The Spiritual Wisdom of Louis CK
The Spiritual Wisdom of Louis CK
by Yakov A. Barton
Comedian Louis CK brings spiritual insight to late night
In a recent late night interview with Conan O’Brien, the brilliant comic Louis C.K. delivered a simultaneously humorous and somber discourse about our use of electronic gadgets to buffer us against genuine emotional and relational connection. Louis describes his reluctance to give his young daughter a cell phone, concerned that doing so may isolate her from interpersonal experiences crucial to her development of empathy and emotional sensitivity early in life. He goes on to describe the harmful emotional impact of a smart phone culture on adults: “You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away, the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.”
Louis describes how, in our compulsivity to check and use our smart phones, we have steadily lost our ability to sit still and experience real, genuine emotion. When a challenging emotion or thought enters the psyche, we are increasingly inclined to turn to a distraction to buffer against a conscious emotional state.
Though his monologue is half comedy bit and half cultural commentary, Louis C.K. is highlighting the importance of mindful attention to human emotional development and intimate relationships. Mindfulness can be characterized as the practice of maintaining awareness of the present moment, and thus noting and accepting thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations as they occur. One of the key tenants of mindfulness is neither avoiding nor becoming swept up in thoughts and emotions, but rather nonjudgmentally acknowledging these states of being and fully feeling them as invaluable human experiences. The mind can be understood as a muscle like any other, and with purposeful exercise it can be trained to remain focused on present states of being for sustained time periods.
Louis speaks of a profound instance in which he resisted the impulse to reach for his phone (or any other means of distraction or avoidance, really) in the awareness of emerging sadness: “…I said, ‘you know what, just be sad… Just stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck.’ And I let it come, and I just started to feel ‘oh my God,’ and I pulled over and I just cried… I cried so much. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments. And then I had happy feelings. Because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness. It was such a trip.”
As Louis asserts, there is great value to simply allowing ourselves to fully feel. We have numerous ways of trying to avoid real—and sometimes intense—emotions and intimate moments, yet these efforts may deprive us of poignant opportunities for emotional growth or intimate connection. Often we are unsuccessful in escaping what we are afraid of, and so it may linger unlived. Concluding his discourse, Louis captures this point succinctly: “The thing is, because we don’t want that first bit of sad, we push it… You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your product, and then you die.”
Louis C.K.’s lesson, here, reflects a growing mainstream awareness and integration of the tenets of mindfulness. Mindfulness practice has been strongly linked to a calming of the central nervous system and quieting of personal stress. The relevance of this practice continues to grow with the rapid acceleration of technology and an ever-expanding plethora of instantaneous distractions. These distractions often serve to distance us from the truest experiences and intimate connections of the human condition. We may be left with an underlying sense of something missing and a longing for more. As Louis astutely points out, the often-counterintuitive act of sitting with peak emotion may be the key to some of life’s most intensely beautiful experiences. As Thích Nhất Hạnh writes, “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.” Life is too short to go through it unfeeling.
A full video of Louis C.K.’s monologue can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HbYScltf1c
Yakov is a 3rd year doctoral student, instructor, and researcher of spirituality and psychological development in the clinical psychology program at Teachers College, Columbia University.