Huddled together in a cleared-out corner of a Carlsbad bookstore, a group of about 15 people had shed all semblance of dignified public comportment. Stamping feet, clapping hands and making wild arm movements, they seemed to realize they looked ridiculous as they moved from one person to the next, clasped hands, made fervent eye contact and let forth salvos of fake laughter-which, occasionally, turned genuine if only for the sheer silliness of what they were being asked to do.
The leader of the forced hilarity was Sarita Sun, a North County woman who laughed almost continuously and more loudly than anyone else. Activities such as the one Sun led were part of a bon voyage event for Viki Hurst, a San Marcos baby-boomer who, having sold off her fairly substantial possessions, would depart via motor home on a cross-country "World Peace Tour" that very afternoon.
Sun's goal: "to help people laugh for no reason."
Noticing this writer impassively observing the frantic action from the sidelines, Sun took a determined approach. Grasping firm hold of my face with her fleshy palms, she moved in closer and repeated a series of high-volume "HA-HA-HA"s inches above my left ear. It became clear that the quickest escape from this excruciating invasion of personal body space would be to just go ahead and laugh-albeit feebly and insincerely-right back at her.
Sun said she started conducting a form of "laughing meditation" in the early 1970s. Last year, she received certification as a "Laughter Leader" from World Laughter Tour Inc. (WLT).
WLT credits itself with a recent upsurge in the establishment of worldwide "Laughter Clubs," which use laughter as a form of meditation and/or mechanism to promote health. WLT founder Steve Wilson reported he'd found his inspiration from meeting Mumbai (Bombay) physician Dr. Madan Kataria, who founded the first such clubs in India in 1995. (The popularity of these clubs, which employ what Kataria terms "yogic laughter," was the subject of Mira Nair's 1999 film, Laughter Clubs of India.)
WLT claims there are roughly 2,500 clubs throughout Asia, the United States, Australia, Europe and the Middle East. (Sun, one of 10 San Diego-area laughter leaders WTL lists on its website, could not positively confirm the existence of any regularly meeting clubs in this county.) In 1998, Kataria established the first Saturday of May as World Laughter Day (Seattle was the only U.S. city to officially recognize the holiday in 2004.)
WLT encourages laughter club attendees to evoke levity through "self-starting" techniques and not by humor, jokes or comedy because humor's subjective nature makes it "difficult to define" and using "jokes runs the risk of being offensive or hurtful."
During the Carlsbad demonstration, Sun wasn't successful at convincing everyone in the store to jump right in. Recalcitrant bystanders feigned intense interest in hastily grabbed display books, flipping through pages and refusing to even look at Sun, much less accept her invitation to "Come on over and laugh with us!"
Those who did heed the call were told to put down "anything that's burdensome-anything's that tight or hanging."
An elderly woman muttered something under her breath about a few hanging items on her body that she couldn't put aside no matter how much she'd like to. "She's getting into the spirit!" Sun exclaimed.
Sun then told everyone there's no one right way to laugh-giggles, chuckles, snickers and every other manner of yuk were all acceptable.
A participant offered up a porcine snorting sound.
"Yes!" Sun shouted. "It's very contagious."
While the group didn't get to learn such techniques as the "cocktail-party" and "pee-accident" laughs, they were introduced to the "cell-phone," which required them to pretend one of their hands was a mobile phone. They were then ordered to laugh uproariously into the "receiver" as they imagined someone on the other end making sidesplitting comments.
Not a single male in the building had sampled any of these activities until a man in his 70s, with a long beard and wearing tattered beach attire, fell in with Sun's group. Bending at the waist as he traded guffaws with Sun, he shook down to his fingers, displayed a bluish tongue and performed a jig. During this display, the noise generated by the rest of the group rose to a level reminiscent of a canned laugh track from a 1950s sitcom.
After that, out-of-breath, sweating participants flopped into chairs and took deep breaths.
"Do you feel released?" Sun asked them before concluding the exercise with a meditation for world peace in honor of Hurst's journey.
Most people will likely always prefer the unexpected life pleasure of experiencing a genuine laugh from traditional forms of comedy or just musing on one's own place in the universe.But Sun surmised that when it comes to laughter, it's all good-especially "laughing at ourselves. It's the best joke."