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Wednesday, January 20,2010

A laughing matter

Therapist promotes humor as healing tool

by Gabi Moore
Amanda Bernes is creative, fun and loving. Everyone in the room can see this, but she seems to have trouble spitting out the words herself. She’s introducing herself to Cindie Alwood, and the rule is she has to provide three positive adjectives about herself. She nervously comes up with these traits, and attention turns to Alwood, who’s equally hesitant.

“My name is Cindie,” she said, and paused. “I’m creative, hard-working and intelligent.”


These unusual introductions were the way comedian Karen Williams started her Healing Power of Humor workshop Saturday at the Capital Area District Library. The workshop, sponsored by the Women’s Center of Greater Lansing, was about learning to tap into your sense of humor and the spontaneous joy inside you.


“Our joy doesn’t come from where we work, who we work with, who we love, how we dress, our race, our class, our education,” Williams said. “Spontaneous joy is inherent in a life that appreciates just being.”


The introduction exercise was part of acting out one of Williams’ three Cs: compliment, compassion and clarity. Being able to compliment and be happy with oneself is part of realizing who you are and being truly happy just to be you. In her short “Caring for Self Handbook” she handed out to the workshop participants, Williams wrote, “Remind yourself that you have a right to be happy. You are worthy of respect. Affirm you! Make up affirmations just for you. Put them where you can see them every day. Repeat them often. Make up new ones.” Williams writes her own affirmations in lipstick on her bathroom mirror.


Williams was invited to do the workshop by Alwood, a co-director of the Women’s Center. On Friday night, Williams headlined the Women’s Center She Laughs V event, where five comedians performed to celebrate the nonprofit’s fifth anniversary. Alwood said the
goal of the Women’s Center is to help all women realize their
potential. The center provides counseling and guidance for women who
seek help through them; She Laughs is an annual event.


“The
reason that we do this in January is because our opinion is that
everybody needs to laugh in January,” Alwood said. She had seen
Williams perform before, and when she invited her to headline the She
Laughs event, she wondered if Williams could do one of her workshops as
well.


When Williams began her comedy career in the 1980s in San Francisco, AIDS
was called GRID (gay-related immune deficiency), and people in the Bay
Area were dying from it. Clubs in the area would host comedians like
Williams to raise money for GRID victims and their partners and
families. At a show in Las Vegas in 1988, the event planners asked if
she could put on a workshop as well.


“I said yes, and put together a rudimentary type
of workshop that was based on the improvisation I do,” she said. “After
that a beautiful, tall blonde guy came to me and told me that his
partner had just died three days before and he thought he would never
laugh again. There is some kind of relationship between humor and
healing.”


After
making this connection through her first workshop, Williams went back
to school at Cleveland State University, wrote a degree in humor and
healing, and got a masters degree in adult learning and development.


She
developed the Humor-At-Large workshop series and founded the HaHa
Institute (the International Institute of Humor and Healing Arts). “The
basis of all of my workshops is to help people recapture joy,” she
said. “Laughter is described as spontaneous joy and there’s a sense
that as we get older and more acculturated we lose touch with the essence of that spontaneous joy that just comes from appreciation for being alive.”


Alwood
and Bernes, an intern at the Women’s Center, don’t see a lot of joy in
the women that come to the center. Alwood said that they have learned
through keeping anecdotal data on all the women coming through their
doors that 90 percent of them have two things in common: one is
unresolved grief and the other is sexual assault.


“This
is perfect for the unresolved grief,” Alwood said. “I think sometimes
we take our situations in our life so seriously that you get into a
‘you can’t see the forest through the trees’ situation. For
whatever reason, being able to open that up and open up somebody’s
heart and mind will create new options for them.”


As
an intern, Bernes said learning to tap into humor will be a beneficial
tool to use with clients. “I have some friends that are going through grieving right now, and some clients that are grieving,” she said. “Everyone is dealing with stressful times
because of the economy or because of a lost loved one, just so many
different reasons. Humor just lightens the whole mood and can get you
to breathe normally and feel comfortable with each other.”


According
to Williams, children laugh 200 to 400 times a day. Adults only laugh
around 17 times a day. Learning to access inner joy has emotional and
physical benefits. Laughter releases endorphins, reduces tension and
heightens awareness.


And, Alwood said, “It just feels good. Laughing hard is great.”


Williams
stressed that all people have an inherent right to be joyful, and that
learning to learning to tap into happiness and not get bogged down by
the suffering we find in life is essential. “Humor is a human
characteristic,” she said. “But it’s something we have to nurture.”

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