PROVIDENCE — Larry O’Brien laughs. A lot.
O’Brien, a Laughter Yoga leader, runs the Providence Laughter Club, which has taken to Zoom since the onset of COVID-19. All are welcome.
I sought him out because, like a lot of us these days, I needed a good laugh. I’d heard about him for years through my friend John Roarke.
There are no jokes in Laughter Yoga.
“You laugh for no reason,” said O’Brien, who is 71. We were sitting on his back porch on a sunny day. “The benefits of laughter are so many and varied. It raises serotonin levels. It raises dopamine levels. It oxygenates the body. And, you know, I’m in a wheelchair. So there are not many exercises that I can do.”
O’Brien, a retired technical recruiter, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 29.
“The day I get home from the hospital, my wife takes a home pregnancy test, and she’s pregnant,” he said. “That was our first kid. So, you know, that felt stressful.”
MS hasn’t been his only challenge. O’Brien also has bipolar disorder. One of his early treatments for MS, cortisone, triggered a manic episode.
“You give a person with bipolar disorder that kind of a stimulant,” he said, “and my mind’s racing, racing, racing. I’m driving my car 100 miles an hour with one hand on the wheel.”
O’Brien went off the cortisone and doubled down on meditating. He called it his “inner beauty practice.” For years now, he has used meditation to manage his mental health without meds.
Then there’s Laughter Yoga, which he discovered in the 1990s, after it was popularized by Indian physician Madan Kataria. Laughter Yoga master trainers Linda and Bill Hamaker, who trained with Kataria, run Monday and Wednesday Zoom groups from their Walpole living room (find links to meetings at www.letslaughtoday.com). People attend from around the world.
The practice, they said, is good for the brain. “It’s childlike playfulness,” Linda said. “When you play, the laughter comes naturally.”
If you log in, be prepared to laugh — or pretend to — when prompted.
“A body can’t tell the difference between a pretend laugh and a regular laugh,” said Bill. The same benefits apply, he added.
Laughter Yoga may not have jokes, but it does have cues. Sitting on his back porch, O’Brien picked up his local newspaper and read aloud a headline: “Not all students back in school by [Governor] Raimondo’s deadline.”
He erupted in robust, joyful laughter. I laughed, too — at first because I was supposed to. Then, I couldn’t help myself. COVID, political strife — it’s so outrageous, so absurd.
It felt good.
The world, O’Brien said, merits a good laugh. “It was a crazy place when politicians were civil. It was a crazy place when the Buddha was around,” he said. “It’s a crazy place now.”
And maybe awareness of absurdity — the utter nonsense of the world — can help keep us whole and take us deep.
When O’Brien was 50, he went back to school to study Emily Dickinson.
“The purpose of [her poetry] is to defy meaning, which is how she creates meaning,” he said.
As a Catholic, he finds that tension familiar. A handful of former priests are in his meditation group.
“I tell them the best thing about Catholicism is it doesn’t make any sense,” O’Brien said, pointing out the absurdity of changing bread and wine into the body of Christ.
“The key to the whole thing,” he said, “is it no longer is what it is. It’s something different.”
That, he said, is what Dickinson does. “Other people run from that,” he said. “She embraces it.”
“With Larry, there’s not a lot of difference between his appreciation of mystical truths and his rolling laughter. They’re both deep baths in life and pain and joyousness,” said Roarke, a retired comedian. “But that’s what humor is. It’s not just joy rolling off something incongruous. It’s joy rolling off something sad or tragic.
“Somebody in Larry’s situation could easily give himself to despair or hopelessness,” he added. “But when he totals up the column of life, he’s laughing.”
I asked O’Brien what Emily Dickinson had to do with Laughter Yoga.
He quoted her. “‘Take all away from me,’ she says, ‘But leave me ecstasy.’
“Laughter is a blessing,” he said. “And if you can laugh when there’s nothing to laugh at — you’ve got it.”
PROVIDENCE LAUGHTER CLUB