Saturday, April 16, 2011

Yoga For The Heart

Your posture will reflect your mental state. We all know this. If you're depressed, tired, or bored, you'll tend to slump. But the really profound part of this is that your posture will in turn determine your mental state. If you assume the posture of the defeated, the dejected, and the weak, you will soon come to feel defeated, dejected, and weak. It's inevitable. But the good news is that if you assume the posture of energy, determination, and cheerfulness you will soon come to feel energetic, determined, and cheerful. This is also inevitable. ~William James
I met my wife Jennifer when I went to work for her public relations firm back in the early 80's. She and her business partner had gone through fire as 20-something business owners, learning from just about every mistake possible. When I went to work for them they were just emerging from near total collapse, a process that two years later found their scrappy little company on the list of the top 20 largest PR firms in the Pacific Northwest.

They had been operating out of an apartment where they faced down the bankruptcy that defeats 90 percent of business start-ups, and had now established a toe-hold in some free office space with just enough furniture to accommodate their two employes, me being the second. Compared to the competition in their downtown office tower digs, Richardson-Hurshell Public Relations was definitely low rent.

To give you the idea, one weekend I helped Jennifer's partner remove some old closet doors from her mother's house, which I then used to fashion a sort of lean-to storage closet around what had previously just been stacks of boxes. That was a major office improvement at the time.

To the outside world, however, as long as we kept it out of the office, R-H was a glam outfit, known for producing slick publicity and grand opening parties the invitations to which people fought over. That we were able to erect this kind of facade for the world to see, of course, is no surprise. We were a PR firm after all, and creating a public image is a big part of their stock-in-trade.

One of our mantras at the time was, "Fake it 'till you make it," a line usually issued in the throes of crisis and in the spirit of gallows humor as the four of us sat hunched in tension around our makeshift conference table. But when we stepped outside our doors, it was with the shoulders back, heads high posture of winners, faking it, faking it, faking it, until finally it was true.

I came to understand that this idiom wasn't a mere PR joke, but rather a practical statement of profound philosophy and psychology.

I'm reminded of this because of all the storytelling we've been doing in class lately, and specifically the "performance" part of our process. By now, all of our storytellers know that their tales are destined to be read in front of an audience and many, if not most, of them have been clearly out for laughs. And like a good audience, we've accommodated them, taking on our part in the audience participation portion by forcing out the sounds of laughter after every sentence. It's become such a part of the rhythm of the process that we're even laughing after sentences that have no business being laughed at, which has become a problem for the kids intending to tell serious, scary, or adventure stories.

Early last week, when we forced out our ritualistic laugh after the first sentence of Sylvia's story, she said, "Don't laugh." And from this we've developed a new story reading convention that has me asking each child whether or not this is a "laughing story" before we begin. In Syvia's case, she wanted her story to be listened to in the way she intended it, but for many of the kids who've come after her, it's become an experiment in the exercise of power to be able to command "no laughing" and have that honored. At least most of the time. There have been a few instances when there has been something genuinely funny in a "no laughing" story and we've all laughed any way -- a genuine laugh, that stands apart from the artificial laughs we've been practicing.

I approve of this new convention, while at the same time, I hope our fake laughter never goes away entirely, and I don't think it will. There's something wonderful in us all laughing together on cue like that, filling the room with sounds of joy, even if it's just a joyful "posture." I've so often watched us start these sessions as a surly, squirrelly, out-of-synch bunch, but through this process of faking our laughter we are drawn together, our collective attention focused on our friend, their story, and our part in that story, which is to punctuate each sentence with laughter, even if we are faking it. I've always loved this, but have never been able to say exactly why, especially when other adults have pointed out how superficial it sounds to them. I've usually shrugged and agreed and taken a "but what are ya gonna do?" attitude.

But it isn't superficial . . . Or rather, it is, but it's more than that too. It's artificial, but it fills me nevertheless with joy. It wasn't until yesterday, when a friend sent me a link to this video of this very wise man that I suddenly realized what we've been doing and why I want to keep doing it:

When we tell our "laughing stories," we're doing yoga for the heart. The joy I feel, and the joy I see in all those faces laughing up at me is real. It tells me we're not faking it any more. It tells me we've made it.

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Barbara Zaborowski said...

Lovely, Tom.

Teacher Tom said...

Thank you, Barbara. I try every day.

Anonymous said...

That is amazing. Love the image of all the kids sitting together and erupting into laughter at the same time.
And the image of one little person calmly but with convinction instructing everyone that it is not a laughing story.
Great imagery.

SurprisedMom said...

Laughter is the best medicine. It's not just a cliche, it's true. I found the older I get, the less laughter is a part of my life. Maybe if I fake it, it will become real, just like it does for you and your students. Maybe I will feel the joy again.

May you and your students always find the laughter, even in a non laughing world.