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Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Peter CollinsPeter Collins is from Ireland. He retired recently from lecturing in Economics at the Dublin Institute of Technology. Over the past 50 years he has become increasingly convinced that a truly seismic shift in understanding with respect to Mathematics and its related sciences is now urgently required in our culture. In this context, these present articles convey a brief summary of some of his recent findings with respect to the utterly unexpected nature of the number system.

Humour and Related Experience

Towards an Integral Appreciation

Peter Collins

Though at a much less refined level, humour bears an intimate relationship with the mystical spiritual process. As such it potentially possesses a very creative role in understanding. However appreciation of the true integral nature of humour requires proper recognition of complementary related forms of experience.


Though humour fulfils such a valuable role in experience, its facility as a creative mode of understanding remains greatly under-appreciated.

The clue to this neglect lies in its inherent nature.

Unlike most standard forms, which aim at a somewhat fixed static view of reality, humour has an inherently dynamic rationale that enables the rapid switching of structures and states. Therefore - as well as providing a most welcome means of releasing emotional tension - appropriate humour has the capacity to play a truly constructive part in the challenging of fixed assumptions and the generation of unexpected new insights. Indeed, as I hope to make clear, the underlying nature of humour bears a very close relationship to authentic spiritual understanding. So the proper recognition of the creative capacity of humour is ultimately inseparable from appreciation of the nature of the mystical process itself and can only find fulfilment through pure spiritual attainment.

Thus from one perspective, the stages of spiritual development - especially more advanced - represent a deep refining of the capacity for humour. Looked at from an equally valid standpoint, authentic spiritual integration of the personality cannot be maintained in the absence of an appropriate sense of humour.

Nature of humour

A key element of humour - as with advanced spiritual development - is paradox.

For example with the standard "joke" we are led through conventional logical thinking towards a certain outcome, only to be presented in the punch line with an unexpected conclusion. Thus the very ability to "see" and thereby appreciate the joke depends in this context on the simultaneous embrace of - usually two - self-consistent frames of reference that are logically incompatible with each other. 1 In this way the dynamics of a joke are very similar - though generally at a much less refined level - to the appreciation of dualistic paradox (which is a necessary prerequisite for pure nondual awareness). 2

Indeed we can fruitfully examine the experiential effects of humour from a spiritual perspective. In this context the key effect of humour is a discrete injection of spiritual illumination into a situation that is associated with a momentary feeling of joy. Therefore a good joke - as with all good humour - has the wonderful capacity to induce, for however brief a moment, an altered state or mood enabling the release of light and happiness into phenomenal activity. 3

The experience of humour usually evokes the basic psychophysical response of laughter. Indeed at its best - when truly spontaneous - laughter has a very healthy effect. Here acting like an emotional syringe, it can substantially release deep pent-up emotion leading to a remarkable feeling of well-being. 4 In its more refined expressions, humour is likewise associated with the physical response of smiling, which - though perhaps in a less forceful manner - can also play a valuable role in releasing emotional tension. Not surprisingly therefore psychologists and doctors commonly report on the beneficial health effects of laughter (and smiling).

In spiritual terms the two fundamental poles (or aspects) relate to immanence and transcendence respectively.

Through immanence we are enabled to appreciate our humanity (as grounded in the phenomenal world of form). Through transcendence we are correspondingly enabled to go beyond limited appreciation of such humanity through a deepening of spiritual awareness (that is ultimately empty of all phenomenal form). Thus at all stages of development there is an inevitable tension as between immanence and transcendence. Too much immanent grounding can lead to experience that is unduly light and superficial (where ego-centric desires prevail); too much emphasis on spiritual transcendence can however lead to a personality that is too serious and deep (where one loses touch with one's physical humanity).

When looked at closely, humour entails a sudden switch in an immanent direction away from - what is perceived in a given context as - a false sense of transcendence.

Indeed humour often relates to taboo subject matter e.g. sex, death, race, religion that - due to inflexible rules and social conventions - people may have difficulty in openly discussing. Rules and regulations of course serve a very necessary role in moving beyond individual whim in the maintenance of a coherent collective order. In this way they serve a transcendent social function. However such conventions - even when well intentioned - can easily become stereotypical and thereby act in an inauthentic manner. Then instead of enabling genuine transcendence they can stifle feelings and honest expression. So for example in a strict religious society, it can be difficult to talk about sex. What is inhibited with respect to conventional discourse then becomes the subject matter of humour where false authority is more freely challenged. Humour therefore can serve a valuable social role in challenging conventions that - however socially necessary - may separate us from our basic human roots.

So when successful in this sense, humour safely debunks conventions removing a false sense of authority.

And such false authority potentially extends to every area of life necessarily defined by conventional rules of behaviour.

For example the use of language entails that we associate commonly accepted meanings with words. However through wordplay (e.g. puns) we can challenge this accepted usage creating unexpected new linkages. And in appropriate circumstances this can even prove a very creative source of new ideas. 5

Indeed truly original thinking - whether in art, science, philosophy, politics, business etc. - always requires the capacity to creatively make unexpected new linkages that initially are not obvious to the conventional mind. Thus because humour itself requires something of the same originality, it can - when used appropriately - serve as a valuable catalyst in the generation of such thinking. It this way it can help to displace old and somewhat outdated certainties with a new appropriate authority. In this way the false can give way to a more genuine notion of transcendence.

However by its nature humour is a very risky affair, which can easily backfire in its intentions. If one attempts to challenge authority in a social context, where such behaviour is not deemed acceptable, humour can cause anger and indignation. Thus what might appear "funny" to one may well be "nasty" to another.

For example this was well illustrated recently when Billy Connolly attempted to make light of the fate of the hostage Ken Bigley in Iraq (at a time when his life was still hanging in the balance).

Though one could perhaps attempt to justify Connolly's black humour on the basis that even the darkest situation (such as the prospect of an impending cruel death) has a funny side, the general consensus held that his remark was ill judged. In other words in failing to respect the true gravity of Bigley's condition - Connolly's "humour" was found deeply demeaning and offensive (even among his ardent fans). Thus, though humour so often attempts to debunk accepted norms, there is the further paradox, that it can only do this successfully within a cultural context of what is considered acceptable in this regard. Though the best-known comedians - such as Connolly - are often given considerable licence to push the boat out with respect to what is acceptable, there are definite limits - as the example of Ken Bigley illustrates - to this process.

So once again successful humour leads to a temporary injection of spiritual light into experience. It thereby gives an enhanced appreciation - however temporary - of the immanent nature of existence helping us to feel more at home with the world.

However as immanence is necessarily associated with transcendence, the very ability to appreciate good humour requires complementary recognition of the dark and serious side of personality. Indeed true quality in humour depends on ready recognition of the sudden juxtaposition of these contrary aspects.

It is not surprising therefore that many of the great comedians (and comediennes) have very serious personalities. Indeed it seems to me that their humorous ability often develops as a self-serving need to escape the demanding challenge which proper exploration of such personalities requires.

So there can often be a somewhat manic-depressive element to comics. Because humour - in its conventional forms - can only offer a short-term solution to life's problems, they can at times become frantic in their humorous attempts to keep combating the dark side. However as ultimately such attempts are doomed to failure they are then prone to bouts of depression where conventional humour can no longer provide an answer.

So for true personal integration a degree of higher-level spiritual development is required (which varies for each individual). And just as this "higher" development relates to the conventionally recognised faculties of understanding, cognitive, affective and volitional, equally it applies to humour.

However, before we deal with this integral nature of humour we need to look at some other dynamic features of understanding that are closely related to it in complementary fashion.

Negative Humour

Just as the psychophysical phenomenon of laughing (and smiling) is associated with humour, the corresponding psychophysical phenomenon of crying (and weeping) is frequently associated with - what I term - negative humour. For convenience I will refer to conventional humour as "humour A" and such "negative humour as "humour B". 6 As we have seen conventional humour (i.e. "humour A") - in all its forms - ultimately serves to lead, however briefly, to an increased existential appreciation of the immanent aspect of existence. Negative humour however always entails an existential loss with respect to such immanence.

For example the sudden reception of distressing news such as the death of a close relative may well cause a degree of emotional sadness that one physically cries (or perhaps shed tears). Because earthly existence is so closely bound up with such relationships, our immanent sense of existence can be greatly affected through such a death. So in mourning the loss of a close relative or friend one is also mourning a corresponding loss in one's immanent grounding in the world.

Now of course the death of a loved one would be a major event. However the same phenomenon can occur on an everyday basis through all the little slights and injustices that one may experience. So an unexpected hurtful remark from - say - a colleague at work could cause the same type of loss (though of a more temporary nature).

Interestingly however, with negative humour, complementary physical expressions such as crying are not so well tolerated by society. Indeed there is an interesting difference here based on sex. Thus it is much more culturally acceptable for women in our society to physically express various forms of sadness and grief through weeping and crying. However - except in limited circumstances - this is generally not acceptable for adult men.

This could well be an important contributory factor to the greater difficulty that men seemingly experience in expressing their emotions. In other words though grief is equally experienced by both sexes, men are generally denied the same psychophysical release in expressing such loss. In other words in not being allowed to physically mourn the various "little deaths" that threaten their immanent grounding in reality, a considerable build-up of repressed emotion can result leading eventually to uncontrolled anger and violence. 7

A brief look at early childhood experience can reveal the close relationship as between both aspects of humour (i.e. "humour A" and "humour B").

Clearly when a baby is born neither the immanent nor the transcendent aspects of personality have yet undergone much differentiation. Therefore because both aspects are merged with each other in a confused fashion the capacity for humour (and its negative) is somewhat limited. So early baby humour is based on the attempt to imitate sounds, gestures, visual expressions etc. that can be accompanied by much primitive laughter However though this does indeed help to convey a sense of immanent grounding, because it is yet of a very superficial nature it is easily disturbed. So the slightest upset can then lead to the threatened loss of emotional security resulting in frequent bouts of crying. Thus there is a heavy emphasis in early childhood on the merely physical outward expressions associated with both forms of humour i.e. laughter and crying, which can alternate quickly from one state to the other.

By contrast, at the more advanced stages of contemplative development, where the transcendent and immanent aspects are integrated in mature fashion, both types of humour can be psychologically harmonised in a continual stable experience (with little direct need therefore for outward physical expression). 8

So to sum up at this stage, humour and its negative form (i.e. "humour A" and "humour B") both relate directly to the immanent aspect of experience. "Humour A" - what is conventionally referred to as humour - entails the sudden collapse of a false notion of transcendence leading to a discrete immanent injection of spiritual light into experience.

"Humour B" - what is conventionally referred to sadness - entails the sudden mourning of an immanent loss thereby revealing a present lack with respect to one's capacity to successfully transcend the situation. Thus properly coping with life's sorrows requires the development of an in-built capacity to transcend situations associated with such loss in a creative manner. So again though the psychophysical mourning of loss (e.g. through crying) may serve a valuable short-term need, like conventional humour, it cannot in itself provide a permanent solution to life's problems.

Reverse Humour

We have defined in both cases the two types of complementary dynamic experience - referred to as "humour A" and "humour B" - with regard to the predominance of an immanent form of experience. However corresponding to such experience we have two further complementary types of humour where the predominant emphasis is on a transcendent mode of expression. I refer to these types as reverse humour with once again - as with humour - both positive and negative versions. For convenience I will refer to the positive aspect as "humour C" and the negative as "humour D".

Humour C

The very nature of humour C is that it leads to a sudden discrete injection of transcendent light into a given situation. (It is important to note that transcendent light in this context is associated with an intensification of psychological depth or gravity)! 9 So just as immanence initially relates to what is superficial (and extensive), transcendence relates to what is deep (and intensive) in experience.

Thus though conventional humour can be very valuable in creating a lighter frivolous mood, in excess this can become very superficial and ultimately tiresome.

The complementary value of reverse humour (of the positive kind) is that it leads to a more serious and deeply meaningful form of experience. However once again in excess this can be associated with a darker mood where in taking life too seriously one is no longer able to enjoy oneself. So as always we must attempt to maintain a dynamic balance as between opposite extremes.

"Humour C" can arise in a number of ways. One important form relates to unexpected gestures of affirmation that can inject our lives with new significance. For most people the world can at times appear very mundane. It is easy to think then that one is not really important and that one's contributions are of little consequence. Then the integral glue that gives an overall coherence to activity gives way with increasingly fragmented activities losing their meaning. Now this integral glue that has the power to give a depth of meaning to our activities relates to an appropriate level of spiritual transcendence. So the great value of personal appreciation in this manner - especially when it is unexpected - is that it can renew the transcendent sense enabling one to appreciate that even the smallest deed possesses a hidden depth when seen in the proper context (i.e. from a true spiritual perspective).

Of course this type of humour can also be internally generated. Indeed some people have the special gift of being always able to find deep meaning in life (even when others would view their circumstances as very unfortunate). In other words such people are blessed with a capacity for transcendence (which ultimately is of a spiritual nature).

Another very important form of this type of humour relates to (authentic) leadership. A good leader, whether in politics, education, the military, business or sport, possesses a natural sense of authority. This quality can then instil others with a better sense of the value of their contributions. 10 So the true leader, who commands deep respect, thereby can motivate others to face many difficulties that in other circumstances they would avoid. Perhaps the greatest leaders - who command the highest degree of authority - are the founders of the major religions. They somewhat uniquely possess the capacity to motivate their followers with the desire for true spiritual transcendence. 11

"Humour C" can also be expressed in the form of epigrams (or pointed sayings) which - though possessing many of the same characteristics as jokes - are designed to have a more serious intent. 12

Humour D

However there is also a negative form of reverse humour (which I refer to as "humour D"). This relates to unexpected events that threaten to undermine one's existing sense of transcendence.

Perhaps the most useful way of viewing transcendence in this sense is as a form of control. Thus ultimate spiritual transcendence - where one becomes detached from all phenomena - provides the greatest degree of true control (as nothing can now disturb one's equanimity). However at less advanced levels of development our sense of transcendence (and thereby of control) is necessarily dependent on a relationship with contingent phenomenal circumstances. As such it is always in danger of being threatened by unexpected events.

For example imagine that one is heading into work for an early important appointment to see a valuable client! Because of the importance of the meeting, one leaves in plenty of time. However due an earlier accident a significant obstruction blocks the route so that traffic is badly delayed. So due to this unexpected incident one arrives late for that meeting. Not surprisingly considerable annoyance - and even anger - can then be experienced associated with feelings of physical stress. So stress symptoms - physical and psychological - are directly related to the loss of control over habitual activities (that we feel powerless to change). And stress in all its forms is such an important part of modern life. We all are likely to fall victim to it at some time in our lives (perhaps in a chronic fashion).

The problem is that we tend to unduly define ourselves by our activities. Then we these become threatened, our transcendent sense of self (in its ability to exercise overall control) can become seriously undermined. And when this happens we experience stress.

Now the antidote to stress comes through an ability to switch to the complementary immanent direction (and literally make light of the situation). So for example the ability to see humour in any situation (however unfortunate) could greatly ease tension. However undue stress tends to exclude humour as an option, so that one then takes events too seriously thereby becoming unable to see the complementary funny (and light) side. In other words one literally grants these events authority to control - and perhaps ruin - our lives. However as we have seen an essential element in humour is the capacity to see the transcendent in terms of "false authority". It then loses its oppressive control and becomes free to be laughed at and debunked. However - though arising from the desire to achieve a complementary sense of immanence - a great deal of ills in society relate to inappropriate ways of trying to relieve stress through drink, casual sex and drugs.

Integral Spiritual Context

Though conventionally the word humour is predominantly associated with just one type of experience, as we have seen there are in fact four interrelated types of humour each of which is associated with a characteristic psychological disposition. 13

Associated with "humour A" (i.e. conventional humour) is the characteristic disposition that is commonly referred to as "good" humour. So for example the appreciation of a clever joke provides us with a momentary good feeling. More correctly it provides us with an immanent expression of humour that by its nature tends to be "light" and expansive in its effects (and often associated with laughter).

Likewise generally associated with "humour C" (i.e. reverse humour) is a disposition of "good" humour. So for example an unexpected gesture of appreciation affirming the significance of our contributions would put us in good "humour" but of a more thoughtful transcendent nature (with perhaps little outward physical expression).

Likewise associated with each of the two forms of negative humour would be a "bad" mood (or disposition). So from the immanent perspective, where one experiences sorrow and loss, it would be of a more expansive nature (accompanied by physical expressions such as weeping and crying). However from the complementary perspective where one directly experiences stress it would be typically more internal (not always accompanied by direct physical expressions). 14 Though these four "humours" would tend to interact in various ways - as they are dynamically complementary - in conventional experience, severe limits exist on the degree of integration that can take place. This is due to rigid identification with the phenomenal circumstances through which they are mediated. Therefore the value of higher spiritual development is that, in eroding undue attachment to phenomenal symbols, it thereby leads to a much greater refinement with respect to the four "humours" thereby enabling integration with respect to their complementary features.

Put another way through appropriate spiritual development one is gradually enabled to obtain a more permanent experience where all four "humours" are integrated into the same continuous mood. Here the distinction as between "good" and "bad" humour is no longer strictly relevant. Of course one can still feel happy and sad. However one now accepts that it is equally meaningful to feel grief in appropriate circumstances, as it is to experience joy in others. Thus because one accepts that true integration entails the willing acceptance of both extremes, one does not choose as between them accepting that both can be equally valid in appropriate circumstances. This leads therefore to a spiritual equanimity that is not easily disturbed.

Just as with the conventional - more static faculties - we can trace development through the various higher stages in a qualified sense we can do likewise with the four "humours". 15

So for example - with respect to conventional humour ("humour A") - one key limitation is that it tends to be strongly identified with phenomenal symbols (usually of a very concrete nature). Thus a joke about sex may indeed be witty and humorous. However as the meaning is so directly identified with a specific context, its "joyful" effect disappears once the context of experience changes. In other words the beneficial joyful effect of the joke is of a very momentary contingent nature, which is eroded almost immediately. So once again though conventional humour can light up our lives with such temporary discrete injections of light and joy, it cannot - of itself - serve the deeper needs of personality for a more permanent source of meaning.

However one of the great values of spiritual development is that it can widen this context of meaning so that humour becomes increasingly more refined and less dependent therefore on specific concrete situations for its appreciation.

In other words the true source of humour lies in the permanent tension as between human desire in all its forms (with its limited pretensions) and ultimate Spirit, which is truly empty (in phenomenal terms). So the deeper source of humour lies in the realisation of all human folly to build castles in the air (when in truth nothing phenomenal ultimately exists). And it is the acceptance of this folly that such human pretensions (i.e. false transcendence) are dissolved. Thus true humour lies in free acceptance of the limited nature of the human condition and the inevitable tension that necessarily exists therefore as between this aspect and our inherent divine potential.

As new have seen humour at the conventional level depends on the surprise reaction to paradoxical type suggestions. However as the very process of contemplative spiritual development is based on the acceptance of paradox as the norm, then conventional humour can lose its ability to surprise. In this way one derives less benefit from momentary discrete expressions of humour. However in its place a growing more refined appreciation of the fundamentally humorous nature of all activity takes place.

Therefore for the truly integrated contemplative the source of "good" humour does not depend on a plentiful supply of funny jokes. Rather it derives from a more universal appreciation of the inherently humorous nature of the human condition (and all phenomenal creation) when contrasted with ultimate Spirit. And because such appreciation is of a universal kind (not dependent on specific circumstances) it can be more permanently sustained.

Thus advanced spiritual contemplation is often associated with a quieter peaceful disposition that is not necessarily punctuated with much laughter. However underlying such a disposition can be a very refined sense of humour (which is indistinguishable from a mature sense of joy) enabling the disposition of continual good humour to be maintained.

However we cannot see this integral development of conventional humour ("humour A") in isolation from corresponding complementary development with respect to the other types of humour (B, C and D).

So with respect to "humour B" the spiritual contemplative will of course experience sorrow and loss (indeed at a much deeper level). However because of detachment from the particular phenomenal circumstances through which these feelings are conventionally mediated, again such sorrow can take on a more universal quality. This leads to a corresponding ability to identify loss with the human condition. In other words one accepts that at some stage "the slings of outrageous fortune" strike everyone to a greater or lesser extent. In this way therefore one does not become isolated in grief but rather can share in its universal dimension with compassion and thereby remain fundamentally at peace.

Likewise with "humour C", contemplative development is often associated with a marked capacity for transcendence and the ability therefore to keep finding deep significance in events (despite external circumstances). Once again this requires the ability to remain detached from specific phenomenal circumstances.

Finally with "humour D", though everyone is subject to stress, the truly integrated spiritual person in general is able to cope with such stress. Because advanced spiritual development requires the radical surrender of limited ego attempts at control, one can then adapt more creatively to unexpected changes in circumstances without feeling unduly threatened.

So radical contemplative development leads eventually to a permanently sustainable disposition where the four "humours" are properly integrated with each other and inseparable from Spirit (with both transcendent and immanent aspects properly harmonised). 16

Though there may be a significant diminution in the discrete experience of the four "humours" during contemplative development, paradoxically these are restored (though in a very refined manner) during the radial stages, where deep contemplative awareness is combined with substantial active involvement in the world. Indeed the radial life is best viewed as an enhanced state of normality. So one can laugh and cry, be grateful for appreciation, feel irritation and stress just like anyone else. However the major distinction here is that for the spiritually advanced person these are but secondary phenomenal expressions of a life that is primarily centred on Spirit.

Indeed such spiritual people often possess a special form of charm, which gives an indefinable mystique to the personality. The essence of this charm is that it combines opposite characteristics in a continuous harmonious manner that always seems appropriate for the occasion. So when greeted with too much formality they have the capacity to quickly put people at their ease - often - with a delightful sense of humour. Likewise they can maintain an unusual degree of respect for others - especially those who do not feel appreciated - by finding a special significance in their lives. In addition when difficulties arise - as they inevitably do - they can handle them gracefully without losing that inner sense of spiritual equilibrium.

Of course there are many people graced with charming personalities who operate on the merely natural level of experience. Unfortunately, though superficially pleasing, at bottom worldly charm can be somewhat hollow and pretentious. However the very basis of spiritual charm is that it is properly authentic based on deep commitment and acceptance, which can then empower others with desire for true spiritual attainment.


We have looked briefly at the dynamics of conventional humour finding that in its inherent structure it is closely related to the nature of mystical type spiritual development (though usually in a somewhat short-lived discrete manner). When appropriately used, humour possesses a very creative capacity both in terms of removing emotional tension, challenging rigid perceptions and opening up new ways of thinking and dealing with problems.

However to properly understand such humour in an integral context requires due recognition of other complementary related forms of experience (negative and reverse humour). So we have in fact for major types of humour - all possessing the same potential creative capacity - that I refer to as "humour A" (conventional humour), "humour B" (the negative of conventional humour), "humour C" (reverse humour) and "humour D" (negative of reverse humour). 17

Though all of these types of "humour" are present in typical adult development, they tend to remain separate and somewhat unrelated to each other.

Proper appreciation - and more importantly experience - of their complementary nature requires the more advanced stages of contemplative spiritual development where all aspects are ultimately harmonised in a continual humour or disposition that is permanently sustainable.

Then with radial development the discrete aspects associated with the four "humours" are once again restored but now in a secondary refined manner where they can interact appropriately with the continuous experience of Spirit.

The great philosopher Immanuel Kant said that what causes laughter is “the sudden transformation of a tense expectation into nothing.”

The tensest expectation arises from the contrast between our contingent existential nature and the ultimate meaning of life.

So therefore the greatest joke is truly the realisation that ultimately there is nothing in life (that phenomenally exists). Indeed the great mystics are those who get this "joke" most clearly (which then serves as a continual source of joy). However the opposite side of this joke is that through accepting nothingness (i.e. emptiness) we can thereby enter into full union with Spirit where all our hopes are realised. So from this transcendent aspect, life indeed is - literally - a deadly serious business. So before we can enter into eternal life (in full union with Spirit) we must die to all that is not Spirit (through detaching desire from what is merely phenomenal)

Thus to fully realise the joke and live (in light and joy) we must first die (in grief and anguish).18 Indeed this is a process that must be continually renewed from moment to moment. So the ultimate experience of union is not of joy (where all sorrow ends) but rather a deeper type of joy (which embraces all sorrow). Thus the purest form of mystical union is a continual living (in Spirit) and dying (to all that is not Spirit) which is renewed from moment to moment. Then at each moment one dies (in grief and anguish) to be gloriously reborn to new life the same moment (in joy and happiness).

So the conspiracy of love (in joyful union) entails both expiration (in death) and inspiration (in new life).

And this is the context in which the meaning of humour (and its complementary forms) can ultimately be found.


1. Groucho Marx was one of the funniest of all comedians with his one-liners. (Mae West is perhaps his counterpart among comediennes!) One anecdote that I enjoy relates to when a journalist approached him before shooting a film and asked him whether he wanted to play Hamlet! Groucho's priceless quip was "Not unless he gives me a stroke a hole!"

Now the very question here is itself something of a joke. In fact a version of Hamlet, which parodies Groucho Marx in the lead role, was once staged. Thus with respect to the given frame of reference, to play Hamlet - which is recognised as one of the most challenging of dramatic roles - would be a daunting prospect (especially for one not trained for such roles). However it quickly becomes clear that Groucho is in fact operating out of another context. Thus to play a champion "Hamlet" in golf - would be a likewise daunting task for any golfer. However if given a stroke a hole advantage it would of course be more manageable. So it is in the sudden juxtaposition of these two somewhat unrelated frames of reference that the dynamics of the joke lie.

Now it would help in appreciating the joke to have at least a passing familiarity with the important dramatic roles and also an appreciation of golf. It would also help to have a general liking for Groucho Marx's style of humour, which would then predispose one to see the remark as funny. Would it have been as funny if it had come from Karl Marx? Thus what may come across as very funny to one person may fall quite flat with another (which however only adds to the fascination of humour). It is important to realise also that what constitutes "humour" is not always clear-cut. Humour can vary enormously in its range and subtlety. Also as it necessarily interacts in experience with the complementary "humours" and indeed other understanding, it is can be sometimes very difficult to properly dissect the dynamics of what causes humour and laughter.

A very interesting Jungian observation by John Sanford is that it is the shadow in us that always laughs. Though there is a great deal of truth in this, I would prefer to associate laughter with the dynamic interaction as between the persona and shadow. Thus, though the (unconscious) shadow is thereby involved in laughter, it is activated through consciously perceived reference frames. So the (unconscious) shadow release of laughter arises from paradoxical recognition of such reference frames.

2. This bears a very close relationship with what I refer to as bi-directional understanding, which serves as the intellectual requirement for all (consistent) integral approaches to development. The simplest form of bi-directional understanding (Type 1 complementarity) is based on directly opposite polarities (e.g. interior and exterior) where two equally valid opposite frames of reference can be given for the dualistic interpretation of any event. Indeed one of the key reasons why I have been consistently critical of Ken Wilber's integral approach is that it is greatly lacking in the use of such bi-directional understanding. Thus, from a bi-directional standpoint it is somewhat meaningless for example to attempt to identify interior understanding with Left-Hand quadrants as it can be necessarily be identified (in dualistic terms) with either Left-Hand or Right-Hand. Indeed the nondual integral ability to then recognise (at an unconscious level) the simultaneous identity of both frames is then intimately connected with the paradoxical nature of both (conscious) frames in terms of each other.

Now one could validly say that the dynamics of the typical joke are based on bi-directional appreciation i.e. the ability to look at a situation simultaneously from two distinct reference frames. However with a joke, these reference frames generally do not constitute direct opposites. For example with respect to Groucho Marx's quip in the previous note, the playing of a dramatic role and playing of golf - though not directly related in dualistic terms - are equally not direct opposites in any meaningful sense. Indeed a lot of humour is based on implying a reference frame that is only slightly different from the conventional (non-humorous) situation. So, whereas mystical understanding represents training in the appreciation of pure paradox, the typical joke generally represents a much less obvious form. Also whereas the goal of mystical training is to fully harmonise opposites - thereby treating paradox as the norm - humour in all its forms requires that paradox remains unusual (in terms of conventional appreciation) thereby preserving its ability to continually surprise.

However one interesting clue to the inherently dynamic nature of humour relates to the terminology that is typically used with respect to understanding jokes. Thus we speak of someone "getting" or "not getting" a joke (as the case may be).

The very process of "getting" in physical terms implies dynamic movement. Likewise engagement with a joke implies a type of corresponding psychological movement (as between differing states and structures) that is subject to a degree of uncertainty. In other words even when we make the necessary (dynamic) effort there is no guarantee that we will successfully "get" every joke .

3. There are of course many forms of humour including jokes and one-liners, practical jokes, slapstick, wit, repartee, wordplay and puns, exaggeration and caricature, fun, comedy, pantomime, spoof and farce, irony, sarcasm, satire and parody etc. Once again the quality, complexity and intent with respect to all of these types can vary enormously thereby contributing to the rich diversity of humour.

4. Other physical expressions associated with humour include smirking, sniggering, snorting, chortling, guffawing, cackling, bellylaughing, sidesplitting, roaring, collapsing etc.

5. Ken Wilber often refers to the I-I for the Self (i.e. spiritual essence of personality) as necessary to witness the ordinary (human) I. Thus we could say that the divine and human selves continually interact with each other and in pure conscious awareness are identical (as ineffable Spirit).

However with only very little change in the form of the symbols we could refer in holistic mathematical terms to the 1-1!. Now 1 refers to oneness i.e. unitary form (which is dualistic or linear) that must be fully negated (-1) in dynamic experiential terms before pure nondual awareness can be attained. So just as 1-1 in analytic terms = 0, likewise 1-1 in holistic terms = 0 (i.e. nothingness or emptiness). Thus once again all dualistic form must be dynamically negated in experience before full spiritual emptiness can be attained.

And the two formulations are fully complementary with each other serving to enhance the overall appreciation of ultimate reality (insofar as this can be conveyed by contingent symbols). So the I-I formulation approaches this from the personal perspective with the 1-1 (i.e. = 0) formulation approaching it from the impersonal. Thus a little bit of simple wordplay proved for me very illuminating in terms of reconciling two different ways of appreciating the nature of ultimate reality.

6. Again we have a variety of other physical expressions associated with crying e.g. sighing, sobbing, wailing, moaning, screaming, shouting, shedding tears etc.

7. Though it is not strictly correct dynamically speaking to do so, it may help to initially view the immanent in terms of emotional response and the transcendent aspect in terms of mental control respectively.

Unfortunately in conventional society, too often the attempt to transcend life situations - especially by men - comes through an undue measure of rational control. This then leads to the repression of emotional response, which makes it difficult for them to preserve proper complementary balance with the immanent aspect of experience.

8. Though crying is generally understood with respect to situations invoking sorrow, there is an apparent paradox that very often the most joyous news is greeted with tears and weeping. For example if a close friend or relative undergoes a life threatening operation and then one is told that everything has gone OK, it would be customary to shed a few tears (at least). However we could explain this by the fact that while the outcome is hanging in the balance one has to face the realistic possibility of the operation going badly wrong (with all its sorrowful consequences). So the tears that ensue (on receiving the good news) mainly relates to the release of those pent-up sorrowful fears.

However it is also true that joy and sorrow are complementary opposites (which have no meaning in the absence of each other). Thus without a clear experiential conception of what great loss might entail we cannot experience corresponding great joy; equally we can only deeply embrace great grief, if we have known true joy. Ultimately as I indicate later in the article both of these experiences are merged in pure mystical awareness.

9. There is a very close relationship as between fundamental physical and psycho- spiritual notions.

In Einstein's day the two great forces were electromagnetic energy (e.g. light) and gravity. Indeed his great quest was to unify these two forces. Light of itself is literally light (i.e. without mass) and expansive (travelling at the maximum speed possible in the universe). By contrast gravity is associated with mass (heaviness and depth) and tends to be intensive. Thus within black holes where matter is in its most condensed state, gravity is at a maximum.

What is not generally realised is that there are close parallels to these forces in psychospiritual terms. Thus the experience of immanence is generally associated with an expansive spiritual light; however by contrast transcendence is associated more with gravity (i.e. seriousness) and intensive depth. Indeed I have dealt with length in other places with the remarkable parallels as between the phenomenon of the "black hole" in physics and counter phenomenon in psychospiritual development of the mystic "dark night". So just as gravity is at its greatest inside a "black hole" where matter becomes greatly compressed, likewise psychological gravity - which etymologically has very close associations with the more generally used word "grief" - is at its greatest during the transcendent stage of the "dark night".

Thus - quite literally - psychological loss in all its forms which emotionally is associated with grief leads to an inner form of contraction and darkness where psychic matter (i.e. as psychologically experienced phenomena) weighs heavily upon one. By contrast happiness and joy tend to radiate outwards as light where phenomenal activity becomes literally light and effortless.

However too much emphasis on mere light and expansiveness (through immanence) leads to experience that is unduly superficial; too much emphasis on gravity and depth (through transcendence) leads to corresponding experience that is - literally - too grave and serious.

So a balance must be maintained as between the immanent and transcendent forces.

Indeed we can provide an answer to Einstein's quest (though perhaps not the kind he was seeking). Just as the two spiritual forces of immanence and transcendence are united in emptiness (as the actualisation of pure Spirit) the two physical forces of (electromagnetic) energy and gravity are also united in emptiness (as the pure potential - before matter originates - for Spirit).

Indeed if we accept that the two other forces are just variants on energy and gravity (with the weak force relating to energy and the strong force to gravity respectively) then we can fundamentally explain all dynamic interactions through the four forces (physical and psychological).

10. Of course the best kind of workplace will creatively combine both the formal (transcendent) aspect of leadership and the more informal (immanent) aspect of humour both of which will have individual and social aspects. Thus, as individuals, workers will be motivated to do their best (i.e. provide self-leadership) while also able to benefit from outside leadership (that is expressive of the common purpose). Also workers as individuals will contribute to overall enjoyment in the workplace (e.g. through humour) due to basic happiness in their work while benefiting also from the collective good cheer.

11. There is a striking contrast as between - what is perceived as - true transcendence and false. In general one does not joke about what one deeply respects. Thus the reason why that Billy Connolly remark about the hostage Ken Bigley wishing that the terrorists "would get on with it" (i.e. execute Bigley) failed so badly, was due to the general consensus that this situation indeed warranted true respect (and therefore was not a subject for joking).

12. Oscar Wilde provides a very good example of one who shone in terms of expressions of both "humour A" and "humour C" (and combinations of both) and indeed "humour B" and "humour D"!

"I have nothing to declare but my genius" is a very witty example of "humour A".

"We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars" is a corresponding good example of "humour C". Though - like the standard joke - we have here the juxtaposition of paradoxical reference frames the intent here is serious rather than funny.

"A cynic is one who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing" (perhaps he was referring to right-wing economists!) combines both "humour A" and "humour C" in that it is witty and yet saying something very serious.

13. In early Western physiological theory there were four humours or bodily fluids, which supposedly determined a person's temperament. Whereas we would not accept this interpretation literally nowadays, we could however accurately say that there are indeed four (basic) humours present in the personality with psychophysical attributes that need to be harmonised in complementary manner for true integration.

Incidentally, because of their inherent dynamic nature i.e. combining both physical and psychological aspects, these humours cannot be properly represented in Wilberian four-quadrant terms. I have long argued for an eight-sectoral approach. Whereas in some respects four of these sectors (i.e. horizontal and vertical polarities) are similar to Ken Wilber's four-quadrant approach, the other four sectors relating to diagonal polarities are properly required to explain the relationship of the four "humours". The very basis of the diagonal polarities is that they relate directly to psychophysical interactions, which can only be ultimately harmonised through pure spiritual awareness (where transcendent and immanent aspects are identical). Thus the diagonal polarities have a double definition in terms of form (i.e. complex psychophysical interactions) and emptiness (transcendent and immanent spiritual aspects). And of course ultimately form and emptiness are identical as pure Spirit! Though I did not initially define the eight-sector approach (which has a fully scientific holistic mathematical rationale) with the four "humours" in mind, happily they correspond perfectly with the manner in which the diagonal polarities are defined. So once again this clearly illustrates to my mind the need for the enlarged eight-sector model, that has both coherent differentiated (linear) and integral (circular) intellectual interpretations.

14. There can of course be direct physical effects. For a person under stress, the facial muscles will tend to constrict giving a furrowed strained look. In this sense the physical expression would be the opposite of a smile. Other physical effects, which vary in individual circumstances, could also apply. And the long-term physical effects could be considerable leading perhaps to minor illnesses such as colds or flu or more serious health problems such as cancer and heart disease.

15. As the behaviour of the four "humours" is inherently dynamic, experience generally is not confined to any one level but may entail several levels (personal, prepersonal and perhaps transpersonal).

However when with advanced spiritual development, mature experience of the higher levels is stabilised, the way in which humour operates will be much more refined i.e. entailing the purer interaction of several levels.

16. The capacity for relaxation and control in meditation is closely associated with the immanent and transcendent aspects respectively. Meditation requires disciplined awareness; however it equally requires the ability to relax (and both of these require true detachment from all dualistic phenomena). So only in pure meditation can both of these aspects be fully integrated with each other.

17. In the holistic mathematical eight-sector approach the four "humours" would be represented by the diagonal lines that bisect each of the four quadrants (of the circle).

Thus if "humour A" is represented (in arbitrary manner) as the diagonal line bisecting the UR quadrant, then "humour B" would represent the diagonally opposite line (bisecting the LL quadrant). So the full diagonal line here slopes down from right to left.

Reverse humour i.e. "humour C" and "humour D" would then relate to the other diagonal line (i.e. in the diagonally opposite direction sloping down from left to right). So the positive version ("humour C") could be represented by the diagonal line bisecting the UL quadrant and its negative ("humour D") by the diagonal line bisecting the LR quadrant.

18. This is actually true of conventional humour though of course at an extremely superficial level. Thus for example the appreciation of the standard joke always requires the death of a certain kind of conventional expectation (brought about through the paradoxical juxtapositioning of reference frames) together with the spontaneous momentary experience of a new life of joy (i.e. laughter).


Humour;  Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004.  Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.

Edward de Bono: I Am Right-You Are Wrong: From This to the New Renaissance: From Rock Logic to Water Logic; Penguin Books (Reprint Edition 1992)

Arthur Koestler: The Act of Creation; Penguin Books (Reissue Edition 1990)

John A. Sanford: Dreams and Healing; Paulist Press, 1979

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Creativity : Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention; Perennial (1997)

Abbi Marc Gafni & Ken Wilber: The Supreme 1st Person Perspective: Infinite Joy & Infinite Suffering; Integral Naked, June 2004

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