The great cosmic chuckle

Author/counselor/spiritual renegade Karuna Alan Kistler has blazed a unique path combining psychotherapy, spiritual guidance and a fierce commitment to honoring each individual’s inner truth. His next book, Driving Your Demons Sane Before They Drive You Crazy: Healing the Hell of Inner Abuse is due out this summer. Here he discusses his most recent book, Holy Jokes: Playful Wisdom for All Tastes & Faiths (Universal Sanctuaries, 2001).

J. Grasworth: Most people think religion is pretty serious; why a holy joke book?

Karuna: All over the world, there’s two very different streams of spirituality. I grew up in a little Presbyterian church where hardly anybody ever laughed — except after the services, over coffee.

But there’s an underground stream of spirituality, sometimes called “crazy wisdom,” that involves transcending all forms of illusion, especially religious illusions. And laughter is a wonderful way to do that. So the jokes in the book are funny, but they also make serious points about the journey of awakening.

J.G.: You’ve been described as a universal monk. What is that?

KAK: The playful answer is that when I was celebrating becoming a universal monk, my friend Thea said she was sorry I didn’t have an actual woman to walk down the aisle with me, so she played my “wife” and we linked arms and sipped champagne from each other’s glasses. And her husband Bob got up and led this mock toast: “Monk or monkey, who can tell? Either way, you’ll do it well!” So each day, as a universal monk, I wake up and I’m not sure if I’m a monk or a monkey — so I have to practice both.

The other answer is that over the last 20 years, many people have heard a call to put their spiritual lives first in a way that’s not linked to one particular religion. In my case, I pray the way Jews, Christians and Muslims do; I meditate the way Hindus and Buddhists do; I do spiritual dancing like Sufis and Native Americans. It’s like a patchwork quilt. And one of the joys for me is helping people combine different spiritualities into something that’s more than the sum of its parts.

J.G.: I understand you serve as a kind of circuit rider, a wandering monk.

KAK: That’s right. I see people in my home in the national forest in Tennessee; in Asheville, I help people in their homes. I also have missions in Pittsburgh, in Michigan and in Canada. When I travel, people host me, so I have to make each place I go my home — because, of course, the whole universe is my home. It teaches me flexibility and nonattachment to form, which keeps me open to new truths coming into my life. And instead of fee for services, we exchange gifts — I give my guidance, and people give donations.

One of the things I dissent from is the idea that you can put a price tag on everything, that it’s OK for some people to be wealthy at the expense of others who then can’t meet their basic needs. This is my small way of doing what Buddhists call “right livelihood,” of saying no matter who you are, you deserve to have the help you need. If you can only afford to give a little bit, you do; if you can afford to give more, you do that. What people bring to my work with them is priceless, what I bring is priceless, and what we exchange helps all of us.

J.G.: When did you know you were called to be a monk?

KAK: I had a clear call to ministry when I was 9 years old. But the call to monkhood came many years later.

I started doing ministry in 1987, after graduating from seminary. But the call to monkhood came in 1992, when my marriage was dying. In the midst of this deep grief, something inside me said, “Turn on the television,” which was strange because I don’t like to watch TV. But I did, and there was a documentary about a young man traveling through the mountains of Japan on a kind of spiritual quest. At one point, he came to a hut where travelers could stay, and he asked the hostess, a young Japanese woman, “How did you come to be the hostess of the hut?” And she said, “I wanted to see if I could live very simply off the four elements,” very much in the spirit of Shinto. She asked him, “Why are you here?” And he said, “I’m searching for something deeper in my life.”

In that moment, I realized that I, too, had a deep but very unconventional spiritual call. So out of the death of my marriage — which eventually was reborn, after I became a monk — came this call to be a traveling monk. I didn’t know how to do it, but I knew that the Spirit would lead the way.

J.G.: You’ve racked up quite an array of academic credentials. How has that shaped your work?

KAK: I have master’s degrees in counseling psychology, in public health and in ministry, plus a doctor’s degree in naturopathy. I realized early on that there was no one place to train for my vision of healing ministry. Our educational system is so compartmentalized, I had to go to different schools to train in different facets of my calling.

But there was a pressure to conform to this narrow vision that I always found imprisoning. I also realized I was tempted to think that getting these degrees made me better than other people, which is certainly an illusion, and I’ve had to work on overcoming that.

J.G.: When I started out as a writer, the first thing I had to do was unlearn all the bad habits I’d picked up in college.

KAK: That’s exactly what I found; I’ve had to clear away the academic baggage and find my own voice. It took me years to realize my gift is really to get up and just speak from the heart; just being there and letting it flow through me.

In my guidance work, I sometimes think, ‘Oh, I’ve seen this before — I know what to do.’ And then I grok that I really need to clear all that away and just be open to who this person is and what they uniquely need. In that moment, I’m back to what in Zen is called “beginner’s mind” — being open to the flow of the Mystery through you.

J.G.: You’ve said that without the spiritual dimension, you don’t get the deepest healing. What do you mean?

KAK: In traditional psychotherapy, the focus is on trying to heal the mind apart from the spirit or the body; helping people release blocked emotions. But to the ancient Greeks, catharsis meant releasing those emotions to the gods and goddesses — a spiritual releasing.

In all spiritual traditions, there’s a focus on compassion and taking responsibility for one’s own free-will choices, rather than just dumping out feelings in a destructive way. You try to avoid harm, but since we can’t live without sometimes harming others and ourselves, you need a way to heal any harm that’s done. Basically — and this isn’t part of traditional psychotherapy — you face with courage and faith whatever mistakes you’ve made, acknowledge it to the other person, and then turn back to a deeper harmony. This can produce a very deep healing that washes away the old mistakes, so you can start fresh.

Spiritual guidance helps promote this kind of rebirth — within individuals, couples, families and communities — that goes way beyond what traditional psychotherapy can offer.

J.G.: That’s a powerful vision — and a tall order.

KAK: The more orthodox vision is that you have to work very hard and seriously to attain spiritual perfection — and you never get there. But another vision is that falling short of perfection is the very nature of life.

J.G.: And a good belly laugh helps bring you into the moment.

KAK: Absolutely. The laughter is deeper than the fear, so it helps us be open to the breakthrough, because the shock of awakening can be scary. But if you forget you’re afraid, you just might awaken. So the jokes are a really joyful way to wake up.

Be careful what you pray for

Egypt’s chief imam, head of the largest mosque in Cairo, believed passionately in the power of prayer. He inspired his flock to pray three times each day for the hidden treasures of heaven. And he helped an extraordinary number of searching souls to reach for Allah’s mercy in times of terrible trial. So it was not surprising that, in his own hour of need, he should do the same.

It had been raining for so long in Cairo that the Nile not only overflowed, as usual, but began to flood beyond anything anyone could remember. Many began to wonder if the Great Flood had come again. The imam prayed without ceasing, but still the waters rose.

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