Consciousness

Mystics in most of the major religious traditions refer to different "levels" of consciousness. They donít all describe them the same way, or provide the same kind of instructions for accessing them. A generation ago, some drugs were touted as non-religious means for achieving extraordinary states of consciousness. For most people, "common sense" might be thought of as the standard state, and other states, however described in glowing terms, are better left alone. Many scientists, even neurologists who concentrate on matters of the brain and nervous system, are reluctant to make sweeping statements about the nature of consciousness.

Writers such as Aldous Huxley, who wrote The Perennial Philosophy back in the 1940s, and Ken Wilber, who is still prolific in his attempts to organize our concepts of reality, describe consciousness as a continuum, beginning perhaps at the bottom of the hierarchy of life forms. (Wilber suggests that there may not even be a "bottom," for even the movement of heavenly bodies could be thought of as reflecting some form of consciousness.) The upper reaches of the continuum are referred to variously as religious ecstasy, nirvana, or enlightenment. What we refer to as "lower forms of life" could be seen as evidencing less complex awareness of their environment than most humans, with less effective means for organizing their experiences. Some people insist that "consciousness" begins with human beings, who seem uniquely gifted with a sense of "I."

Iíll take as my starting point for the sake of this discussion an assumption that we humans do, indeed, possess consciousness, defined rather vaguely as an awareness of self and not-self. Iíve noticed that many people appear to have "something" in their mental makeup that is beyond my capacity to understand, let alone hope to achieve. They might be called "geniuses," or "saints," or "prophets," or something similar; and to many people they seem to operate at a level beyond us ordinary folk. Their specialness seems not just a matter of degree. They not only understand things we do not, they know things that we cannot even dream of. They may not be in a different world than we, but they obviously see it differently. When I watch my dog Tasha trying desperately to understand me when Iím explaining something to her, something that affects her directly but of which she is totally unaware, I remember listening in awe to the Dalai Lama a few years ago, and feeling just as I imagine Tasha does. And Iím likely to be gentler with the "poor, dumb animal."

Wilber did much to illuminate my thinking about levels of consciousness. We do move up, he said, as we learn to integrate our experiences at different ages. A six-year-old cannot be expected to respond appropriately to, say, sexual situations. Usually, but not always, there comes a time when he or she understands more of the complex emotional and physical and social aspects of sexuality. This advance in perspective is often taken for granted, but if one thinks about it, itís pretty remarkable. When a person grows up enough in different areas of experience, they understand more, and their range of responses is greater. At some point, we call it wisdom.

"Ah, yes," Iíve said more than once, "Iíve been here before. Iíve felt this tightness in my gut and my sudden desire to escape. And I know also that Iím really not in danger, and I can control my urge and make the most out of whatís happening right here, right now." Sometimes, I might even make a joke about it all.

The ability to laugh at oneself at times is usually considered a desirable trait. If Iím frightened by something that turns out to be benign, and I can laugh about it, Iím not so apt to be at its mercy in the future. If I feel insulted by someone unexpectedly, and then realize that their intentions were not hostile, a little humor can disperse the difficulties in the transaction. When I suddenly realize that itís the little kid in me who is responding to a situation, I can choose to act more adult, and at the same time have compassion for that part of me who is still four years old and fearful of abandonment.

Iím talking about gentle humor. Thereís also another kind, a hurtful kind, expressed in sarcasm and even sadistic glee. Enjoying another personís suffering is not a higher level of consciousness. But humoróany humorórequires a degree of sophistication to understand. Humor, as a response, is often a matter of seeing some familiar situation and twisting it, creating a paradox or an unexpected result. The enjoyment of "getting the joke" is in perceiving both ends of the paradox. Relating two things that are usually not thought of as related. My wife thinks "Humor as a higher level of consciousness" is itself funny. Why? I believe itís because we ordinarily think of humor as a leveler, a folksy thing.

I could relate some incidents in which my dog Tasha has fun with meónot playing the way animals often do with each other, exercising abilities that are to be used in very serious ways, such as fighting off intruders or competing to get food, but in a gentle teasing behavior, pretending to give me her ball to toss, then slyly pulling it just out of reach. If I stop reaching for it, she brings it back, and repeats the tease until I manage to grab it, then instantly she lets go and bounds off, looking back at me waiting for the toss. This little game is fun for her and fun for me, and we both know it and appreciate the humor. Itís a delicate dance, what James Carse calls an "infinite game," played for the fun of playing and not to have a winner and a loser. Thatís humor, too, the "good" kind. Laughing at oneself is not destructive. On the contrary, it helps to bond people (and animals). What Iím enjoying when Tasha plays her little game with me, is my own limitationómy dog outwitting me! If I were truly embarrassed or humiliated, my responses would not encourage her to repeat the game. It wouldnít be fun for either of us.

Since Iíve become aware of all this, Iíve begun to pay more attention to my own humor, checking now and then to see whether itís destructive or constructive to the relationship. Laughing at another person can be either. Itís a fine line to walk, requiring sensitivity and skillóand a lot of knowledge about the other person. Psychologists tell us that humor at someone elseís expense is always a hostile act. The important word there is "expense." If Iím aware of my own forgetfulness, for example, and make jokes about it, someone I trust can also kid me about itóa little. To gauge the word "little," I guess it would be less than I do. If I can laugh at myself, it indicates an acceptance of my own shortcoming, a level of comfort. A perspective. In perhaps only a small way, I have "risen above" myself and my ego.

About other personal topics, such as my deteriorating physical condition, Iím not so sanguine. I canít readily joke about it, and I can be easily hurt if someone else jokes about it. My level of consciousness related to that is rather stuck. My ego reigns.

So, perhaps itís clearer to say that humor can be an indicator of higher consciousness, rather than the state itself. When it reflects that ever-important perspective, or that bit of insight, humor might be thought of as one characteristic of wisdom. Logically, the next question is: does God have a sense of humor?

Personally, I have no doubt.

Donald Skiff, May 30, 2002

Comment on this essay? Send me an e-mail, please.
(And mention the title of the essay, too)