Playful humor: The Dalai Lama’s secret weapon (and how it can be yours, too)


— When you are the spiritual leader of an entire people, you’ve lived your entire adult life in exile, your movements are restricted by ever-watchful bodyguards and you must watch every word for fear of setting off an international incident, you would think your face would reflect the weight of the world.

But when you are the Dalai Lama, the deepest lines on your 81-year-old skin are laugh lines.

His Holiness knows how to find joy in nearly everything and everyone, largely because of his sense of humor. It is something he uses regularly to quickly win over crowds and something he thinks everyone should embrace in order to have a better life.

When he presided over the Emory-Tibet Symposium in December at an imposing temple owned by the Tibetan community in exile in Mundgod, India, he showed his teasing nature right away.

Gathered were thousands of saffron-robed nuns and monks, world-renowned scientists, Tibetans and many interested followers, eager learn how to “bridge science and Buddhism for mutual enrichment.”

The crowd looked as serious as the topic. As they waited in the temple, they murmured quietly and shifted in their seats. Finally, the low moan of a guttural chant began, and everyone quieted and sat up a little straighter.

When His Holiness finally emerged from a side door, the sound of scraping plastic chairs echoed throughout the hall as the crowd stood and applauded. Some prostrated themselves on the ground.

His Holiness walked in slowly, surrounded by monks in traditional robes and bodyguards in Western dress. Two monks gently guided him down a small set of steps.

At the bottom, the Dalai Lama smiled with great joy, laughing and waving at the friends gathered in his honor.

“When you smile, I notice everyone around you smiles. I notice it is very contagious as well,” said Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s Chief Medical correspondent, in an interview with His Holiness after the event.

“Basically, we are social animal,” the Dalai Lama replied. “We need friend. In order to develop genuine friendship, trust is very important. For trust, if you show them genuine sort of respect, genuine love, then trust come, so here I think the expression of genuine warm feeling smile I think part of that, that’s genuine smile.”

But it is clear that joking around is also key to winning over a crowd. At the event, the Dalai Lama finally sat in his floral chair, against what looked like a pillow one of the monks must have grabbed from his bed, hoping to make him more comfortable.

The crowd quieted, leaning forward to hear what His Holiness had to say.

But instead of a prayer or a gentle word of wisdom, he decided it was the perfect time to wipe his brow. He took his time and then, rather than putting the white washcloth on the table next to him, he immediately put it on his head, where it rested like an absurd floppy hat. Giggling, he wore it through first part of the meeting, for about an hour.

Then, he reached with some ceremony for a glass jar of candy on the low table in front of him. “This is not decoration,” he joked, holding it up. He pointed to himself — “eat” — and promptly unwrapped the gold foil to pop a hard candy into his mouth.

His impish behavior, laughing and joking did the trick. The solemn and respectful crowd began laughing with him, warming up immediately. Everyone seemed ready to listen to a discussion of heavy topics such as “What are the fundamental constituents of the universe, and how did it originate?” and “How is knowledge established and what constitutes valid reasoning?”

When Gupta later asked His Holiness about why he decided to wear the washcloth so comically, the Dalai Lama admitted it was, in part, because he is practical and gets hot. But he also hinted that there was something deeper: It’s important for leaders, particularly spiritual leaders, to “act like a human being” and to be playful.

Often, “everyone too much formal,” he said, “That is self-torture.”

And though he knows he must respect those leaders, despite “no word, no movement” from them, he has sometimes developed “a strange thinking” and often hopes something unexpected will happen to make that leader act more “like a human being.”

“I had this experience (in) 1954 when I was in Peking,” His Holiness said. “Some Indian ambassador, he call on me, come to my room, then as usual, some Chinese foreign ministries officials come.

“Everyone too much formal like that,” he said then mimed being stiff. “Then somehow they brought some fruit, somehow dumped over, and then everyone acted like a human being,” he said, laughing and miming people scrambling around, as he saw them do around on the floor.

His Holiness suggests everyone let themselves be playful and find the funny in life. In his book “My Spiritual Journey,” he calls himself a “professional laugher” and writes that he comes from a cheerful family that is always “amusing ourselves, teasing each other, joking. It’s our habit.”

A quick laugh and an ability to see humor in daily situations and to be playful have been shown to help adults lower stress levels, both for themselves and for those around them, studies show.

By being playful and using humor, people also become more observant and more empathetic. They are often bored less, they learn more, they have more friends, and studies show that people who are willing to let out their playful side tend to have a better sense of all-around well-being.

His Holiness believes that no matter how difficult your life may be, this approach will bring you something much deeper.

“Thinking only of the negative aspect doesn’t help to find solutions and it destroys peace of mind,” he writes. “I love smiles, and my wish is to see more smiles, real smiles. … If we want those smiles, we must create the reasons that make them appear.”