Urban Sadhu Exploration May 2023
bōlō bōlō sadmila bōlō, ōm namah śivaya ōm namah śivaya, ōm namah śivaya
Meaning: Let us all joyfully chant together, “Om namah Shivaya.” – Austin Sanderson
I was recently enrolled in a month-long meditation course focused on “inner happiness, joy, and bliss” with my guru, Yogishri Sudarshan Kannan, the founder of Infinite Wings (infinitewings.in). He explained that “happiness and bliss” is our true nature, but that “as sadhakas” (someone who follows a sadhana, a spiritual practice) “we have to make an effort to connect to our inner happiness, joy, and bliss”.
Yogishri told a story about a wise teacher he had spent time studying under in the Himalayas. He described an elderly sadhu (holy person) who always was smiling, laughing, and filled with joy. When the holy man was confronted with anything that might challenge his effervescent approach to life, he responded by saying “how funny,” then gently laughed and smiled. In situations such as the day when the cook came in from the kitchen to tell the sadhu,“Guru-ji ,we have no rice in the pantry to feed the students,” he would reply “how funny” and laugh. When a student would get frustrated with the day’s lesson the sadhu would respond to the student, “how funny” with a smile. Another example was when students from the warm climate of south India would arrive in the very cold mountains of the Himalayas and express “how cold and drafty the ashram is”; again, the old sadhu would laugh and say, “how funny.”
In the tradition of Sanatan Dharma (Hinduism) and yoga there is a long history of smiling and laughter as a form of daily spiritual sadhana. The Sanskrit language offers many words that describe aspects of smiling and laughing. For example, smita means “slight external smile,” antaḥsmita means “inward smile,” hasanam means “laughter,” vihasana means “gentle laughter,” and prahasanam means “loud, violent laughter.” Parhasanam is often associated with Lord Shiva.
Often smita (smile) and hasanam (laughter) are treated much alike. In images, the Hindu deities are portrayed sporting what is called mandahasa or “a pleasant expression” on their faces. Lord Krishna wears a sweet smita, while Lord Shiva, on the other hand, is known for his prahasama or wild, boisterous loud laughter. Sage Valmiki, the writer of the Ramayana, said that Lord Rama always had amtahsmita, an “inner smile.” In the Taittiriya Upanishad, joy and laughter are described as the fundamental experience of being.
In sharp contrast, early Buddhist scriptures such as the Vinaya Pitaka meaning “Blank of Discipline” and the Bhrahmajala Sutta, meaning “Wisdom Net for Victory” forbid monks from laughing. The Bhrahmajala Sutta states that the Buddha once said, “How can anyone laugh who knows of old age, disease, and death?” Over time this austere Buddhist attitude toward laughter softened and we get the jolly, chubby, laughing Buddha that we all know and love – but he is from a much later time and from the Chinese Buddhist tradition of Buddhism not the Indian tradition.
A good sense of humor can't cure all ailments, but data is mounting about the positive things laughter can do. Researchers have proved that intentionally exercising our zygomaticus major muscle and orbicularis oculi muscle can actually make us feel better. When our brains feel happy, endorphins are produced and neuronal signals are transmitted to our facial muscles to trigger a smile. This is the start of the positive feedback loop of happiness. When our smiling muscles contract, they fire a signal back to the brain, stimulating our reward system, and further increasing our level of happy hormones, or endorphins. In short, when our brain feels happy, we smile; when we smile, our brain feels happier. The New England Journal of Medicine also noted:
Laughter is a positive sensation, and seems to be a useful and healthy way to overcome stress.
Laughter is a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy that could make physical, psychological, and social relationships healthier, ultimately improving the quality of life.
Laughter is a non-pharmacological, alternative treatment that has a positive effect on mental health.
Laughter does not require specialized facilities and equipment, and it is easily accessible. For these reasons, the medical community has taken notice and attempted to include laughter therapy along with more traditional therapies.
Laughter can alter dopamine and serotonin activity and stimulate the secretion of endorphins that can help when people are in a depression.
A good laugh also has great short-term effects. When you start to laugh, it doesn't just lighten your load mentally, it actually induces physical changes in your body. Laughter can stimulate many organs by enhancing your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulating your heart, lungs, and muscles, and increasing the endorphins that are released by your brain, much as do Pranayama techniques found in yoga.
But laughter isn't just a quick pick-me-up. It's also good for you over the long term. Laughter has been noted to improve the immune system. Negative thoughts manifest in chemical reactions that can affect your body by bringing more stress into your system and decreasing the body’s immunity. Laughing and smiling can actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and may potentially prevent more serious illnesses.
Finally, laughter and smiling can also improve self-esteem and how we interact with the world around us, We can bring laughter and a smile to others and share both our outer and “inner happiness, joy, and bliss.”
Austin Sanderson – Urban Sadhu