PsychoZen of Clown

Nightmare, Brick Theatre, January 2013Why is it that I love clowns so thoroughly and yet so many of my friends tell me they fear and loathe them?   Ok, I understand that they look ridiculous, do silly things, and sometimes embarrass the audience, but scary??  loathsome??? 

Lumping all the clowns together for now (even if they don’t like each other’s company), I include circus clowns, theatrical clowns, tricksters and jokers, court jesters with surprising insights, various imbeciles, happy-birthday-party clowns, bouffons, and provocative wise fools.   All these characters have a way of breaking the rules that we so carefully follow.  They might wear unconventional clothing, lack dignity or fail to do what we usually try so hard to do—like keep food in our mouths.  While we use our manners, wear appropriate attire, and try not to call attention to ourselves, the clown may fart, speak loudly, say the wrong thing, or—my personal favorite—lose the war with physical objects.  

Doesn’t it seem like there’s always someone in the room who just. doesn’t. get It?  who misses the point of the conversation, comes in at the wrong moment, speaks too close, or is hopelessly unfashionable?  ok, I admit it, I feel like that dude.  Maybe because of my history of moving often, not fitting in, I’m always playing catch-up in social situations, trying desperately to find the rules of the game, and the only thing that makes it better is to laugh about it.   Laughter is the switch that changes tracks.  It either comes from or triggers an awareness of the bigger picture, a letting go, and a release of tension that allows me simply to express who I am at that moment.  

As an arthritic from toddlerhood, I am particularly enamored of physical comedy.  When the brilliant Amy Gordon just cannot make headway on her skates, I feel with my 1-year old body what it must have been like to be unable to walk, and I am so grateful and moved that she keeps trying, that people are rooting for her, and that she maintains her good cheer.  Taking a clown class with Jean Taylor, I learned the importance of pleasure.  We can just grimly keep trying to get up, or we can see that the process of trying to get up is a game.  It’s a game, for chrissakes!  That’s all it is. The whole thing.  

Perhaps this is why so many Zen masters act like clowns, doing shocking and irregular things like bonking people—thirty blows with a stick!, shouting, or giving absurd answers to simple questions.  Our modern Zen master, Bernie Glassman, actually apprenticed himself to a clown.  If you want to read lots of cool intellectual riffs on the mechanisms of shock and laughter and enlightenment, check out M Conrad Hyers, but here's a nugget:

He who is no longer in bondage to desire, or to the self, or to the law, he who is no longer torn apart by alienation and anxiety, can now laugh, as it were, with the laughter of the gods.

The clown does not transcend Samsara, or the worldly cycle of suffering; the clown is the Bodhisattva who, fully in the muck of life, shows us that what we reject is acceptable and lovable.  Except of course when it isn’t.  Is that what makes a clown scary?  Is it because the clown presents us with something we don’t want to see?  If the clown is playing right on the edge of humor and embarrassment, isn’t that rather dangerous, given how much energy we expend shoring up our dignities and identities?  

I asked my friends about their feelings about clowns.  One fellow, whom I shall call Topknot, told me that when he was but a young lad, he was stunned to realize that the Ronald McDonald he met in person was not the same guy he saw on TV; his trust was betrayed and he never forgot it.  Later, when he saw happy-birthday-party clowns, he just saw people pretending to be something they are not.  To me, such pretense is a perversion of the intent of the clown, just another way to escape the truth.  Isn’t that the normal convention, to pretend to be happy?   And don’t we often aim for something true and then use it to escape?  The spiritual quest is often perverted in this way, not only in so-called ‘spiritual’ wars, which are easy to criticize but hard to avoid, but also in what has been called spiritual materialism the devious attempt to practice religion to acquire peace or calm or wisdom or superiority or holiness or sex or….well, I could go on.  A similar process happens in psychotherapy.  Everybody wants to feel better, of course, but unfortunately the cure to almost everything is exposure.  Face the fear, people!  But, lo, it is so much easier to steer people toward comfort, to their detriment.  

Anyhooooo.... I’m heading into a delightful month of facing my fears at the Brick Theatre, where a month-long Clown Festival will challenge me to my core.  I intend to crack the shackles of my bondage to desire and to myself as I know It, and laugh the laughter of the gods.  I’ll be seeing performances, taking workshops, and blogging about it.  Stay in touch.  Come see a show.  Tell me how you felt about it.  Let’s play together! 


(Related posts:  Failure and FreedomFor the Love of ClownsTruth! What is it?Purpose and Politics, Demons and Death)

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Reader Comments (2)

Oh, I wish I could! I can hear the laughter of the gods ring out. They invite us in, and we will join them!

September 2, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarina

Dear Yuuka,
Thank you for attending the Clown Festival at the Brick Theater. It's obvious to me that the cultural and political problems we face in our world are not caused by clowns, but instead by serious people. Only serious people would choose discrimination, anger and violence to solve problems. Clowns use enlightenment, humor and jokes to solve problems. We need more enlightenment, humor and jokes in this world, therefore we need more clowns! As you say, clowns are people who let go of dignity and identity. Woe to those who obsessively protect their dignity and identity! If only there were more clowns.

September 3, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMusho

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