Humor has an enduring quality that ensures the transmission of certain ideas couched in a humorous framework. Humor cannot be prevented from spreading; it has a way of slipping through the patterns of thought which are imposed upon mankind by habit and design. Humor is important as a spiritual technique because it is an eminently practical rather than theoretical tool in helping free the human mind from conditioned thinking and behavior.
Certain jokes and humorous tales contain both an experiential and inner nutritional content. The fact that a fruit tastes delicious does not mean that it cannot have food value. Hence, a joke is enough to awaken a ripe mind. Humor can produce a sudden switch-over from one way of looking at things to another by breaking expectations and mental patterns. The indirect approach of humor “can slip behind the defenses of our usual logic and pierce the protective armor of conventional thought.”
Metaphysical jokes and tales are intended to challenge the consciousness and may be viable in several different ranges of meaning. Jokes are structures, and in their, for instance, Sufi usage they may fulfill many different functions. Just as we may get the humor nutrient out of a joke, we can also get several dimensions out of it on various occasions: there is no standard meaning of a joke. Different people will see different contents in it; and pointing out some of its possible usages will not, if we are used to this method, rob it of its efficacy. The same person, again, may see different sides to the same joke according to his varying states of understanding or even mood. The joke, like the non-humorous teaching-story, thus presents us with a choice instrument of illustration and action. How a person reacts to a joke will also tell us, and possibly him or her, what his blocks and assumptions have been, and can help dissolve them, to everyone’s advantage.
A sense of humor, or lack of it, is a reliable guide for distinguishing between real and false spiritual teachers. “The way to flush people out who keep their inflexibility hidden is to test whether they can endure humor or not.” Traditionally it has been noted by genuine mystics that the professionals, those who have no enlightenment but plenty of obsession, can be easily discovered because they lack a sense of humor. Humor, here, be it noted, is not to be assumed in those who merely giggle a lot, or those who understand only the banana-skin variety: indeed, these two forms of behavior are the types most often found in pseudo-mystics. As a shock-applier and tension-releaser and an indicator of false situations, humor, certainly to the Sufi in traditional usage, is one of the most effective instruments and diagnostic aids.
Humor may be used to convey important ideas that otherwise could not penetrate a person’s conditioned responses and subjective opinions. What appears on the surface as jests are in fact structures formulated to bring into cognition patterns which the mind finds it difficult or impossible to render and receive in any other way. Humorous puzzles and jokes may be employed to provide timely illustrations of the ways in which the mind typically works. A joke will sometimes help a disciple to see his real situation: though not always at the very moment when it is told.