In my experience, Laughter Yoga and the many benefits it brings can, and often does, lead to powerful healing and profound transformation in people. In this post I’ll be sharing my recent experience within the community of Grenfell Tower with Simba the Husky and discussing the importance of delivering Laughter Yoga with the lightest of touches, in the most sensitive of environments.
Sometimes laughter is not appropriate and my recent visit to the community of Grenfell Tower was one such example that pushed my courage and ability as a Laughter Ambassador to its very limits and beyond.
Hopefully this post will help others to reflect on the importance of the intention behind their Laughter Yoga practice and encourage those that feel ready to help others to do so, especially when and where it’s needed the most.
Just six weeks after the Grenfell Tower disaster, Simba and I received a request from grass-roots activist and community artist Sophie Lodge at #24Hearts (representing the 24 floors of the tower), to visit the community, lend a hand where we could and share some smiles in the lead up to Notting Hill Carnival.
I didn’t know Sophie at all, but she told me that she had attended one of my workshops at a festival in 2015 and now felt very strongly that it would be good to have my input.
How could I refuse? A request to help others, in a place I didn’t know, with so many in need, from a person I barely knew. So, of course, I listened to my heart, acknowledged the call, gave thanks and said yes.
Sophie Lodge, Visionary Community Artist and Founder of #24Hearts. www.24hearts.org. The, now iconic, ‘ComeUnity’ installation at Notting Hill Carnival, 2016.
When Tim and I founded Laughter Time as a Social Enterprise in 2015, we did so with a strong pull towards helping others to live a happier and healthier life. Those that know us well, know that money and power is not our driving force at all. No, despite having lots of business management skills between us, we get our kicks from helping others and co-creating an even more beautiful world of love and laughter. It’s just how we roll.
And so it followed that in February of 2016, without fully knowing the what, the when or the how, we spoke to our bank manager and formerly constituted The Laughter Foundation to raise funds and provide help and hope to those in need.
With Grenfell Tower as our first chosen cause and The Laughter Foundation as our vehicle, we now needed to raise the funds necessary to complete the delivery of our task.
After some research and rough calculations we launched our JustGiving campaign to raise a total of £500 with a video to outline our mission. https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/laughter-foundation-grenfell-tower
The Journey Begins
On Sunday 13th August we woke at 06:00. Our train was not due until 09:52 but we still had a few jobs to do before leaving. I always like to travel light wherever I go, but this time it was essential, as I had to carry all of Simba’s belongings and food too. We had a light breakfast and a long walk before making our way to the train station. Our adventure was about to begin.
I re-homed Simba in February and to my knowledge he’s never been to a City before or travelled anywhere by train. We both feel most at home in the forests and hills and this was going to really push our powers of concentration to the limit. I had to stay calm and focussed, show him the way and keep us both safe but I also had to accept that we were both going deep into the unknown and have total trust that everything would work out perfectly. We needed each other.
Our journey begins.
To my joy, Simba took to public transport like a duck to water. Despite the clanking of iron and hissing of brakes as the train came into the station, the beeps and whooshing of the doors as they opened, he was not fazed at all and we hopped on, took our seats, made some friends and continued our journey to Birmingham, Simba’s first big city.
The time passed quickly with all the new smells and happenings, we disembarked swiftly at Birmingham New Street and made our way on foot, across town to Moor Street station where we would catch our final connection to London, Marylebone.
Our next train was full due to a cancelation elswhere on the line, so we found a spot against the door and made ourselves as comfortable as possible. Hahahah. There wasn’t much we could do about it, acceptance was the key and with his usual coolness, Simba remained calm, took his place and was good as gold for the remaining 1hr 45mins journey to London. What a star.
Floor space only on the fast train to London.
Arrival in London
Our train was on time and we arrived at Marylebone at 13:40. It was quieter than normal with it being a Sunday afternoon so after a quick bowl of water on the platform, whilst everyone else hurried off the train, we tightened our belts/collar, hitched up our rucksack and went for it.
I’d previously done some homework and knew that the walk from Marylebone would take about an hour which I thought would give us a chance to stretch our legs before meeting our contact in Portobello. We turned right onto the main road and was met by a terrific onslaught of heat, noise and fumes as we joined the A40 Westway. In just a short while we joined the canal and had a lovely walk along the towpath via little Venice, which has always been one of my favourite places in London.
The first thing that immediately became apparent was how much attention Simba was getting. Never before have I stopped and chatted to so many people in London. It was quite amazing to witness the instant connection he made with people. He’s a very gentle and noble dog and seemed to really enjoy the friendly welcome to the city he was getting from passersby. In particular I stopped and sat for a while with a man who was homeless. We shared some time talking about Simba and what life on the street was like. It was beautiful to be on no fixed schedule and just allow ourselves to be fearlessly guided… my favourite way to journey through life.
Simba enjoyed the canal side walk, a reminder that nature was not so far away, and a short while later we arrived at Portobello Green, our pre-arranged rendezvous point with Sophie. The whole area was vibrating with deep reggae beats from enormous sound systems as we’d arrived in the middle of the Notting Hill Pioneers Festival, a smaller gathering to celebrate the people that are central to the success of Notting Hill Carnival (now in its 51st year).
Simba’s attention continued to grow as we mingled with the crowd and I enjoyed connecting with anyone who was interested in getting to know him better. Old or young, black or white, rich or poor he touches them all. He’s an absolute star and I was so proud of him. We had arrived. We were now totally immersed into the heart of the community that had been so deeply affected by the fire and we were already connecting and raising some smiles and chuckles. I felt honoured to be there and a great sense of responsibility to remain sensitive, focus on the positive and bring some peace if I could, if only for a few brief days.
The Notting Hill Pioneers Festival at the heart of the Community.
It was a relief to finally meet Sophie again who easily spotted us in the crowd. Simba and I had been generously given the loan of her Air B&B for a few days and after a short walk and a small flight of stairs we were able to finally take off our rucksack and catch our breath. This was to be our safe haven during our stay. It was comfortable, had everything we would need and I felt very well looked after indeed.
After a quick bowl of water we were out onto the streets again and a few minutes later we found ourselves four stories up and on the roof terrace of the historic KPH pub at Ladbroke Grove. And then it hit me.
The historic Kensington Park Hotel.
The charred, wet, horrific remains of Grenfell Tower stood out all on its own. It was so close. So big. Just two or three streets away. Sophie told me that it was from here that they had watched the inferno take hold. My heart stopped, and my gut wrenched as I stood, struggling to comprehend the suffering. Transfixed. The silence was deafening. Time had stopped. This was a community in shock. I felt numb.
Before retiring for the night, Simba and I took our first evening walk in the city. The light was beginning to fade as we paced out a circuit around our home base. The streets were quiet and under the Westway viaduct, at the base of the tower we met a lovely old lady who was tidying the shrine and tending to the flowers. Every day since the fire, she had done this. Being of service in the best way that she knew how.
She seemed intrigued by Simba and so I asked her if she’d had a stroke. She looked at me blankly and then I realised my mistake “I mean a stroke of the dog, not an actual stroke”. He face instantly lightened, we laughed heartily together and it felt good.
When the light had finally gone, the energy also appeared to darken and it was time for us to acknowledge the signs, quit while we were ahead and call an end to our first very long day.
Working the Streets
We woke early with the sun. The unfamiliar sounds of the jungle and dawn chorus of commuters had made for a restless sleep and Simba was keen to get straight out for his morning walk in the local park.
From the moment we left the flat Simba was working his magic. There’s something very special about him and this is particularly apparent in the city where Wolf/Snow Dogs are so rare. People just can’t help but to connect with him. It’s as if his very presence reminds them of something deep within themselves, something primal, their own true nature. Kindness. Happiness. Oneness. Love.
We spent the morning getting our bearings. Stopping and chatting to whoever caught our eye, sharing a smile, a moment of time, some kindness, compassion and conversation whenever possible until finally we arrived at Maxilla Gardens, the ‘pop-up’ headquarters of the #24hearts community project.
The #24hearts community project at Maxilla Gardens
Sharing the Love.
Since the morning after the night before, Sophie had been making, and teaching others to make, waxed tissue paper hearts from bay 19 ¾ below the Westway (A40). Now, with a small group of volunteers the work had expanded into tidying up the gardens themselves. Just a few weeks ago the scene was quite different, but today new seeds were being planted in the hearts of all those who came.
Sophie soon had a small crowd of children busy making hearts in advance of the carnival and Simba was very happy to take a break and share some of his love with his new admirers.
As much as I could see the positive affect that Simba and I were having on people I still felt unsure of the exact purpose of my role. I am the sort of person that likes clarity and vision. I see complex situations like a puzzle and enjoy the process of seeing patterns and methodically making sense of things. But this time things were different. Very different.
Confusion, bewilderment, uncertainty, suffering, despair and anger hung thick in the air. The remains of the tower loomed heavily over the whole community and with Notting Hill Carnival less than two weeks away, I could feel the pressure that people were under, all around me.
I wanted to help but didn’t know. With Simba always on a lead in one hand I felt quite useless at times. Just standing around like a spare part and watching the world go by. I felt like an outsider, with a wolf, in the city, a long way from home and our normal routines.
Just then we were greeted by local resident Anita and her dog Bella, who was ready for a stroll and so we did another circuit of the streets around the tower.
Being a woman with her ear to the ground, with several generations of family in the area, Anita gave me the low down and made me feel very welcome. Every street corner, every railing, every community building, every church door, every pub was decorated with flowers and messages of peace and love. I felt honoured to spend this time connecting with Anita, she was very kind, the sky was blue and peace had returned to my heart.
It was then that I let go of my desire to know the answer and accepted the ambiguity and uncertainty of the situation with a smile and complete trust. My number one priority was for the safety and wellbeing of Simba. I stopped beating myself up and starting instead to make the most of every moment of connection we were having on the streets and in the parks, however brief they may be, with no intention other than to share unconditional love and listen for a brief moment in time.
Simba catching some zzz’s well after a hard day at work in the city.
I cannot begin to understand the extent of the hardships faced every day by the community around Grenfell Tower. I witnessed extreme poverty and tragic destruction standing cheek by jowl against the profligacy of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Black communities marginalised, victimised and criminalised. Homeless people taking shelter in the doorways of empty houses owned by overseas property investors. The haves and the have nots. A world of separation, fear and ruthless competition.
Underneath the Westway viaduct in the shadow of the tower, a ‘Fight for Justice and Unity’ protest meeting had started. The mostly black community were angry and with very good reason, but calls for peace and unity from respected community elders were met with cheers of agreement and applause from the crowd.
It seemed as though the tragedy of the tower itself was just one more heavy blow, amongst many that this multicultural community had to bear.
As night once again began to follow day, I realised that forgiveness must come first before love can freely flow. At some point someone just needs to let go of the grievance. If we’re waiting for someone to come forward and apologise for the suffering and hardship that has been caused by countless generations of people, then we’ll be waiting for ever. On the other hand, we can take control of our own lives now and actively forgive those who have trespassed against us. We can just let go of the hot coal that burns us so badly. Forgiveness is in fact, an act of self-love.
This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions. But two wrongs do not make a right. Hurt people, hurt people. They know not what they do. In forgiving others we do not absolve them of their guilt, nor allow them to reoffend once discovered. We do however, give ourselves the gift of loving kindness and the space we need to heal our old wounds and positively move forward in life. If love is the answer then forgiveness of self and other must be the key.
A Social Movement for Positive Change
With each day came a new set of faces with unknown life stories attached and Simba diligently continued his gentle healing work. I seized every opportunity to make eye contact with strangers, to smile and share a light-hearted chuckle or two if that were possible.
Laughter Yoga for me is so much more than running workshops, training courses and events. It’s actually more akin to a global social movement for positive change. I believe that laughter, kindness, compassion and love are our natural states of being. It’s what the universe wants for us and anything other than that which brings us joy is a form of resistance to what is. A corruption of the truth. Swimming against the flow, if you like.
The physical act of authentic, heart-centred laughter with (not at) another is a gift of unconditional love. Laughter helps us to open up the gaps in our shield of protection, allowing the light to come in once again. The healing effects of sustained belly laughter are deep, powerful and almost instantaneous.
Compassion, however, is crucial. Listening to, understanding and meeting the other person exactly where they are at, before gently guiding them, at their own speed, towards finding their own inner joy is the way to achieve lasting benefits.
To change a community there must first be an individual desire to change and this is exactly where Laughter Yoga can come into play. Practicing Laughter Yoga is about regularly nudging our physical and emotional state back into the positive. From this standpoint we can focus on what’s ‘right’ with our lives instead of what’s ‘wrong’ with it. We shift our attention to wellness instead of illness. We remember to focus on what we do want, rather than what we don’t want. We are consciously shifting our own physical, emotional and energetic state from one of desire and suffering to one of acceptance and joy in the present moment.
We get what we focus on. What we put our attention to becomes our reality, so we may as well focus on what’s good in the world. Turn off the telly and focus on the love that is all around us.
Simba hard at work
We spent our final morning in London walking the streets as we had done for the past three days. We were looking forward to heading back to the hills again but also wanted to make the most of our last few hours in the City.
As we stopped outside a church one of the handmade messages caught my eye. “Love wins”. It’s true. Love will always win. Always. Love is our default position. Just like an elastic band, we can stretch away and deny the truth as much as we like, but when all resistance is gone, we will return to our natural state of unconditional love. It is inevitable.
We come from love, we are made of love and we return to love. This is central to all Yogic teachings and Laughter Yoga is no different. It might sound a bit hippie to some, but to me it is both logical and scientific.
Evolution will always favour what works best and getting along and helping each other to thrive is what works best for all. The trees, all the animals and insects, the plants and microorganisms all work together, in harmony to maintain a sustainable equilibrium. Today an increasing number of people are talking about the Love Revolution but it seems to me that it’s much more about the natural ‘Evolution’ of our species to live in harmony with all once again.
The last word from Grenfell Tower.
We made our way back along the towpath and towards Marylebone stopping as we always had for a few extra strokes here and there.
Our final interaction was with a man who had tears in his eyes as he hugged and kissed Simba with such affection. He told me he was homeless and I was humbled and became tearful to witness the love that poured from this man. Another good soul that, through a lack of love, had learnt to find his solace from alcohol and was now living on the streets. It touched me deeply. I loved him.
We took our place on the afternoon train to avoid the rush hour as much as possible and seamlessly travelled North once again. The trains were mostly empty and Simba stretched out, snoozed and dreamt about chasing rabbits. From Birmingham we changed at Shrewsbury and by tea time we were safely back home and in front of the fire.
Our trip was now over and had been made possible by the gracious support of many amazing people.
In total we raised £445 from 23 very generous people, as well as many more who liked, shared and followed our posts and gave us the confidence we needed to continue in trust.
As we had been gifted our accommodation our total costs for the four days amounted to just £69.10, consisting of a return train fare to London (£41.00) and a fee to Just Giving of £28.10.
The final balance stands at £375.90 and is available for the next time it’s needed.
Of course the 23 people who supported us financially deserve a special thank you from me but I’d rather do that privately and in person so as not to embarrass anyone publically…. but you all know who you are and I am deeply grateful for your individual encouragement and support. It means so much.
With love and laughter,
Wes and Simba.
PS – Now play this. 🙂