conflicting clown news

googleclownalrets.9.4.loAnother Google alert in my mailbox, links to all the articles that contain the word clown. That word is my nemesis. The prevailing mainstream perception of that word, at least according to the amalgamation of newspaper articles in the anglophone world, is overwhelmingly negative. If the word isn’t being used as an insult for politicians or football club managers, the clown is being portrayed as either evil or scary or most likely both. Yet, it wasn’t so long ago, according to the beloved folksinger Utah Phillips (r.i.p. 1935-2008), that using the word “clowning” was a compliment, and meant the person was being funny.

This past week, there has been a proliferation of articles about scary clown sightings in South Carolina—as many as 8 separate  sightings—people dressed up as scary clowns—not just scaring kids, but supposedly the clowns have been trying to lure kids to a house in the woods, even offering them money to follow them. There was a rash of scary clown sightings in England a few years back, and it now perhaps even qualifies as a fad (in anglophone countries.)

In today’s alert listing, there is a link to an article in the Guardian, no less, with the headline: “South Carolina sightings could be part of film marketing device.”  What surprised me more than the revelations was the caption under the photo of a multicolored painted evil clown: “Police have warned that South Carolina law prohibits anyone over age 18 from dressing up as a clown.” Dang! How twisted is that (no balloon animal puns intended)?

In complete contrast, a further down the listings, is an article in the Jerusalem Post, no less, about how the medical clown at the Kaplan medical center, Anat, helped an 11 year girl, Naama, get over her coulrophobia, fear of clowns. Yes, the medical clown! In Israel, most of the hospitals have their team of medical doctors. In Argentina, they passed a law requiring hospital to hire clowns. In Germany, I think they may have 1000 professionals…. Imagine minimal make-up, maximum humor, lightness and laughter. Back to the story, which is the story of how Anat demystifies the process by asking her to watch him put on make-up, put on his costume, and go out into the children’s wards in the hospital to interact with all the kids and families. She was cured in one day.

Oh, the twists and turns of the modern world. One can generalize a bit about coulrophobia: how circus make-up, created for the bad lighting and great distances of early circus, viewed close up by an impressionable 3 year old kid might appear scary and grotesque despite the  well meaning, perhaps inexperienced clown’s intentions. If you are interested in the history and psychology of scary clowns, the Smithsonian, no less, has a very well written and researched article by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie.

One thing that marked my understanding of the scary aspect was in a workshop with eighth graders at a performing arts school. I asked why the clown scared some of them. Several girls answered “because you can’t see who’s hiding behind the make-up.”

Makes total sense to me, yet I haven’t given up on my quest to rehabilitate the word, to somehow steer the general conversation in another direction, to where the discussion is how humor can be a positive force in the world. Of course it would help a whole bunch if the people dressing up as clowns were trying to make people laugh instead of trying to scare them.



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.


The Horizontal approach: In Argentina, Clowns in Children’s hospitals is a law.

Yes it’s a law in Argentina that Children’s Hospitals must employ clowns. I’m posting here to link the reader to this great article (on the Next City website written by M. Sophia Newman. It’s  about the clowns in South America and their impact on public health. What piqued my interest is the point of view offered by Alfonso Silva-Santisteban, a doctor with personal clowning experiences with BolaRoja, the Peruvian hospital clown organization.  He talks about the impact of reaching people through a horizontal approach, how to engage with the public where they are at in the moment.

In terms of clowning, you might describe that as a quieter, European approach-improvising injecting humor into what is happening as opposed to a larger than life, loud, potentially obnoxious approach that imposes ones idea of fun, funny animated entertainment approach….not that hospital clowns are always quiet, just that they are very sensitive to what makes sense in their environment at the moment—something truly required in a hospital setting…and a quality that by and large tends to bring deeper laughter to the table.

Here’s a quote from the article:

What does clowning add to the workshops?
The philosophy of clowning or one of the main things you should do when you are clowning is that, first, you are who you are, and you are there to offer what you have. And then you lose fear … of ridicule, and then you always establish a horizontal link to whoever you have in front, right? You always start from where the people [are]. You read your audience. And that is how you engage with a community, especially if they are disenfranchised, especially if you don’t know them, especially if you are foreign and you want to do some work.

So for me, it makes a lot of sense to use those values, besides using them when doing clowning, to use them in the work of public health. One of the things you always see is this kind of vertical, hierarchical imposition, programs that sometimes look like charity, that have very short-minded goals, you know? And then people say, this hasn’t worked as we want it to. In this case, it’s more of a process-type perspective, engaging with people with whom you want to establish common goals. So clowning is a very good facilitator of that type of relationship.

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.

Positive Humor Helps !