Imagine you open the guided meditation app on your phone and press play on the daily insight. You hear an electric piano and a female voice, smooth as butter. “Wherever you may be right now,” she says, “just take a moment to acknowledge that at least one of your exes has it way worse off than you.”
This delightfully petty insight is from a daily-meditation app called Gfulness. Think of it as Headspace meets Funny or Die. Stand-up comedy meets the seated lotus position.
The idea behind the service – and a growing number of others – is that there’s no law that says meditation and mindfulness have to be somber and serious. On the road to enlightenment, maybe it’s helpful to lighten the mood.
Beyond Gfulness, serenity seekers can now find dozens of videos, books, apps, and seminars that try to combine humour and mindfulness. You can watch a YouTube video with 17 million views called “F*ck That: An Honest Meditation,” which contains such wise advice as “If your thoughts drift to the three-ring shit show of your life, bring your attention back to your breathing.” A popular life coach named Supreet gives guided YouTube meditations that take all sorts of wrong turns. “How does your scalp feel? Itchy? Then pause this meditation right now and go wash your hair.”
Meditation: Om or “Om. . .My God, That’s So Annoying”
The Gfulness app is the brainchild of Collin Williams, a Colorado-based lawyer and tech-company founder. “It was 2019, and I was diagnosed with depression,” he says. Williams’s therapist suggested mindfulness to help his mood, so he clicked on a traditional guided meditation app. “It was a miserable experience,” he says with a sigh. “A guy with a British accent kept telling me that I needed to stop thinking about anything. And the moment I was about to successfully not think about something, the British guy would chime back in and be like, ‘Now make sure you’re not thinking about anything!’ And I would be like, ‘Dammit, if you would stop interrupting me, maybe I could stop thinking about anything!’” As the old joke goes, his experience was less “om” and more “om. . .my God, that’s so annoying.”
But Williams says he did appreciate one aspect of the ritual: taking 10 minutes out of your day to devote yourself to improving your mindset. Around the same time, he read that humour is one of the best ways to instantly alter your mood. So what if he mixed those ideas?
He reached out to his high school friend Andrew Ritter, a comedy writer and director who has taught and performed with the Second City in Chicago. Ritter hired a team of writers and came up with dozens of amusing, often weird meditations. In one, a man’s deep, calming voice has us imagining we’re looking at clouds, “That’s an agouti right there. Heh, heh, heh, sure as I’m living, that’s an agouti. An agouti has kind of a snout on it. It’s kind of a sly, unassuming sort of animal. In cloud form, it’s really not much to look at at all. Get outta here, you agouti!”
It’s an unorthodox approach, but some experts say there might be validity to it. “Comedy and mindfulness have a lot in common,” says psychologist Adam Dorsay, host of the SuperPsyched podcast. “When you laugh, you are fully present. You aren’t thinking about anything except the joy. Same with meditation: It’s about being fully present.”
OK, So Laughter Is The Best Medicine?
The science linking humor and meditation is still in its infancy, but there is some promising research. Certain studies of “laughter-inducing therapies” suggest they may reduce stress; one 2021 report in Current Research in Physiology found they could help lessen anxiety and depression.
Surprisingly, comedy and mindfulness have a long history. It could be argued that the Buddhist tradition, often thought of as one of the origins of meditation, is infused with laughter and joy.
Consider that guru Ram Dass, who helped popularise Eastern philosophy in the United States, once said, “Cosmic humour, especially about your own predicament, is an important part of your journey.” Even the Buddha himself used humour to shepherd his followers toward wisdom.
Author Thanissaro Bhikkhu recounts an example in his book The Buddha Smiles: A Brahmin—a Vedic priest—challenged and insulted the Buddha, who replied, “If someone offers you a gift and you refuse to accept it, does that make the gift yours or the one who offered it?” “It belongs to the one who offered it,” said the Brahmin. “In the same way,” replied the Buddha, “the words with which you have insulted me are all yours.”
Okay, maybe it’s not a gut buster to 21st-century ears. It’s more like a sophisticated version of the schoolyard taunt “I’m rubber, you’re glue, whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” But it’s still humour adjacent.
Meditation But Make It Naughty
Modern-day meditation coach Chade-Meng Tan, a former Google engineer, is trying to spread this tradition via seminars and books such as Joy on Demand. Tan tells me about how humorous meditation helped him get through a particularly hard time in his life. “I kept being interrupted by this inner voice that told me, ‘You are a completely useless piece of shit,’ ” he says. “The worst part was I actually believed it. My mind was dominated by anguish, and I could not settle it.”
So Tan took a breath and reminded himself that he has lived a life of purpose and helped others. He then responded to the voice: No! I am not a completely useless piece of shit- only 95% useless. “It was funny,” he says. “I laughed to myself inside. With uplifting joy thus established, the mind settled.”
Naughty language, by the way, seems to be a motif of many humorous meditations. On YouTube, there’s “Zen Thug’s Honest Meditation,” with such themes as “Fuck Coworkers.” And in the same genre, the book 30 Days to Stop Being an Asshole: A Mindfulness Program with a Touch of Humor offers advice on how to ignore your inner douchebag.
But four-letter words are not a requirement. There are plenty of G-rated examples of funny mindfulness, including comedian Fred Armisen’s guided meditation on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, which starts out harmlessly and gets increasingly weird and creepy. By the end, Armisen is encouraging us to visualise putting crinkled envelopes in waffle batter, making them, and pretending to serve them to somebody.