Max Christern | August 2009 issue
Laughing is a group activity. “It gives you a feeling of solidarity,” Dhyan Sutorius had already explained to me on the phone. That’s why he asked if I was interested in doing a short laughing meditation with the staff during his upcoming visit to Ode’s Dutch editorial offices in Rotterdam. Three of us were there that day, so it was intimate, which was fine with Sutorius. The point is to experience laughing together. “Laughing is extremely conducive to cooperation,” according to Sutorius’ Dutch-language website, which features a link to a brochure in English. That got all three of us chuckling.
A few days later, the 70-year-old founder of the Center for the Promotion of Laughter appeared, surprisingly spry as he climbed the three flights to Ode’s waterfront offices. Our interview couldn’t take place until we had completed his exercise, so Sutorius went to work as soon as he walked through the door. “Are your bladders empty, ladies?” he asked my co-workers. “That is an absolute must for an effective meditation.” An empty stomach is also advisable. As my two colleagues hurried to the bathroom, giggling, Sutorius pushed four chairs into a small circle and quickly drank two glasses of water. “A good laughing session makes you lose a lot of fluid,” he remarked, with evident confidence in the strength of his own bladder. He then asked us to focus our attention on his area of specialization for 30 years: the laughing meditation.
Just like regular meditation, laughing meditation has a calming effect on the meditator. But laughing adds an extra dimension—along with inner peace, it elicits joy. When you laugh, your brain releases endorphins, which produce sensations of pleasure. At the same time, laughing cleanses your body of the stress hormone cortisol. Because the sessions often take place in groups, there’s a social aspect as well; laughing is something best done with others. Laughing meditation sessions have become Sutorius’ mission. Says the doctor of preventive medicine: “You feel undeniably better if laugh a lot and hard. Something special happens to you. Your heart beats faster; you get warm. It is extremely healthy.” He has written two books in Dutch on the subject. Sutorius gives lectures and laughing meditation workshops that last between 75 minutes and two hours, which he calls “laughshops.”
As our 15-minute laughing meditation begins, I sit in the circle with my two co-workers. The doors are closed; the telephone is off. No one can disturb us. We look expectantly at the large, bearded Sutorius. It’s a challenge for him, since we’re starting off with a degree of awkwardness. After all, how far should we go in exposing ourselves? Sutorius barely gives us time to consider this. He demands our attention in a slightly dominating yet charming way. With a mixture of curiosity and diffidence, we listen to his instructions.
Every session, says Sutorius, is like the first time. He considers this essential to the experience. For the three of us, it really is the first time. “If you feel a little shy, laugh with your shyness,” Sutorius directs. “And respect your limits. We don’t have to achieve anything at all.”
He takes us on this journey with calm decisiveness. First, the preparation. We start by standing to stretch, legs planted solidly next to one another. We use our right arm to pull the left over our ear, and vice versa. Then we loosen our fingers without cracking them. Finally, we make a variety of silly faces to get our facial muscles ready. We’re not allowed to laugh yet, which proves difficult.
“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,” Sutorius directs. “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.”
Sutorius experienced his first laughing meditation in India, where he traveled in 1976 in search of peace and quiet. After graduating with a degree in medicine, he decided to become a naval doctor. His work took him to many exotic places, but didn’t help him find what he was seeking. So he decided to look in India. For six months he traveled through the country looking for direction, and finally found it in the laughing meditations of Osho, the spiritual teacher who at the time led an ashram under the name of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. “Thanks to that style of meditation, I realized that you don’t have to leave home to find happiness,” Sutorius remembers. “That eliminated a lot of my restlessness. I discovered that my happiness is right here.” He points to his robust belly, where Sutorius says his laughter always begins, from braying (which he does as soon as he starts telling an anecdote) to bellowing (the result when he’s fully engaged in his laughing meditation).
Sutorius joined the international Rajneesh movement, an eclectic mix of Western philosophy, Hinduism, Zen and other religions. It was controversial because women were instructed not to reproduce. Sutorius became a follower, dressed in orange and was given the first name “Dhyan,” which he uses to this day. He took the lessons he learned in India back to the Netherlands, where he began providing laughing meditations at conferences and other gatherings in the late 1970s.
In 1985, Sutorius founded the Center for the Promotion of Laughter, a bit of a misnomer, since the “center” consists entirely of Sutorius. But that’s typical of Sutorius’ ambition. He believes laughing meditations have a transformative power and should become a normal part of our daily routines. “It would mean a lot more happy and relaxed people,” he says. “At schools, universities, companies and ministries—laughing meditation should be available everywhere, every day, for everyone who wants it.”
He has certainly convinced us. As the meditation continues, Sutorius asks us to close our eyes and list our top 10 problems. “Concentrate on that for a moment,” he says. “Just make your own list. Lay out your worst troubles.” We slowly slip away and relax a bit more as we let our shoulders sag. When we allow our chins to “just hang loose,” our throat muscles relax. And then, very softly, from a smile comes the beginning of a laugh. It has begun.
At first, we laugh in a calm and relaxed manner. Then we gather steam, thanks to a couple of Sutorius’ funny exercises and remarks—”Think of a person you don’t like, and think of him or her laughing,” “See how wise it was to empty your bladder?” These are probably standard jokes from the sessions he has held countless times, but they work just fine. And his laughter is contagious.
All three of us giggle and chuckle at each other’s giggling and chuckling—as well as that of our teacher. Don’t force anything, Sutorius emphasizes. Just let it happen. “You can laugh until you cry, you can cry or you can laugh with your tears.”
The real laughter doesn’t start until Sutorius asks us in an excited tone to think for a moment about our “favorite problems. Add it to the mix!” That makes all three of us laugh, though we don’t let ourselves really roar. But our shyness has disappeared—and the beginning of a giggle is stirring in our bellies, which is where Sutorius says laughter should start. “In Russia,” Sutorius later explains, “the word for belly is ‘zhivot.’ That word means ‘life’ in old Russian. Isn’t that beautiful? Laughter is the essence of life. The Russians have known that for a long time.”
We’re still laughing when it’s time to close our eyes again. A minute later, Sutorius suddenly says, “stop.” The laughter dies down. “Breathe, without making a sound,” he continues, “and every time you notice you’re thinking of something, feel a goodbye for that thought and direct all your attention to your body, to your feet on the ground and the feeling that you have at that moment.” Sutorius speaks calmly and pulls us from laughter to the silence of relaxation. “And whatever you are feeling now, feel it as a yes!”
After a couple of minutes, we’re told we can open our eyes. We look at each other, again without laughing. Then he asks us to look for a word to describe our feelings. “Relaxation,” someone says. “Relief” and “unique” are two other descriptions. He doesn’t ask for any further judgment. Then we adjourn with a plan to repeat the exercise every day for a month. “Write down your experiences in a journal and do this meditation each time as if it’s the first time,” Sutorius advises.
All three of us are pleasantly surprised and relaxed. Our first time was a fresh experience. Smiling, we look forward to the next laughing meditation. “Another 30 times or so and then we’ll evaluate Dhyan Sutorius,” I tell him in a quasi-threatening tone. He erupts into peals of laughter.
After the session, Sutorius tells us he is, by nature, a brooder and a worrier, which may be the reason he started doing this work in the first place. As a physician, he once specialized in dermatology, just as his father had. “The skin,” Sutorius claims, “is the mirror of the soul.” He discovered this as a young doctor when he gave massages to a few of his patients in the evening. He immediately felt his clients’ mental and emotional states and knew whether they’d relax during the massage. When he discovered in India how laughing meditation worked, Sutorius realized laughter was just as relaxing as massage.
He takes a piece of paper from a folder full of newspaper clippings he brought along. It’s a report from the Mind, Body and Spirit Festival in London, from Britain’s Evening Standard, dated May 25, 1990. Sutorius’ “medicinal laughing trick” had been the hit of the festival. “He nearly brought the house down with his full-blooded belly laugh into the microphone,” I read. Sutorius himself laughs about it. “Among other things, I told them that a deep belly laugh was shown to have a substantial effect on chronic pain.” The article gave him a nice nickname: the “ho-ho-holistic” medicine man. Sutorius has a wonderful ho-ho-ho laugh. As we sit laughing with him, it occurs to me he would make a perfect Santa Claus.
Do it yourself
Learn the laughing meditation in three easy steps.
Limber: Stretch your muscles as you exhale, relax briefly as you inhale, then stretch again and exhale. Repeat this a couple of times as you reach over your head. For the last minute, push the fingers of one hand back with the other hand while you stretch your facial muscles by making funny faces and grimaces—without laughing.
Laugh: Smile, and slowly, without forcing yourself, laugh with a relaxed throat. Laugh softly at first, then louder until you’re bellowing heartily from your belly. Don’t force anything. Allow it to happen. In the final minute, close your eyes and continue to laugh.
Release: With your eyes closed, suddenly stop laughing and breathe without making a sound. Each time you notice you’re thinking of something, let the thought go and focus your attention on your body. Whatever you feel, notice it and allow it.
Max Christern, editor of Ode’s Dutch edition, never needed a laughing meditation to find his inner giggler.