A conversation with Laraaji about laughter, music and wellbeing
“If you could immerse this whole planet Earth in a sustained state of beauty for 24 hours, hearts would be open everywhere, and this would replace the thinking of a separatist mind”.
Laraaji, a pioneer of new age music and international laughter therapist, was born Edward Larry Gordon in Philadelphia in 1943. Or rather, as he explains over the phone, that was when “the body was born”. From a young age, growing up in an ethnically diverse neighbourhood, he understood the importance of using laughter as a tool for breaking the boundaries of race and gender. He explains, “when we got together and laughed, there was no question of ‘you’re Mexican’ or ‘you’re Italian’ or ‘I’m black-American’. The boundaries dropped because you got out of the thinking mind”.
It is in the process of escaping the ‘thinking mind’ – the part that focuses on names, titles, race – that you can access the self. “The self that is purely aware and without any titles is free, blissful and eternal,” he explains. For some, Laraaji’s teachings may seem too far-reached or idealistic, but for others, his understanding of spirituality, through his instructive laughter workshops and personal training, are invaluable methods of relaxation – or, as he puts it, “getting into that yummy space of inner quiet and harmony”.
Laraaji wasn’t always spiritual. As a young man, he spent his time as a comedian on the New York standup circuit before landing an acting role in Putney Swope, a satirical movie that skewered Hollywood’s relationship with race. Having trained in music composition at Howard University in Washington DC, Gordon began experimenting with open tunings and audio processing equipment on an autoharp and zither on the streets of New York. It was on these streets, in Washington Square Park, that he was spotted – most famously – by producer and composer Brian Eno, who left a message in his busking case asking if the pair could record together.
Since then, Laraaji has released a quite extraordinary body of work, many of which (unfortunately) have not been marketed to a mass audience. His music is a spectral melding of zither, harp, oud and guitar which instils the listener with a sense of stillness akin to that of meditating. As part of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, we spoke to Laraaji about the importance of meditative music and laughter in wellbeing.
Can you please explain what it was like growing up in Philadelphia? Did music play a large part in your childhood?
The body was born in Philadelphia, but I grew up in New Jersey.
What is the difference between the body and the self?
The self is infinite, eternal and invisible, but it uses the body and comes into the body through incarnation. So the linear mind, the rational mind, might not handle that too easily. But through meditation one has a direct experience of the self. The self is birthless and deathless. I’m not the body, but I have a body. So the body was born in Philadelphia, and the body grew up in New Jersey.
You mentioned that meditation helps you tap into the ‘self’. How has that affected you personally?
Somewhere in late 60s early 70s, as a result of having success in the media as a comedian and an actor, I started to feel vulnerable in the mass media because I didn’t have a sense of my spiritual core. There were questions that I started asking myself. In a movie would I take my clothes off? Would I drink alcohol? Would I take a gun and shoot someone? Will I commit violence or would I do it all for the money? I began asking, what are my values? That’s when meditation became attractive to me. In the early 70s I started seeking spiritual teachers and learning what meditation was about. I started sitting for long hours, breathing, reading some inspirational material and dropping out of the thinking mind. I’d relax my breath and would mentally take off any names, titles and classifications that had ever been used for me.
I think that’s a very good way of putting it, that the way that society imposes an order and a way of being has an affect on how you perceive yourself.
The self that is purely aware without any titles is free, blissful and eternal. The things that we call anxieties, doubts and fears – all those things belong to the self that wears the titles.
What is the relationship between music and meditation?
When I began playing on the sidewalks in the late 70s, I realised that my meditative states – if I were performing after doing meditation – would communicate themselves through music. I believe music can communicate the posture of consciousness in meditation, through drone music, through repetitive music, contemplative ambient music. Music, as I grow to understand it, doesn’t even have to be peaceful to support meditation.
Tibetan culture uses very brash aggressive sounds: the clanging of symbols and horns, for instance, to disrupt and distract the mind, to help it drop out of the linear.
I listened to music a lot before I started playing music and I noticed when I was young that music was my vehicle to escape the mind or the world or the local identity. I think we all have our favourite music that helps us get away or to work out things that we don’t want to have in our mental space. Music can help us remember events in our lives and I think that someone who has contacted the nature of self can use music to trigger memory of their self beyond the body.
Music can be used to trigger emotional states, memory states, memory of the non-linear states, the eternality of the now. They can have an epiphany, a moment of expanded time.
Can you give any examples from personal experience?
There is Gamelan music which comes out of Bali. Music is used there to understand and celebrate god. When I hear gamelan music, it allows me to feel a sense of celebration and an exalted state.
Can you talk about the importance of laughter?
I appreciated the impact of laughter: how it would relax muscles and even the playing field. When I was younger, I used laughter to get on the good side of the bullies in my neighbourhood. When we all laughed – I grew up in a very ethnically diverse neighbourhood, and when we get together and laughed, there was no question of you’re Mexican, or you’re Italian or I’m black-American – the boundaries dropped because we got out of the thinking mind. Laughter, music and meditation is a way of postponing or dissolving the distinction between the thinking mind and intuition and feeling. There’s no ethnic diversity, gender diversity, no ‘you’ and ‘me’, just this energy in celebration and in self-realisation.
From what you’re saying, it seems that music, laughter, meditation, are all interconnected. They are all ways to escape the separation that is felt in society.
Yes! Those are meditative experiences that bring us into expanded states of awareness. Art, especially art that connects, has very strong beauty element to it, observing beauty and being immersed in a beautiful experience opens the heart. It returns us to an expanded awareness of love. Beauty is a way of getting the heart to open. I think that if you could immerse this world in a state of beauty for 24 hours, the hearts would be opened everywhere, and the behaviour of the open heart would take over and replace the separatist thinking mind.
From personal experience, I find that technology is a tool which often encourages separation. A lot of people report feeling lonelier with an increased use of the internet, social media, and so on.
The mass media is also the information highway – there’s a lot of information coming down the pipe. Mass media can overwhelm our awareness so that it becomes more difficult to focus. The mass media and the talk about technology is really up in our faces; in New York I can see it in on our faces – iPads, iPhones, the earbuds, it’s possible to be numbed out by our technology. You can even be entertained, so entertained that you can postpone the journey – you’ve got 3D, IMAX, the new visual goggles… However, if these technologies are aligned by spiritual direction of humanity, then you find technology that supports our collective growth. The individual who’s waking up to the need to find their inner self can find a support system in technology. But you have to be conscious for what you’re looking for.
How does laughter remedy the negative sides of technology?
Really heavy laughter takes the listener to the same place of relaxation that yoga would. In laughter work, I follow the release through sound journeys and sounds to support inner meditation. To make conscious choices, use our diet, our mental diet, our social diet, to support us getting into that yummy space of inner quiet and inner harmony. I like to use harmony and sound to support every individual participant to embrace and hold on to that experience.