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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Malicious Joy

I call them the shinny, happy, magazine people. They look like glossy ads. Shinny skin, blemish free, blissful gaze, plump lips, bright white teeth, dewy eyes, wind swept hair, flawless cuticles and no cellulite in sight. I imagine they smell like an expensive hotel lobby, subtle, decadent, and deliberately, manipulatively delicious. They radiate confidence. And competence. They look like they get shit done. Shit, they look like they have other people get their shit done for them.

She was one of them. A shiny, happy, magazine person. I’d brush past her on the way in our out of yoga class, clomping along, feeling like an un-brushed Clydesdale to her long leg gazelle prance. She always had positive things to say and made sure to turn any frown upside down with ‘budda-rific” (as she called them) tidbits.

You make your own destiny
You can meet everything with gratitude
Negative energy ages you
There is abundance of everything

I often felt petty or greedy around her, sometimes even hostile, like when I heard her say, “You just need to put out more positive energy and you’ll feel better.” When someone had the flu. Or, “That’s karma for you.” When someone’s bike was stolen. All in all, very un-Buddha-like of me.

Which, to be frank I was ok with. I didn’t want to be like her or the other perma-smile, bright eyed rosy cheeked white men and women whispering to each other about lulu lemon tank top sales and home made vegetarian stew recipes. I did, however, want some of that shinny happy stuff. I had acne, frown lines, enormous pores, and my hair never looked wind swept in that kind of way. But really, under all the shiny shit, what I really longed for was the confidence that sparkled like the clunky silver jewelry they wore. My insecurity and awkwardness seemed to bloom around these shinny, happy, magazine people. My feelings of inelegance didn’t change despite knowing that she was, in fact, a shinny, happy, hot, Buddha mess.

But there was something appealing; an American “by the boot-straps” allure in the idea that messes and mishaps can make you stronger and wiser. Me, after most of my mistakes, I feel embarrassed at best and often totally incompetent. I don’t tend to feel wiser or stronger, but drained and a little sheepish. The messes that she grappled with, she claimed, gave her opportunities for prayer and practicing Buddha love. I wondered how you Buddha love your way into paying a past due electric bill or deal with a student loan creditor who’s calling you 20 times a day. She would laugh, a brilliant cascade of shinny ha ha’s and give me a just-right crinkly smile that somehow erased rather than accentuated the lines around her eyes. “Oh, Cristien, the universe will provide. You just have to be open.” Open to what, I thought, picturing Buddha on a cloud or tree limb somehow sticking out in the sky with a big black check book, laughing as he dashed off checks to Puget Sound Energy or Citi Bank student loans and tossing them so they drifted like little blue rectangular leaves wherever they were needed. On one hand, I agreed with her, that there is an abundance of everything. On the other hand, one percent of the population owns most of it, and the rest of us can’t afford any of it, so, well, that’s complicated.

She tried to simplify it for me. She explained the energetic principle of karma and how the vibrations we put out make up the world we live in. How, I wondered, did all these vibrations not knock us down? I’d picture a giant tuning fork or enormous bass amp. I mean, my body throbs for days after a Neurosis show. I know that vibrations are everywhere and that they are powerful stuff. Just the other day I hear about this guy, Oliver Beer. He taps into the resonant frequencies of a structure, and makes them “sing”. He records chanting or singing inside a structure like a tunnel or bridge and as the words bounce around the structure, he records them, then loops the recording, plays it back and then records that. He does this over and over until the natural frequencies of the structure resonate and the structure itself produces sound. Singing. It is haunting and deeply touching to listen to a tunnel or a parking garage sing. But vibrations, no matter how powerful or moving, do not have positive or negative qualities. No matter what words the singers sang, no matter what the words meant, no matter what the text, the words always bounced back indiscriminately. The mathematics of resonance and science of sound is completely indifferent to the meaning of the actual words being chanted or sung.

So, my friend, she was right of course, in some sense. Vibrations are powerful. Moving. Emotional. But her conviction that imagining the job she wanted or offering a mantra for a coveted pair of boots and somehow thinking that the vibes she put out there would manifest in these material things, is something I couldn’t wrap my head around. Science can’t wrap its head around that either. That kind of energy, if it existed, would crush us. Or at least knock us on our collective asses—and not in a metaphysical or metaphorical way. But in a physics, atom-smashing, ass knocking kind of way

But shinny is shinny and happiness does clamor for our attention. I watched her over the year, coming and going in the yoga studio we both went to, her long auburn hair longer and shinier each time I saw her. Every time I asked how she was doing, she would say the same thing “Buddha blessed and divine. How are you?” Sometimes I would tell her about something fucked up going on in my world in a voyeuristic delight of listening to her insistence on making whatever it was, a joyful, positive experience. It was like watching the car accident she told me she had been in. I couldn’t turn away or stop listening as she explained how her insurance was refusing to pay her medical bills and she felt like the universe was really trying to tell her something.

“That insurance companies are greedy and fucked?” I’d blurt out.

She would smile that smile, crinkle her nose at me and say, “Oh Cristien you are so funny!”

Or, when her life coach doubled her fees and informed her that her hesitancy to continue working with her was an emotional block around success and loving herself. She leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, “She is really teaching me about love, you know. And how to not try to control things.”

She would smile a shinny, happy smile at me and prance away ever more light and ethereal. I became a little obsessed in watching her transformation. Week to week, I’d check in with her. I watched, as her insistence on seeing the joy and gratitude in everything seemed to nibble away at her physical frame. She became more airy which I hadn’t thought possible, her feet hardly seeming to land on the ground.

She told me about her hours being cut at work and how that was a blessing because it forced her to simplify and focus more on her spiritual life. She did not, I noted, stop seeing her spiritual coach whom I happened to know also doubled her fee, but none of my Buddha business, right? She kept her life coach. “An absolute necessity” she would insist, espousing the need to let go of trying to control things. “The only thing you can control is your reaction to things and it’s just spiritually laziness to chose to be miserable and I choose to not be lazy and not be miserable.” She’d bluster with small stamp of a bare foot.

“What about people who have been evicted, or lost their home, or got fired or downsized, or have a terminal disease caused by waste from the chemical plant up stream from where they live, or are homeless because of domestic violence, don’t they have the right, or even the moral and spiritual obligation to be a little bit pissed off and miserable?” I asked her.

She smiled, all white teeth and pink lip stain, patted my hand and said, “They should be grateful. They have amazing opportunities. Happy people put out happy energy. Positive people attractive positive things. Negativity attracts negativity. It’s science.”

She said this with such confidence. A confidence buoyed by years of social messaging and her own personal evidence-based experiments. Everything provided evidence of this energetic exchange between her and an ever-generous universe. When she got the best parking spot, she had visualized it. If the barista remembered her drink, it was because she put out positive energy, not because of good customer service. Her new yoga pants, on sale exactly the same day she got her refund check-a minor miracle and scientific proof of the power of positive thinking.

This insistence on happiness, on gratitude and joy, a forced serenity fascinated and disturbed me, appealed to me and repelled me. She offered assurances that it was natural, healthy to practice positively. That it was unnatural to live in negativity. But I noticed the more she insisted on being happy, on seeing the joy in everything, the shinier and smilier she looked that the thinner and more ethereal she became. Joy seemed to eat her up, like a bulimic cell burrowed deep inside her endlessly devouring and demanding more joy! More joy! More joy!

I don’t mean to disparage joy or gratitude. Our world would be much better if there were less greed, less selfishness, less of the never-ending sense of never-enough-ness that divides our capacity for solidarity and cultivates a collective and cultural anxiety. An anxiety that fuels both the reality of an ever expanding class divide and reality shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians—and both of these realities fuel massive industries built on top of and out of our anxieties and desire to avoid, well, reality itself. I want more joy and gratitude in my own life. I want reality to include the lovely and the loving, without out bright washing the painful shit. I feel better, am a better friend, a better ally when I am able to hold the complex reality that really good and positive, fabulous things occur alongside really painful, negative shit. But painful, is painful and it makes sense to some degree that we try to avoid it. And, truth be told, sometimes it’s helpful to avoid feeling bad. But there is a collective cognitive moral dissonance that begins to warp our capacity to be fully human when we ignore “the bad” to focus only on “the good”.

One day, she told me she was going to transcended negativity by refusing to engage in anything negative. This included, I found out, me. I discovered this because she simply stopped talking to me before or after class. She would smile and bow at me in a way that made me annoyed and slightly uncomfortable, but she wouldn’t talk to me. She wore her joyful bliss like a costume she refused to take off. A pretty party princess dancing alone long after all the partygoers have gone home. The joy she radiated was eating her, that was painfully clear. Her joy was insatiable, she an anorexic vessel with the privilege to refuse to engage in the real world. Her privilege, however, was unable to prevent joy from draining her, even as she insisted that every obstacle or unfortunate event was an opportunity or Buddha-moment.

I began to see cracks in the shinny, freshly scrubbed and veggie juiced veneer. One day she forgot to smile when sharing how blessed she was, her green eyes flat and dull. Another day as she arched her long limbs into bow pose, clunky jewelry jangling, her brows furrowed and her lips pursed in a very not-so-serene sneer. And another time she began to complain about a 30% rent increase, caught herself, shook her head, whipping her long auburn hair in front of her face and sheepishly slid away. Despite these small cracks, she continued to be enveloped in a vaporous cloud of fierce serenity and would have resembled a “non-violent or pacifist zombie” if you didn’t get a whiff of very-human and not so zombie like Stargazer Lilly shampoo every time she walked by.

But even her zombie-ness began to seem too real, too practical and probably full of too much negativity for her and it began to melt away, as her body, desperate to contain all the joyful gratitude her practice demanded, deteriorated around the edges. She became ratty at the seams, less dense and when people tried to engage her in conversations that were not “positive”, she not only refused to engage, she would smile a slowly vanishing smile, fading, as she did, quietly, mutely dissolving into the void of eternal gratitude while a malicious joy consumed her endlessly from the inside out.

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