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New book on how to practice mindfulness meditation with humor and playfulness

JoyonDemandFrom the out­side, med­i­ta­tion appears to be a thor­ough­ly seri­ous endeav­or. You have to sit down, duti­ful­ly count your breaths and rein in your wan­der­ing mind, and prac­tice this every day whether it’s fun or not.

But that isn’t Chade-Meng Tan’s approach to mind­ful­ness. The found­ing chair of the Search Inside Your­self Lead­er­ship Insti­tute, which start­ed as a mind­ful­ness class at Google and now trains employ­ees around the world, Tan lives by the mot­to that “life is too impor­tant to be tak­en seri­ous­ly.” And he adopts the same atti­tude toward cul­ti­vat­ing mindfulness—outlined in his new book, Joy on Demand: The Art of Dis­cov­er­ing the Hap­pi­ness With­in.

While Tan acknowl­edges that there are oth­er routes to mas­ter­ing med­i­ta­tion (includ­ing sheer dis­ci­pline and will), his focus is on joy. The book—pep­pered with car­toons in every chapter—teaches prac­tices and prin­ci­ples for cul­ti­vat­ing mind­ful­ness that empha­size gen­tle­ness and ease, and lead to a life suf­fused with pos­i­tive feel­ing.

With prac­tice, joy can become your per­son­al­i­ty and your whole life,” Tan writes. “What is neu­tral will become joy­ful, and what is joy­ful will become even more joy­ful.” He him­self is liv­ing proof of this philosophy—his offi­cial title while at Google, print­ed on his busi­ness card, was “Jol­ly Good Fel­low.”

Tan encour­ages light­ness and play­ful­ness in the way we think about mind­ful­ness train­ing in the first place. In a chap­ter called “Hap­pi­ness Is Full of Crap,” he men­tions teach­ings that com­pare the mind to “a piece of pure gold inside a big ball of cat­tle dung.” (“Great spir­i­tu­al teach­ers tend to be fun­ny peo­ple,” he observes.) In oth­er words, we all have hap­pi­ness with­in us; we just have to clear away the nasty habits of think­ing that obscure it, which is part of the goal of mind train­ing.

One of the prac­tices he rec­om­mends is the ten-minute “Pup­py Dog Med­i­ta­tion,” which has five steps that cor­re­spond to train­ing a pup­py:

  • Relax: “Relax and allow your pup­py [mind] to wan­der, but if she gets too far away, gen­tly and lov­ing­ly car­ry her back.”
  • Rejoice: “Now, the pup­py is famil­iar with you and loves you, and she likes to sit next to you. When she does, you rejoice. If you catch her wan­der­ing, also rejoice at hav­ing such a love­ly pup­py before gen­tly bring­ing her back.”
  • Resolve: “Now the pup­py is a young dog and is ready for train­ing. Dur­ing train­ing, you resolve to firm­ly enforce dis­ci­pline [atten­tion], in a gen­tle and lov­ing way.”
  • Refine: “Now that your young dog is prop­er­ly trained, it is time to refine her skills [attend to the sub­tle nature of the breath].”
  • Release: “Your dog is well trained and can be unleashed.… Let go of all effort and allow the mind to just be.”

In anoth­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly delight­ful prac­tice, Tan rec­om­mends that we take a moment every hour to wish for two peo­ple at our work­place to be hap­py, think­ing, “I wish for this per­son to be hap­py, and I wish for that per­son to be hap­py.”

If you like, you may pre­tend you are fir­ing a ‘hap­pi­ness ray gun’ at them and make ‘pew, pew’ sound effects in your head. Bat­ter­ies not required,” Tan adds.

This is a micro ver­sion of lov­ing-kind­ness med­i­ta­tion, where you gen­er­ate feel­ings of good­will and warmth toward oth­ers by wish­ing them well. Lov­ing-kind­ness med­i­ta­tion has been shown to gen­er­ate more pos­i­tive atti­tudes toward the self and oth­ers and more pos­i­tive emo­tions, which in turn can lead to a greatersense of con­nec­tion to oth­ers, improved vagal tone (a mea­sure of car­diac health), few­er symp­toms of ill­ness, high­er life sat­is­fac­tion, and less depres­sion.

Lest we think all this humor is only for the innate­ly cheer­ful, Tan assures us that he isn’t a nat­u­ral­ly hap­py per­son; in fact, he was mis­er­able for most of his child­hood. Since then, he’s some­times bat­tled intense feel­ings of worth­less­ness and peri­ods of over­whelm­ing suf­fer­ing in his life. But he now believes that humor is avail­able to us even in moments of pain, at least some of the time.

Research backs him up: There’s some evi­dence that humor can help us cope with trau­mat­ic sit­u­a­tions. Laugh­ter releas­es dopamine, increas­es blood flow, and strength­ens the heart. In one study, humor was even more effec­tive than pos­i­tiv­i­ty at alle­vi­at­ing neg­a­tive feel­ings. The ben­e­fits of laugh­ter are no laugh­ing mat­ter.

And mind­ful­ness isn’t just for hap­py times, either. Research sug­gests that mind­ful­ness and mind­ful­ness-based ther­a­pies can help stu­dents cop­ing with fail­ure and self-doubt, help vet­er­ans bat­tling post-trau­mat­ic stress dis­or­der, and help those suf­fer­ing from depres­sion and anx­i­ety.

Amidst all the car­toons and jokes, it’s easy to for­get that Tan him­self is extra­or­di­nar­i­ly seri­ous about mind­ful­ness. He’s been prac­tic­ing for 21 years, and he now med­i­tates for three hours a day. Although any­one can get a hint of joy from a calm­ing, mind­ful breath or a short lov­ing-kind­ness med­i­ta­tion, it takes ded­i­ca­tion to build a life where joy is the default state.

JoyonDemandTan’s advice for those who want to fol­low in his foot­steps? “Don’t stop and don’t strain.” Prac­tice, but not to the point of ten­sion and rigid­i­ty. Be ded­i­cat­ed and per­sis­tent, but gen­tle and light­heart­ed at the same time. That is the path to joy.

– Kira M. New­man is an edi­tor and web pro­duc­er at Greater Good, and the cre­ator of The Year of Hap­py, a year-long course in the sci­ence of hap­pi­ness. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism.

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