“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children … to leave the world a better place … to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Today I'm joined by a special someone who brings joy, laughter, and caring into this world is some very amazing ways. Please help me welcome Katie West! Katie is the brilliance behind The Levity Project (more about that below), where I first had the opportunity to connect with her this past summer. She also has a coaching service, Levity Life Coaching, encompassing life coaching and laughter yoga. Today Katie and I sit down and talk about her life, and how she has arrived at where she is today.
Please read along as I ask Katie some challenging questions!
1. Tell us a little bit about who "you" are (family, career, any special life experiences you’d like to share, etc.)
I am an eternal adventurer. I am hard wired to see every experience as a new journey leading to unexpected results. So much so, that I parent that way, work that way, love that way. More recently, I have realized what a meditation that has become in my life. No matter what is going on I try to see it as an explorer would look at a new land with all of the excitement of the potential trials and celebrations.
I probably have this approach because I led wilderness sailing trips for many years up the coast of Maine with teenagers, as well as living on a boat for the better part of several years. I think this time period of being a wilderness guide truly shaped my outlook on life. I had always been a very spontaneous person which was helpful in adapting to the challenges of being a guide and captain of a boat, yet what the experience impressed most upon me was the importance of good planning, being organized and having a clear vision of where one wants to go. I think it somehow created a balance of my two sides.
I love wilderness expeditions because they truly bring us face to face with our “Oh no!” moments and provide an opportunity to move beyond them so that what has held us back is now no longer holding us.
Also, it has been so useful to approach parenting this way as I am a mom of two children, two and four years old. I have joked so many times that each day of parenting somehow holds inside it both ecstasy and insurmountable challenge. And the only way through it, is to allow the experience to run its course, or better said, to see myself as fully in the flow of the river of what is happening. This includes treasured moments such as once when I was gave my kids my homemade finger paint (which I was so proud of) only to watch it get flung to the floor, ceiling, windows, and onto little bellies! Within that moment was everything: the delight of creating, sharing, playing, and the challenge of cleaning, cleaning, cleaning! (Note: I finally gave up and photographed the mischief.)
My family means everything to me; I want my children to grow up to be joyful, confident, thoughtful, and open minded people. And in order to do this it is how my husband and I must live to set the example.
In this way, my work as a coach helps people to discover or re-discover their inner light-heartedness, or levity, is a great reminder to enjoy the moment….good or challenging and allow a sense of buoyancy to reign knowing there will be a new discovery momentarily
One of my stickers for The Levity Project says, “Powered by Laughter” and naturally, I have it on everything, my car, my coffee mug, my computer. And I cannot tell you how fabulous it has been when I am in a grumbly mood to go into the coffee shop and hand over my mug-only to see the reminder to allow laughter to be my fuel and not whatever state I might be in that is not serving me, my family, or the world. It is an instant shift! It really helps me to have this accountability on those inevitably grumpy days.
Lance's Commentary: Hey, I think I have a t-shirt that says "Powered by Laughter"! (thanks Katie!!) And I have to think that the whole sailing experience really helped to shape the foundation from which you base living on today. Very cool, adventure girl! Let the mischief continue…
2. You have started a movement called The Levity Project. Tell us about the inspiration behind that, and how long you have been doing this.
The Levity Project started in March 2009 when I was in New York City for a weekend. While I was there, I had this fantastic experience on the subway. As I was riding a long, I had my headphones on and was dancing a little bit with my eyes closed. I began to smile this huge grin (it was one of the first times away from both children-so I was in awe of the time alone). When I opened my eyes, I realized people were staring and not smiling back-some even frowning at me. And I simultaneously felt deeply connected to everyone and quite sad that it would pain people to see someone happy and enjoying her day.
That weekend, I vowed to myself that I would do something to make a difference. I had never seen myself before as an activist of any sort. But I knew I wanted to actively be a part of a movement that supports the idea of living with more joy, laughter, and play. Immediately, the name “The Levity Project” came to me…because I had been kicking around the word “levity” in my head for a couple of months. I had just learned that the old (rare as of 1913 Merriam’s) definition of levity was “buoyancy-being lighter than that which surrounds us”. What struck me about this is that the idea of buoyancy does not deny what is hard or pretend that it is not there, it just means we have a right to feel freer or lighter than what is happening. What was also interesting is that today’s dictionary definition of levity sounds unappealing, “inappropriate humor, lack of appropriate seriousness, irreverence.” How could we forget and dismiss the definition of gaiety and buoyancy?
That was when I began to joke that my goal was to bring buoyancy back! The Levity Project’s goal is to create a paradigm shift to a lighter and more buoyant society. My hope is that by engaging in public acts of laughter, play and celebration, we can inspire a re-emergence into collective joy. Ultimately, I think it is about awakening to what can be.
Lance's Commentary: Katie, I've had the opportunity twice now, to experience a "levity project" in action. One with your assistance in setting it up, and another together with you. Both of these events are real (reel?) highlights from the past year! And if they even make one person's day just a little brighter, it is so worth it (and I'll say that my day was definitely brighter after both of these experiences!). Hey, I even have these really cool umbrella hats I got out of the deal!!
3. You are a season of the year – what would you choose and why?
A season of the year? I love them all for different reasons. In fact, when my daughter was born, one of the songs being played was Sting’s song that has the lyrics “All four seasons in one day”. We gave her four names (including her last) to represent the different seasons she holds within herself as we all do.
For me, I guess I must say late spring when it is warm enough to play outside but still breezy enough to feel a deep gratitude for the warmth coursing through my body. I love the flowers emerging and the way everything is electric at being alive again. And at the same time, give me a cozy, fall day full of poetry and woodsy walks through the leaves and I am a happy camper. I pretty much adore the cycle of the seasons. Since I live in Maine that is a very good thing to love!
Lance's Commentary: Katie…this is deep. The seasons we all hold within ourselves, wow! I keep thinking of the yearly life cycle of a tree – and how we really are like that as we travel through our own lives, as the seasons come and go.
4. Laughter and joy are a big part of what you are all about (I think that’s so cool!). Tell us about those moments when you might not be feeling that joyful.
When I am not feeling joyful (and it is a time that I am simply feeling like a stick in the mud) I laugh. No joke. Ha ha! I get my kids to laugh. The practice of laughter without humor has really (gasp) changed my life or at least how I approach it. I know that by saying ha ha, I can CHOOSE to feel differently, to feel better(since our brain does not know the difference between real and fake laughter). With a tool as easy as laughter, I have to really WANT my foul mood to stay in it. What it takes is getting over my ego, my pride which is usually guilty for making me feel like a stick in the mud anyway.
Once I am able to I connect to my deeper desire that I honestly and truly would rather feel joyful than grumpy, all I need to do is practice laughing …and really, everything is suddenly in better perspective! Plus, as parents know…if you try to be grumpy when you have little kids, it really does not work, because they just get grumpy or whiny too. What is worse than dealing with our own grumpy mood than having to deal with another’s?!
I try to see myself in those moments as a change agent with the empowerment to shift the winds of my mood. When I am feeling truly sad due to something challenging or grief-filled, I offer myself patience and breath to allow it to move through my body. I have found in my coaching work that the tendency people have is to deny these deeper feelings, but I believe that there are key times when it can be useful to allow them to flow as they need to during a difficult time and then later reset the course we want to chart.
Lance's Commentary: Well, that's a great example of the therapeutic benefits of laughter. It just makes us feel good!
5. You kiss your husband, and instantly the two of you are transported to a strange new place, with nothing for the two of you to worry about. Where might this be? Why?
I have been there before but it is the first place I thought of. Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands in Washington State. Hands down. It is where I wish to be every time I get one of those magical transportable kisses. To me, Orcas Island is heaven on Earth! Why? Like falling in love with someone who knows why? There is just some part of me that feels perfectly aligned with all the other parts of me when I am there. You will have to go and see for yourself, but call me first I have great recommendations of what to do!
Lance's Commentary: My family and I had the opportunity to vacation in the Pacific Northwest a couple of years ago. While we didn't make it to the San Juan Islands, we did fall in love with the whole area and the beauty that is there. Next time we go, I have a new destination to visit…and I'll be calling YOU!
6. In the strange way the life sometimes works, you are suddenly asked to assist some ambitious city in a pilot program to bring more fun and joy into people’s daily lives. What do you do?
I would create a Levity Pilot Program which would be unveiling the four part system I use with my clients that leads to feeling lighter and more joyful. I would create The Levity Project Centers where people gather to create their own public Levity events, listen to speakers, train how to laugh for no reason and re-learn the art of play as adults.
These centers would become a new bastion for the community. And the part that people would love the most is The Levity Project events that would happen all over the city spontaneously; people laughing in a Laughter Flash, wearing umbrella hats and smiling at each other, bouncing on hippity hop bouncy balls, playing kazoos. These things may seem goofy, but they aren’t. They are expressions of light heartedness and our mutual desire for it.
The goal for the program would be to dilute the power and attention we have given stress by placing emphasis on something else truly and deeply important: a sense of deeply connected joy and lightheartedness.
Lance's Commentary: I lived in Kalamazoo for a while. The word "kazoo" always reminds me of living there! And I think we even had a couple of kazoo's at the time…maybe it's time to get a couple more! On the art of play, we have a game we play, especially during the cold winter months, called "garbage". It involves lots of running, lots of laughs, and is a pretty good workout too! The "art of play"…what a great message to get out there! Keep bouncing, Katie!
7. In Maine terms you land the big lobster. In baseball terms, you win the World Series. In Katie terms, you?
Well, I would say that up till recently, it has been getting on the “Oprah” show! …and then it switched to “Ellen”. And I will thoroughly enjoy the days when both of those happen. But right now, it is about creating a system that empowers people to connect with their right brains-the side that allows for the rejuvenation and immersion of play, the freedom of laughter, and the inspiration that comes with wonder and gratitude.
The big lobster would be seeing The Levity Project as an International movement in which people celebrate together inter-generationally and cross culturally. And it would be having The Levity Institute become a respected forum for new developments and research on how to live more light heartedly and also to have it become a gathering place from which the next generation of social leaders can emerge and share their messages.
Lance's Commentary: On the contrary…it would be Ellen hitting the world series of talk shows, having you on there!
8. Tell us one unexpected thing that has happened to you, from going down this path of starting the “The Levity Project”?
Without a doubt, it has been watching how people are touched by the idea. How clearly I can tell it feeds some part of them whether they are at the event or watching a video. I get emails from people thanking me. And sometimes I just think, “Why are they thanking me, we are just laughing, playing, and celebrating!” I have met amazing people and it has helped me to realize that I am on a path and that I have to keep going to see where this adventure leads me and above all trust that it will take me, and hopefully our world, to a new place.
Lance's Commentary: One unexpected thing for me from you going down this path, Katie…is a friendship that is pretty special. Keep on celebrating life, you are touching lives in very deep ways!
9. If you had to pick one thing as your greatest achievement, what would it be (and why)?
You may laugh…but really birth still ranks above everything. I mean, a human being came out of me. That was crazy! And it happened twice! What also moves me is that the first birth was hard, totally not how we pictured it, and had a lot of medical intervention. What was so striking about this is that one of the people present said, “That was just the birth you needed to have.” At the time, I am pretty sure I wanted to haul off and hit her, but in the years since I realized that what that birth did was shake my perfectionist qualities right out of me. Nothing went how I had “planned” it with the exception of one thing, a healthy baby in my arms. And with that awareness came the understanding of how to look at each situation and “juice” it for what is most important. By letting go of all the seeming ways things were supposed to happen and let them happen, I got to experience life’s journey and what it had in store for me. And since then, the gifts from what I learned in that moment have benefited me every day.
And of course, as the story would have it, my second child’s birth was dreamy. Laboring at the beach, laughing at the hospital during active labor, and hearing Johnny Cash singing as my son was born which made everyone there crack up. It made me realize celebrations come in all forms…some that make us shout with happiness and others that ask us to see the magnificence and holiness in the hardship.
Lance's Commentary: Hmmm…I can relate. Well, maybe I should say my wife can relate! Wait, I was there, too! Now I'm getting confused! Our first birthing experience was one that was very much the opposite of everything we expected. (see how I use the the word "our"…you know, because it was like I was going through that labor too!!!) Somehow we survived, and were blessed with a healthy baby also. And that made it all worth it. Would you believe me, now, if I tell you I can completely relate???
10. What does a typical day with your family involve?
Which day? Each day has a different flavor. Both my husband and I work and both of us stay home. And if anyone reading this shares that experience, you are laughing your head off right now. But each day has a lot of hugs, playing, crafting like I said before, debating what to do for dinner, getting together with people, emailing, laughing, and dancing. Every Saturday night, we have a family mini-party. It is called “Everybody loves Saturday Night”, the name came from my daughter’s children’s CD. So every Saturday night, as a family, we put on that song and dance, eat cake and do something fun. We always get balloons and sometimes silly masks and celebrate. If you hang out with me long enough, you will know that one of my central tenets is celebration….it just does not get enough air time in our society. The Saturday Night Dance Parties with the four of us is a good example of us. We may not be the family traveling to every place, we may not be staying out late doing exciting things, we may not be taking the kids to every museum, but we have our own brand of fun. And it feels really good.
Lance's Commentary: Saturday evenings sound like a blast at your house! I think we should have a big party…and YOU can host!! I'll bring the cookies!! And exciting is what you make it, anyway…so keep on rockin' in your own groovy way!
11. Deep-down, Katie, what makes you, "you"?
I think it is how I started this interview. All is an adventure. All is worthy of our attention and experience. There is nothing without merit that happens. My “me-ness” is in being open to seeing the adventure and my willingness to allow it to transform me. Even in the grumpiest of grump days, I know without a doubt, we are all connected and we are all one. And that brings me a deep joy that somehow manages every time to break up any clouds that may be there and allow the light of possibility and interconnectedness to shine brightly. My mom recently told me when I was born that she almost named me “Joy” and that many days since she wishes she had. It seems only fitting that my work here on the planet would revolve around this idea.
And well, I also really really like making chocolate chip cookies and can do the recipe from memory.
Lance's Commentary: Joy!! That IS a fitting name for you, too (your mom just knew!!). Katie: That's the new word for joy!
Life is an adventure. And wherever that adventure leads us, those are the moments that are our life. And whether they seem hum drum or filled with excitement, they are all ours. In fact, I believe it's not so much the big and grand things that define our life as much as it is the regular day to day mini-adventures that life leads us on that are really the cornerstone for our life journey. Katie, I know you have weaved a life filled with all of this, big adventures all sandwiched between lots and lots of mini adventures. And you choose an attitude of belief in what IS possible. And that is what makes life grand!
Closing Thoughts: Katie, it is an honor to have you here today! You have a mix of goofiness, deep understanding, and love that are second to none! In our world today, you are sunshine…warm and radiant out into the lives of those you touch!
To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson: Katie you HAVE succeeded…in so many beautiful ways, you give love and life a touch of joy. And in that, the world is a better place. In that, I am a better person. Continue to give the world a bit of this magic fairy dust.
And continue to rock the world, buddy!
Now…about those cookies…