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The Great Cosmic Joke—Are You In On It?

Psychonauts often wax poetic about the mystical experience—but is laughter the true gateway to transcendence?

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A peculiar phrase pops up now and then in discussions of psychedelic experiences. Simple yet layered with complexity, the phrase tickles the mind, inspires conversation, and may even lead to a deeper understanding of how one can be happy amid all the quirks, contradictions, and challenges of life.

The “cosmic joke” is one of various philosophical and existential concepts arising from the human exploration of consciousness and altered states of mind. It has captured the imagination of many psychonauts and deep thinkers. Like any great joke, it can make you laugh until you cry, and like other profound revelations, it can make you cry until you laugh.

What is this mysterious concept that seems to turn people’s worldviews inside out, easing their everyday struggles by setting them in the context of a grander, cosmic perspective? What is the cosmic joke—and are you in on it?

What Is The Cosmic Joke?

The “cosmic joke” is often described as a realization that the universe, reality, or existence itself is somehow humorous or absurd. It is believed to be a moment of groundbreaking insight, which may take one’s entire life to achieve, where the nature of reality is revealed to be both profound and meaningless all the same time. In recognizing that we are small specks within an unthinkably vast universe on an infinitely long timeline, all human problems and sufferings are set in perspective, by which they take on an almost comical appearance. As Charlie Chaplin once said: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”

But that’s just one facet of the cosmic joke, which is not easily defined and looks different in the eye of each beholder. Psychonauts who have encountered the cosmic joke often emphasize that it involves the dissolution of rigid, dualistic thinking. The joke lies in the realization that concepts like good and bad, right and wrong, and self and other—concepts that we spend an enormous amount of time contemplating and believing in—are actually just arbitrary constructs perpetuated by the human mind. This understanding opens the door to a more inclusive and compassionate worldview, where laughter replaces judgment and acceptance transcends limitations.

READ: Yes, Psyhcedelics Change Our Metaphysical Beliefs

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Another aspect often associated with the cosmic joke is the revelation that the boundaries we perceive between ourselves and the external world are illusory. It hints at a deeper interconnectedness between all things, unveiling the unity of existence. This unity, once realized, can be experienced as a cosmic joke, where the distinction between the observer and the observed dissolves into a playful dance of consciousness.

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The cosmic joke is not about finding a definitive answer or unraveling the secrets of the universe. Instead, it invites individuals to embrace the vastness of the unknown and appreciate the inherent mystery of existence. It encourages a sense of awe and wonder, fostering a playful curiosity that finds humor and beauty in the enigmatic nature of life itself.

When Did The “Cosmic Joke” Idea Originate?

The concept of the cosmic joke lacks a precise origin. The idea that existence—or the way we approach it—is somehow fundamentally humorous has been entertained in different ways, in various languages and cultures, for centuries. You might see echoes of cosmic humor in Zen koans, which are little stories and statements that Zen practitioners use to gesture toward the paradoxes of reality, such as “the sound of one hand clapping,” or the dialogue in which a monk asks the teacher “what teaching transcends the Buddha?” and the teacher responds “a sesame bun.” Zen koans originated more than a thousand years ago. 

Looking at Western literary and philosophical writings, we see that some version of the “cosmic joke” idea had entered into popular discourse by the mid-eighteenth century, if not sooner, according to an analysis by literary scholar Alexander Welsh, who found traces of the idea in the work of thinkers like Bertrand Russell and Soren Kierkegaard.

Later, the idea gained traction among individuals who have undergone transformative psychedelic experiences. Indeed, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks the prevalence of words and concepts as they appear in books over time, the phrase “cosmic joke” first appeared in published English-language literature in 1955, around the time that the psychedelic movement was picking up steam in Western medicine and culture. This was also an era in which people in Europe and North America were increasingly exposed to the non-dualistic ideas of spiritual traditions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Daoism, which contributed to discussions of cosmic awareness.

READ: Your Brain on Psychedelics Might Look the Same as Your Brain on Religious Mysticism

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According to Google, appearances of the phrase “cosmic joke” in published books spiked for the first time in 1960, then again in 1982. In between those years, Andy Warhol published his 1980 memoir POPism, in which he observed that by the late Sixties, “the only person on LSD who had a sense of humor left was Timothy Leary … Everybody seemed to be taking the Cosmic Joke so seriously they didn’t want to make little uncosmic jokes.”

The phrase’s prevalence in published works doubled to its all-time peak in 1997, which also happens to be the year that a French techno track of the same name was released. Since then, the prevalence of this phrase has remained much higher than it was prior to the 1990s.

Does The Cosmic Joke Have Any Meaning?

Understanding or experiencing “the cosmic joke” itself not necessarily a hallmark of the psychedelic experience—it’s merely a phrase or a philosophy that can describe certain ways of relating to the universe. To get more scientific, psychedelics like psilocybin and psilocyn—the active components of magic mushrooms—can occasion mystical experiences. Scientists use certain criteria to describe a “mystical experience”: Those who have them may experience oneness, a sense of inner wisdom or intution, positive mood, and a dissolution of time and space. Laughter is also part-and-parcle in the psychedelic experience; psychedelic trips aren’t always funny, but euphoria, laughter, and grinning are common reactions to classical psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD. 

Still, some explorers use the language of the great cosmic joke” to describe their experiences. According to anecdotes shared by psychonauts, the cosmic joke is often associated with a fundamental shift in perspective, revealing the inherent absurdity and playfulness of life. Some describe it as a lighthearted awakening, wherein the seriousness and weightiness of existence are stripped away, leaving a sense of liberation and humor in its wake. This new lens challenges conventional beliefs and invites individuals to embrace life’s inherent paradoxes. On Reddit and Quora, posters have shared hilarious tales of epiphanies reached during psychedelic journeys, where laughter becomes a gateway to transcendence.

But the cosmic joke also has meaning to more traditional philosophical thinkers. In his work, Albert Camus, the maestro of the absurd, invites us to reflect on life’s inherent irrationality. From his perspective, the cosmic joke reveals itself in the absurdity of being confronted with a chaotic and indifferent universe while we strive to find meaning and purpose. In this cosmic stand-up routine, the laughter arises from our relentless pursuit of significance in a world that seems to offer none.

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Jean-Paul Sartre, another prominent existentialist voice, joins the cosmic comedy club with his profound insights on existential angst. For Sartre, the cosmic joke manifests in the anguish we experience when confronted with the freedom and responsibility to shape our own lives. As we grapple with the absurdity of existence, we can’t help but chuckle nervously at the irony of our predicament. Life, it seems, is a theater where we simultaneously play the roles of both actor and spectator.

The cosmic joke has also held great meaning to a variety of spiritual teachers and seekers across the world, as we will see in this next section with some famous quotes about the cosmic joke.

What Have People Said About The Great Cosmic Joke?

The general idea of a cosmic joke has been expounded by everyone ranging from religious thinkers like Osho and Thích Nhất Hạnh, to philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus, to comedians and actors like Charlie Chaplin and George Carlin, and psychonauts like Terrence McKenna and Ram Dass. 

Rajneesh, the Indian spiritualist and mystic also known as Osho, wrote extensively about the idea of life as a cosmic joke. While Western religions often center concepts regarded as solemn or even frightening, Osho pointed out that images of the Buddha are usually depicted as laughing because “Buddhas laugh when they awaken.” Osho is also sometimes quoted saying: “Life, as it is, should be enough of a reason to laugh. It is so absurd; it is so ridiculous. It is so beautiful; it is so wonderful. It is all sorts of things together. It is a great cosmic joke.”

The Vietnamese monk and activist Thích Nhất Hạnh, who had a significant influence on the practice of Buddhism in the West, once said, “I laugh when I think how I once sought paradise as a realm outside of the world of birth… But this is not the laughter of someone who suddenly acquires a great fortune; neither is it the laughter of one who has won a victory. It is, rather, the laughter of one who, after having painfully searched for something for a long time, finds it one morning in the pocket of his coat.”

In the 1971 comedy film “They Might Be Giants,” the character Justin Playfair (a judge who imagines himself to be Sherlock Holmes after his wife’s death) says the following: “Dear friends, would those of you who know what this is all about please raise your hands? I think if God is dead, he laughed himself to death. Because, you see, we live in Eden. Genesis has got it all wrong. We never left the Garden. Look at you. This is paradise. It’s hard to find, I, I’ll grant you, but it is here. Under our feet, beneath the surface, all around us is everything we want. The earth is shining under the soot. We are all fools. Ha ha.”

Finally, famed psychonaut and spiritual teacher Ram Dass wrote in his seminal 1971 text Be Here Now: “The cosmic humor is that if you desire to move mountains and you continue to purify yourself, ultimately you will arrive at the place where you are able to move mountains. But in order to arrive at this position of power, you will have had to give up being he-who-wanted-to-move-mountains so that you can be he-who-put-the-mountain-there-in-the-first-place. The humor is that finally, when you have the power to move the mountain, you are the person who placed it there—so there the mountain stays.” 

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There is a common thread to all these quotations from thinkers of diverse origins: When we realize that we can only be where we are meant to be, the only response is to laugh. 

So, do you get it now?

DoubleBlind Magazine does not encourage or condone any illegal activities, including but not limited to the use of illegal substances. We do not provide mental health, clinical, or medical services. We are not a substitute for medical, psychological, or psychiatric diagnosis, treatment, or advice. If you are in a crisis or if you or any other person may be in danger or experiencing a mental health emergency, immediately call 911 or your local emergency resources. If you are considering suicide, please call 988 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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