“If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise.” –William Blake
Most of us are familiar with the prototypical clowns: red-nosed clowns, court jesters, and Tarot fools. But sacred clowns take clowning to a whole other level. The Ne’wekwe “mud-eaters” were the Zuni equivalent of a sacred clown. The Cherokee had sacred clowns known as Boogers who performed “Booger dances” around a community fire.
In Tibetan Buddhism it’s referred to as Crazy Wisdom, which the Guru adopts in order to shock their students out of fixed cultural and psychological patterns. But perhaps the most popular type of sacred clown is the Lakota equivalent of Heyoka, a contrary thunder shaman who taught through backwards humor.
Almost all types of sacred clowns combine trickster spirit with shamanic wisdom to create a kind of sacred tomfoolery that keeps the zeitgeist in check. Their methods are unconventional and typically antithetical to the status quo, but extremely effective. They indirectly re-enforce societal customs by directly enforcing their own powerful sense of humor into the social dynamic. They show by bad example how not to behave.
The main function of a sacred clown is to deflate the ego of power by reminding those in power of their own fallibility, while also reminding those who are not in power that power has the potential to corrupt if not balanced with other forces, namely with humor. But sacred clowns don’t out-rightly derive things. They’re not comedians, per se, though they can be. They are more like tricksters, poking holes in things that people take too seriously.
Through acts of satire and showy displays of blasphemy, sacred clowns create a cultural dissonance born from their Crazy Wisdom, from which anxiety is free to collapse on itself into laughter. Sacred seriousness becomes sacred anxiety which then becomes sacred laughter. But without the courageous satire of the sacred clown, there would only ever be the overly-serious, prescribed state of cultural conditioning.
Lest we write our lives off to such stagnated states, we must become something that has the power to perpetually overcome itself. The sacred clown has this power. Christ was a sacred clown, mocking the orthodoxy. Buddha was a sacred clown, mocking ego attachment. Even Gandhi was a sacred clown, mocking money and power.
Like Thomas Merton wrote, “In a world of tension and breakdown, it is necessary for there to be those who seek to integrate their inner lives not by avoiding anguish and running away from problems, but by facing them in their naked reality and in their ordinariness.” Sacred clowns are the epitome of such integration.
Heyokas, for example, remind their people that Wakan tanka, the great mystery, is beyond good and evil; that its primordial nature doesn’t correspond to human platitudes of right and wrong. Heyokas act as mirrors, reflecting the mysterious dualities of the cosmos back onto their people. They walk the Red Road, following in the bloody footprints left behind by their Heyoka fore-brothers.
They go forward, to that place where emptiness is full, and fullness empty. “As a representative of Thunderbird and Trickster,” writes Steve Mizrach, “the heyoka reminds his people that the primordial energy of nature is beyond good and evil. It doesn’t correspond to human categories of right and wrong. It doesn’t always follow our preconceptions of what is expected and proper. It doesn’t really care about our human woes and concerns. Like electricity, it can be deadly dangerous, or harnessed for great uses. If we’re too narrow or parochial in trying to understand it, it will zap us in the middle of the night.”
Sacred clowns are adept at uniting joy with pain, acting on the higher and more inscrutable imperatives of the Great Mystery. They tend to govern transition, introduce paradox, blur boundaries, and mix the sacred with the profane. They are called upon to reestablish the bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds. They dare to ask the questions that nobody wants answers to.
They are the uncontrollable avatars of the Trickster archetype, constant reminders of the contingency and arbitrariness of the social order, poking holes in anything taken too seriously, especially anything assuming the guise of power. They are a conduit to forces that defy comprehension, and by their absurd, backwards behavior, they are merely showing the ironic, mysterious dualities that exist within the universe itself.
Sacred clowns understand that humans fail, and failing means that sometimes we need to change. They remind us that the goal is not to stick to the same old path, but to embrace the vicissitudes of life and to discover new paths and the courage it takes to adapt and overcome. Taking the universe into deep consideration, letting it be, and then letting it go, is far superior to clinging to a “belief” and becoming stuck in a particular view. Sacred clowns realize that the highest wisdom lies in this type of counter-intuitive detachment, in accepting that nothing remains the same, and then being proactive about what it means to change.
Most importantly, they teach us that there is no such thing as an enlightened master. We’re all spiritually dumb. The closest we can ever get to being “enlightened” is simply to understand that we are naïve to it, and then to laugh about it together as a community. Sacred clowns have the ability to plant this seed of sacred humor. They are constantly in the throes of metanoia, disturbing the undisturbed, comforting the uncomfortable and freeing the unfree. They remind us, as Rumi did, that “the ego is merely a veil between humans and God.”
In a world that doesn’t understand that boundaries can be transformed into horizons, the Sacred Clown stands as periphery keeper. They are forever vigilant, forever circumspect, and forever full of unconditional humor. The world is a playground, and they are on recess. Nothing stands outside their absolute grip on griplessness. In the Path of the Sacred Clown I described the basic function of the sacred clown. Here I put forth seven signs in which you may already be one.
1) You have a robust spiritual flexibility
“Doing as others told me, I was Blind. Coming when others called me, I was Lost. Then I left everyone, myself as well. Then I found Everyone, Myself as well.” – Rumi
You understand that faith without doubt is spiritually myopic, leading to naïve presumption; and that doubt without faith is spiritually hyperopic, leading to the bondage of reason. Both leave the third-eye blind. Faithful doubt, or doubtful faith, leads to the opening of the third eye and dissolves the opaque weight of heaven and hell, thereby freeing the spirit… not from anything but for something: A good sense of humor. And so you choose to be motivating, but not manipulated. To be useful, not used. To make changes, not excuses. To excel, not compete. You choose self-esteem over self-pity through a humor of the most high.
You listen to your inner voice and not to the random opinions of others, although you take them into consideration as integral aspects of your art. You choose to do things others won’t, so you can continue doing things others cannot. You mix the sacred with the profane, and mock the religiosity that gets caught up at any point in between. You’re the ultimate governor of transitions from one state to another. You have been called upon to reestablish the bridge between the physical world and the spiritual world through the sacred art of metaphor and play.
2) You deflate the Ego and animate the Soul
“The most exciting phrase to hear in life, the only one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’, but rather, ‘hmm… that’s funny…’” -Isaac Asimov
Your ego is clay, malleable and puppet-like. It is your tool for higher transformation, rather than a weight that drowns you in the mundane. You use it to inject wakefulness into an otherwise somnambulant world. Your ego is secure enough to be vulnerable and ignite the fire that becomes Soul. As the ego deflates, your soul blossoms, and assumes the interdependent state of eco-consciousness, subsuming cosmos. Your self-expression is your art, animating an otherwise inanimate world. Half-animal half-divine, Hermes-like and Mercurial, your feet are roots that dance and your hands are wings that fly. You are torn between Worm and God, but you appreciate the tearing. At the end of the day, ego is the tool you use to leverage the universe and soul is the instrument you use to harmonize with the universe.
3) You embrace Uncertainty
“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure about anything.” –Richard Feynman
You have the ability to let go of certainty, understanding that the opposite of certainty isn’t uncertainty, but openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than to choose sides. You question things to the nth degree, understanding that healthy skepticism is an open door for novelty and other-worldliness to come in. You are adept at introducing paradox, as you are okay with being a walking paradox yourself. You humiliate your certitude, recognizing that a background of mystery always remains.
You daily practice the art of open-mindedness, and consistently embrace the art of hypocrisy, understanding that we are all fallible creatures who are prone to mistakes and tend to be afraid of being wrong. You have no fear of being wrong. You have the uncanny ability to capitalize on your mistakes by making all stumbles, falls, or missteps a part of the overall sacred dance. You are Drunken Master. You are Jester Guru. Your duty is to crack open the hard shell of certainty to reveal the uncertain Godling softly blooming inside us all.
4) You have the ability to hold the tension between Opposites
“The trickster is the embodiment of contradiction, creator and destroyer of norms, clown, monster, giver of fire, creator of worlds. Having such a confounding figure at the center of one’s worldview helps to keep the mind nimble as it moves between opposites, both creating meaning and tearing it down to make room for new creation.” –Louis G. Herman
You have the ability to live between worlds, preferring the peripheral neither-nor to the limiting either-or. Your shadow is white; your halo is black. Both daemonic and shamanic, you blur boundaries and transform them into horizons. coinsidencia oppositorum, a unity of opposites, is your call to arms. You realize that only by throwing ourselves off our high-horse, by diving off the pedestal, by laughing at what before we took too seriously, can we stretch ourselves into becoming.
You stimulate others to think dialectically, coaxing them to stay open to the flow of thought from thesis to antithesis to synthesis to Metathesis and back. Your skills pull light into dark and launch the gray into sparks that catch fire to consciousness. You are the tug-o-war rope between ought and naught, balancing like Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Except God is not dead, for you know that we are all our own gods creating and destroying the world through our own myth and art. You’re the infinite player tripping up the floundering finite players, because you understand that Reason operates in service to Imagination, not vice versa.
5) You promote radical egalitarianism and mock all tyranny
“There is something in the nature of all play that is not serious, but at the same time can be sincere.” –Alan Watts
You understand that modern day societies cannot stand real fundamental criticism, whereas tribal societies were strong, healthy and secure exactly because they could withstand real criticism. The main reason for this was because of the role of the sacred clown. As a sacred clown, you understand the necessary function of deflating the power dynamic of any system of human governance, especially “absolute” power. You remind those in power of their own fallibility by planting memes, insurgent music, satire, and rebellious art like seeds into their fragile invulnerability.
You empower the average individual to become a proactive citizen by promoting radical egalitarianism, thus curing the system of nature-deprivation and anoia, the disease of the soul that results when we forget our partnership in the sacred community of being. You understand that human beings have an innate need to expand consciousness and to experience direct relationship with the divine, and that spiritual impoverishment is directly related to our nature-deprivation, our systematic enslavement of each other, our bureaucratizing of the soul, and our misunderstanding of the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. Thus, through your art, you count coup on any and all tyrannical systems.
6) You’re an amoral agent par excellence
“In an atonal world one must oppose it in such a way that one compels it to tonalize itself.”
You amorally rebel; therefore morality exists. You’re the medium, the go-between, the impossible bridge. You understand that the charm of life exists precisely in its inconstancy. Between essence and appearance there is consciousness, there is you, existing in a delicate pirouette of transcendence and immanence, a coup de théâtre of higher awareness. But your amorality is sacred: with the understanding that one must be amoral in order to transform immoral action into moral fortitude.
Your way of taking this immoral world seriously is to disrupt it amorally and then give it a moral form. Dionysian, your art is jest and madness, mockery and frenzy, tomfoolery and balderdash, tautology and malapropism, but it balances the Apollonian forces of order, rigidness, ennui, apathy, reason, contentment, logic and boredom, resulting in an even playing field of open-ended Meta-realization. You are the perennial Jesterado: a bold outlaw clown. You openly declare to the world, “You can have your moral high ground; I’ll stick with my amoral middle ground, and astonish you all.”
7) You move between metaphor and reality by contrary means
“Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious.” – Rum
You understand that Metaphor is the ingredient added to the recipe of language that makes “the pen mightier than the sword.” It is a way of dreaming away from the world only to return with new knowledge (sacred elixir) in tow. You are coyote & crow, fox & phoenix. In practical realms there lies radical hope, and you are the walking personification of that hope, walking “backward” when others are walking “forward,” inverting language when others are being direct, twisting circles into infinity symbols and back, playing devil’s advocate. You are the Trickster God personified.
You are the Human Leitmotif. You are the Heyoka that subsumes all Heyokas past, present and future. Through your myth and metaphor the world takes on a majestic meaning and an enchantment that goes beyond merely a “self” with an “I” observing the “object” of the “moon.” Through myth and metaphor “I” and the “moon” become sacred things, interconnected and synergistic, and you subsume both through artistic self-expression, donning moon-mask, dog-mask, eagle-mask, whale-mask, ALL masks, in your sacred dance over the abyss of the human condition.