Category Archives: Clown + Zen

Constructive/Destructive Humor

womenllaughing.m09“As long as the humor is not destructive” the woman explained in response to the interviewer’s question about the meaning, value of humor in daily life. The context is a German radio program about “What does humor mean” interviewing a number of people using humor in the positive, Eckart Von Hirschhausen (Humor Hilft Heilen-Humor Helps Healing) and Myriam Brenner from the German Clowns Ohne Grenzen (clowns without borders…) Interspersed in the program, the radio show played a series of ask the person on the street interviews, how they viewed humor, in which I heard this woman using the word destructive to describe humor.

That was a rather big eureka to me, as it answers a question that has been on my mind for a long time: how to qualify the use of humor. I am guessing that you might have considered this concept: when is humor a good thing? What is the difference between laughing at and laughing with?

As a professional humorist, the question often comes up in one form or another. I have never felt comfortable qualifying humor as positive or negative, something doesn’t quite jar right with that definition. Yet now, I feel I have found the answer, destructive describes why it is a negative.

The opposite term, Constructive, is just as excellent as far as a qualifier in my humble opinion. When the Humor is constructive, it brings people together to laugh in a most healthy way, in celebration. It is a life affirming, let’s celebrate the joy of living. It might be on a more minor scale than a spiritual awakening, yet that moment of connection where the constructive humor is shared opens up a sense of trust and enjoyment of being together, an affirmation of joie de vivre (joy of life).

There is surely more on my mind concerning this, especially looking at how verbal language, or the lack of it, affects the quality of humor.  However  for now, enough said….Further!

ps. If you are a German speaker, and wish to hear the interview (it was broadcast in early 2016) as of this writing, it’s still available at the following link:


Team Training: The Right Kind of Funny

Team Training: The Right Kind of Funny
by Moshe Cohen ©2016

A few weeks ago, the New York Times magazine published an article about what Google learned from its quest— code-named Project Aristotle— to build the perfect team. As a consulting team trainer at one of Silicon Valley’s major companies the past 8 months, I have immersed myself in this quest. Google’s research findings have me particularly enthused as they confirm that my interactive mindfulness trainings are on the right track.

Some of Google’s conclusions:

“what distinguished the ‘‘good’’ teams from the dysfunctional groups was how teammates treated one another…. good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’ — a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.”

Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, defined as a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up,’’ Edmondson wrote in a study published in 1999. ‘‘It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.

In my  line of work, high social sensitivity and the ability to create an atmosphere of psychological safety are prerequisites. Awareness, listening and strong non-verbal communication skills are what we develop through methodologies I have used in the health care world. According to Google’s research, these skills are exactly what’s needed for effective team work. However Google, and many other corporate entities, might be challenged by the current negativity surrounding my field…which is…Clowning.

If scary images of overly made-up, obnoxiously loud, insensitive, immature characters come to mind, please travel further back in time than the media maelstrom of the past 50 years—which has popularized a very stereotyped and mostly negative image of clown. Blame it on Ronald McDonald, John Wayne Gacy, Stephen King’s It and any other hosts of contenders. The majority of the world has forgotten that clowning is about the funny, that there is a finer, more subtle and smart version of clown circulating in the corridors of the theater, one who has audiences laughing night after night.

Clown is unique in the performing arts in that audience interaction is part of the game, and their level of enjoyment often determines the performer’s next steps. If something that’s usually funny isn’t getting any laughs, the good clown will move on rather than dig a hole in the ground. Thus the clown’s eyes, ears, and all their senses are listening for the subtlest of cues. These clowns have great capacity for non-verbal communication. Most having spent years training in physical/ movement/gestural theater, in voice, mime, tai chi…in my case butoh dance….

One thing that may surprise the reader is that these clowns are all about mindfulness—yes, it’s a hot topic these days. Clowns have a somewhat different version of mindfulness as their awareness is more focused on being present with others, on their outward interactions rather than inner navel gazing. This is especially true of the thousands of healthcare clowns around the world, who work in children’s wards and elder homes, where the main game is often personal interaction in intimate settings rather than full view on stage.

Perhaps Interactive Mindfulness is a good term. Whereas many mindfulness practices are centered around meditation with objectives of stress reduction, resilience, self-inquiry; here the objectives are on presence, social sensitivity and authentic interaction. In this context, humor acts as a facilitator, lubricant and communicator for mutual understanding.

Can humor be a useful tool for teams seeking to create an atmosphere of ‘interpersonal trust, mutual respect in which people are comfortable with themselves’ ?? If the humor is kind, well meaning, and looking to uplift the group, It certainly can. Perhaps it’s helpful to think in terms of constructive (vs destructive) humor.  So far, my team training results definitely point in that direction. I certainly wouldn’t be crafting these words if I didn’t think so.

Given  traditional hierarchical management structures, if one wishes for a culture where people feel comfortable being themselves, the structure they work in, the upper management and corporate culture need to be fully supportive. There has to be a very strong wish for employees to feel comfortable being themselves, to remove the pressures causing people to put on a ‘work’’ mask to protect themselves.

One must also factor in cultures and upbringing where ‘just being themselves’ at work is not initially perceived as an option. Early on in our training sessions in Silicon Valley, I was informed by one of our Indian participants that in India, showing emotions of any kind at work was not considered professional.

As I continue to develop team training methods, I  occasionally glance over to the mindfulness movement to see what approaches they might be taking.

Here is a paragraph from the latest program offering, Engage, from Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, of one of leaders in corporate mindfulness training:

Mindfulness-based emotional intelligence practices help individuals increase well-being, decrease stress and become more resilient. Through mindful communication practices, individuals can improve how they relate and collaborate with one another, the result being more enjoyable and effective teamwork.

Wonderful to read, several things caught my eye:
-One is the use of the word enjoyable connected to effective teamwork.
-Another is the phrase mindful communication.
A third is the word practices.

Starting backwards, the word practices is vital for teams, as in something one practices on a regular basis, to ensure ongoing collaboration  requires ongoing training.

How does one communicate mindfully?  It’s a hot topic. Being fully present with each other, AND really hearing what the other is saying.  Hard not to start formulating words/responses in one’s brain—which would remove one from being fully present.

I have practiced council, where the group sits together in a circle, passes a talking stick. The instructions are to speak  (and listen) from the heart, and only the person with the stick speaks. It’s a most wonderful way for a group to communicate deeply. For a time-stressed engineering team, this might not be the best option. What happens in a more spontaneous, and busy, environment?

After all, speaking from the heart may also not be exactly what the software engineers signed up for.

As the NY Times points out:
But the kinds of people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place.

Yet even without meditation,  the ability to place their awareness outwards is important for collaboration. As mentioned earlier on, developing the capacity to be present—without an engaged thinking mind—does require practice, something akin to the Zen practice Menmitsu. With my team, we use juggling as an active form of mindfulness. No, it doesn’t take you to the same place as meditation, but that is another story.

From my perspective, that of clown and physical theater, the answer to mindful communication is obvious: remove words from the equation. Develop non-verbal expressiveness, and bring lightness to the table. Devise methods/structures/exercises for co-workers develop common non-verbal language, infused with humor and good will.

Expressiveness is explored at various ‘volumes’, from great exaggeration to light subtlety, I think you can guess which is ultimately the most useful tool. One of the major side-benefits for the team members are their interaction skills outside the immediate work environment, at conferences; as well as devising and offering public presentations.Create methods to enjoy resolving tensions. There is far more to say here but I have been going on for  a while now…

Before I go let me tie up one loose end, about that first point of linking enjoyment and effectiveness.  I have found that physical theater and clowning is both fun and offers great expressive tools to use in the workplace, pathways that ease rather than exacerbate tensions. I have also found that teams having fun together tend to like being around each other more.

For example, in the training, the team members have loud and spirited arguments without saying a word, and having great fun doing it. Having fun being angry with each other?? Could that possibly decrease tensions, stress, and result in a more enjoyable and effective teamwork? Yes!  By focusing on the funny, the arguers discover their ability to enjoy the disagreement,   to not take themselves too seriously and develop skills in listening, in awareness, in expression, and in positive connection to their co-workers.

A few years ago, I was teaching a workshop at the Tassajara Mountain Zen Center.  In the closing circle, one of the participants, a business consultant, expressed his amazement at how much humor he could convey with just a look. I smiled in recognition at his truth.


Clown + Zen. Listening and Connection. Conversations with Egyoku.

This conversation with Roshi Egyoku took place during my six weeks (Jan-Feb 2007) as an artist in residence at the Zen center of Los Angeles. A few times a week, we would sit down for a half hour chat to examine the relationship of Clowning and Zen.

Egyoku questioning

Listening, a clown’s perspective.

Performing as clown involves listening to the whole that binds the stage/performer(s) and the audience, with all ones senses. Each performer plays this in his/her own way, but the general rule is that one plays in relationship to the audience’s response, expanding moments where the audience is responding strongly. Performers will share their listening to different degrees with the audience. ‘The fourth wall is broken down’ is often how clown is differentiated from traditional theater; the fourth wall referring to the imaginary wall between the stage and the audience. How a performer plays this differs greatly, ranging from direct conversation and looks/playing with the audience, to much more subtle and semi hidden reaction to audience response.
The degree of listening complexities is one of the aspects of clown that appears attractive to Zen practitioners. One person on stage will be listening to what he/her is doing, what impulses are being generated and suggesting responses, and to how the audience is reacting to his/her actions. If the number of performers is two three or more, the degree of listening increases in reference to the number of permutations of relationships that are possible in that situation. Often the performer is listening to two or three variables while trying not to allow the brain to interfere with one’s intuitive humoristic responses and impulses.

Dialogue about Listening and Zen

Egyoku: You want me to say about listening, what’s there to say?
Listening would imply a subject and an object, I’m listening to your breath, to a sound , to a voice, to another person’s ideas. I think in Zen listening we would take it even a step further, in that we become what we are listening to, you would call it deep listening, so that you are listening from a place where there is no separation at all, it’s more of an embodied place than ‘I am listening to you” kind of thing. So in terms of the three tenets, that would be the bearing witness place, where we are completely identified, or at one with, whatever is manifesting.

Moshe: To be at one with, so when I recall the Auschwitz (5 day bearing witness retreat) experience, that everything is one, so that you are part of that, not separate from that.

E: Yeah, that you are that. In these brief moments, that is what we are , completely. So I guess you could say that there are different degrees of listening, so that would, in a way, be the most profound listening, where the self and other disappears completely. In a so called relative world, how we function normally, I am listening to you, I am hearing the sound, I am whatever, aware of how you might be feeling, that is a different kind of listening, an emotional listening maybe, kind of a sensitivity which has to do our awareness, but also our capacity to be impermeable, like we are a membrane.

M: In clown we don’t just listen with our ears, we listen with our whole body..

E: Yeah

M: Theoretically you can say ears and eyes, but beyond that there is just a sense, you can feel what is going on, an awareness, and that is a kind of listening too.

E: So that is the whole body, the engagement of the entire body, we say a thousand hands and eyes. Is an expression, all over the body, hands and eyes.

M: that is a Buddhist expression?

E: We have a koan like that.

M: Interesting, I immediately draw a parallel to Ohno sensei, Kazuo Ohno, the great butoh dancer that I studied with. One of his exercises was just that, imagining that you have eyes everywhere on your body, and that they are all seeing, because…

E: Because you do. Oh so that we say deep listening is, is the awakening your eyes throughout the body.

M: Nice.

E; You were saying about butoh?

M: One of the aspects of butoh is the connectivity with space. You don’t cut through space, you move space, you are part of the space, you are not separate from the space. The space being the stage, the image the audience sees, you are part of that, intimately and intensely part of that.

There are different exercises one works with: one is to be conscious of every body action and make sure that you are moving space, connected to the space, not cutting through the space. Another is using your eyes, so seeing everything, 360°, and never losing any of that focus. Ohno sensei worked with the concept that you had eyes everywhere on your body, alive and seeing, so that one is conscious of every minute body movement.

E: That would be a great way to teach meditation.

A parallel to listening is to consider being connected, in the case of clown, with one’s audience.

Egyoku, speaking about the role of the clown:

A vehicle of …, channeling…. bringing forth life. Breaking out, relationship of life, sometimes it is a hidden relationship, sometimes it is the most obvious relationship. This is how I feel when I watch you work-you are connected and you are connecting in many different ways-you are connecting with the person or the circumstance, and you are also connecting people (the audience) with the circumstance, and you are also connecting people with each other, a unifying force. You are connecting the audience with the ‘where’, of certain aspects of life, sometimes it’s the absurdity of it, sometimes there is a sweetness of it, sometimes the tenderness of it, sometimes the beauty of it. It just depends on what your particular thing is, but I think that often times we are just going through life, we are not aware of these things, and suddenly there it is. You are opening up our awareness.

M: A parable that I offer students in clown workshops is :The more connected you are inside, the more connected you are outside.
Is there a parallel in Zen?

E: Oh absolutely, that is what meditation is about, and just the subtle levels of life.

On Clown, Zen and Sponaneity

IMG_3359 (1)As some of you know, 15 years ago, Roshi Bernie Glassman, Zen master, started studying clown with me.  Up to that point, all my students were performers. Bernie’s intent was not to become a clown, rather he wished to use “tools of tricksterdom and humor” to address out of balance situations in his Zen world. As a result, my approach to teaching shifted, and has continued to change ever since. The focus shifted from being clown to clowning. Suddenly my teaching perspective expanded from appying humor to performance to applying humor to life in general, to most any given situation. Indeed, what became clear over time, was that most everyone could develop their capacities to offer and share humor.
After a number of years, Bernie and I started teaching “Clowning your Zen” workshops together, with Bernie integrating Zen wisdom with my clowning exercises. Along with many teachers from Bernie’s lineage, people from all walks of life came to participate. The results were dynamic.  Several years later, wishing to bring a sitting meditation practice into the mix, I began collaborating with Zen Master Heinz-Jürgen Metzger on a summer workshop at the Nell Breuning Haus in Herzogenrath, with alternating meditation and clowning sessions. We also took people out on the street to experience clowning in action.hz13.merrygoround.lo

Over the years, I have mused on the parallels between Clown and Zen, and written about it in my blog, here.

What struck me this summer, after our 9th summer Herzogenrath workshop, was how the stillness of meditation adds to the vitality of our spontaneity, and opens our capacity to improvise. Although these two qualities may seem like opposites, when one looks through the right lens, it makes total sense:
-Being funny is a state of being guided by our intuitive mind -Intuitive mind is strengthened by meditation practice
-Engaging in meditation practice strengthens our ability to share humor., our capacity for spontaneity….

As you probably know, meditation gets in the way of our thinking…whoops, I meant to say thinking gets in the way of meditation….let me try that one more time: meditation allows us to quiet the mind, to tell the thinking mind to take a holiday. Given enough time, enough practice, as Monsieur et Madame Think take a vacation, a sense of stillness evolves. Evoking this sense of stillness in one’s clown world is actually quite alive, and freeing. When one is a humorous state of being with thoughts at a standstill, spontaneity arises, easily, effortlessly, one is already in the flow…

Nosing the Buddha. disrespectful???

buddha.nose.table.loHoly Moley it’s already the 1st of May. Revolutionary workers day, almost everywhere except  good ol’ US of A.  It’s been a great day for online discussions about putting clown noses on buddha statues and whether that is disrespectful. The point of reference is the Nose A Statue contest that Clowns Without Borders was running the month of April on their facebook page. I posted my photo (image above) early on. Today Sarah, great exuberant clown in charge of the contest, lets me know that Stuart, of Portland, has posted that this photo is disrespectful… Time is of the essence in the social media world Sarah  informs me.   Here’s the  thread:

Stuart:  Red nose on the Buddha is extremely disrespectful. Buddhists consider it much more than a statue.
7 hours ago · Like

Moshe :  @Stuart. I took that Buddha photo and it has been circulating in the Zen world for more than a year. Your comment is the first I’ve heard suggest it’s disrespectful. I am not discounting your opinion in the least, and I have sent out a mail to a few of my Zen Master friends soliciting their opinions…stay tuned:)
6 hours ago · Like

Stuart:  I understand, Moshe. Travelers to Thailand are warned that tourists who make humorous poses with statues of the Buddha face arrest. In the 80s some tourists were jailed for several years each for taking a photo with one of them sitting on the head of a large statue. I guess they take their respect seriously in Thailand.
6 hours ago · Like

Moshe:  here’s how Joshin Roshi responds: Actually, I believe I understand Stuart’s intention. Buddhist statues should be treated with respect, not because they are special in and of themselves, but because of what they represent. But also, let’s be clear, this is simply a statue, made out of medal, and transposed into our digital, virtual world. To say it is more than a statue implies that you have relegated what should be symbolic and archetypal to a level of idolatry. Orthodox religious practitioners in all religious traditions have one thing in common. They seem to lack a sense of humor. They literalize objects of religious devotion which are meant to represent some quality in humans which we aspire to cultivate or emulate. We have a saying in our Zen tradition, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” So I think our Zen tradition is very sacrilegious, and may seem disrespectful to some, but we’re going to keep laughing anyway.

Generally, I think it’s a good practice to have clowns near by whenever priests are present or people are taking themselves too seriously.

Later in the afternoon, once the meeting had let out, I received several other wonderful responses:

from Nocando: yes- it is all very serious and more than statues-  there is precedent in zen circles, however, to say respectfully that it is not not firewood.  then turn and run-

from Eve: I think his hairdo looks a lot sillier



Discussing Mindfullness with Wavy Gravy

Yesterday I dropped by my clown guru Wavy Gravy’s house for a visit. Our conversation at one point opened up the topic of mindfulness and it’s current top position in the moving and grooving place to be Now category…I was musing about how contrary the word mindful can seem. After all it’s about having less going on in the mind, yet the word sure hints at  mind full . As you may know clowning and contrary-anism go hand in hand, and it sure seems that the word mindful is contrary to it’s intended purpose. So two clowns go at it, I mention my favorites: mind-less-full, and mind-less-fool. Wavy, as he often does with his tongue twister mastery comes up with a true gem: Mind full of Empty.  Dig it!

Wavy and the traditional last morning pillow fight at Camp Winnarainbow as Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner is blasted. Photo by Moshe Cohen.

Clown + Zen. “There is no room for ego !”

May 2012. During a photo session at a Clown-Zen workshop this spring,  Heinz-Jürgen Metzger in Zen robes, myself  in Mr Miniscule outfit, a comment offered up by Jawoo 10 days earlier floated to the surface. Jawoo is a Korean nun who participated in this year’s Buddha’s Birthday workshop/performance at the Zen Center of Los Angeles.  During our performance, she won the Baby Buddha contest, the ZCLA sangha giving her the win by an overwhelming voice vote. I suspect that her winning had more to do with her having spent the past 3 months at the center more than her ability to keep a Buddha like composure as a large ladle-full of cold water was poured over her head. Image

I am not sure that Jawoo appreciated the winning prize, receiving a surprise from behind bowl-full of water  even if she was ritually appointed with rain poncho and shower cap.


Jawoo’s exact words have escaped, so I paraphrase: There is no room for ego in clowning, no way for one’s ego to be present when one is in clown mode.

When I mentioned Ja Woo’s comment to my friend Isabel, she said “Well of course, if you are present in the moment, then your ego is not present, and Clowning is all about being present in the moment.”

I had another perspective, clowning eliminates most of what I often associate with ego—feeling important, special, separate. When one is embracing one’s foolishness, the idea is to be the lowest person on the Totem pole. In the act of being ridiculous, or absurd—while taking on a willingness to be laughed at-as well as with— It becomes truly difficult to puff up one’s chest and strut one’s stuff.