“Silverlake Neophyte”, Third Eye Blind
Last Sunday morning I found myself perched on a small wooden chair in a haphazard circle of people fit into whatever open spaces we could find around a small living room. Even without people, the room was already stuffed with pictures of a smiling family, figures of Ganesha, bronze Buddhas, lumps of crystal, tattered books, framed and unframed pictures of mountains. A woman in her mid-thirties nestled in a soft lounge chair on my right, her long legs and lithe torso clad in stretchy white yoga pants and sweatshirt. Sunlight streamed in through a south-facing window behind her; she had the contended air of a cat, comfortable in her perch, surveying the unfamiliar. To my left a good friend, a yoga veteran thirty years older than I am who had invited me to this place, sat with his legs crossed amiably. His lined face took in the group with a curious, straightforward gaze. Eleven other people had wedged themselves into a couch or sat on the floor or perched on small wooden chairs and stools.
Except for the friend sitting on my left, I had met these people for the first time the evening before. In the fourteen-odd hours since, we had participated in a ceremony together, an initiation meant to clarify and sharpen our senses. There was no content—no message, goal or idea—only music, although that word seems an inaccurate label for the sounds: chirps, rattles, tinkling metal, trills. I can’t say much more about the ceremony; like most things that are felt more than cognized, its meaning lives outside of ideas that can be summoned through description.
Here is the thing I want to tell you about: sitting in a living room of near-strangers, I felt a rare kind of welcome. I recognized this by the absence of my normal mental routine: my mind was not busy planning something to say. In place of the furious planning to which I had become accustomed in such a group, I was quietly aware that I wanted to be seen as original, deep and insightful. I have known for some years that this is the persona I try to cultivate (thanks Ras), but in this room on this morning I felt, saw and considered this desire in the very moment when habitual action would normally have been well underway.
One might think this would be a liability: if I want something, isn’t it better to be actively solving for it rather than just regarding it without action? What I wanted in that moment had not changed, but I felt no need to actively convey this (or any) idea about myself. This felt like a tremendous source of personal power—permission to be excused from my standard operating procedure. In the absence of effort, I was left with a sense of safety and space. It’s quite rare for me to feel so relaxed when I’m in a group of people from whom I’ve received no indication that they see me the way I want to be seen.
I cannot stress how odd this felt! I can be relaxed around people—once I am confident that I’ve made my desired impression (or once they’ve seen through my attempts and I know that they value me regardless). But until I’ve done the initial work to communicate my idea of myself and feel that my efforts are working, I experience being with other people as a Bayesian decision-tree, beset by imperfect information and unknown tradeoffs:
On it goes from there. Five minutes into a social interaction, I have gauged each person, edited possible statements, interrogated my own projections of my perceptions, edited again based on new turns in the group interaction, thrown out three drafts and I’m working on my fourth.
Exhausting as this is, I taught myself to wade into this morass throughout my twenties and thirties, repeatedly forcing myself out of my shell of imperfect, updating priors. I learned to speak, to work a room, and I was rewarded with the satisfaction of seeing people who did not know me form an opinion that seemed roughly like what I wanted them to see. But the price was steep. After a few hours, I could no longer maintain the effort required. Without warning, I would hit a wall of social exhaustion. By this point I lacked even the energy to say goodbye. I retreated to the bathroom, the backyard, the lobby. If I could find an invisible exit, I would disappear through it.
Last Sunday morning, fourteen hours in, none of that.
This had something to do with an old man with long white hair and a goatee, dressed all in white. He was our host; we were sitting his his living room. He had high cheekbones and small, deep-set eyes. He looked a bit like the kung fu master in Kill Bill, which is to say that when I met him the day before I was immediately suspicious that he was trying to impress us with his sagacity by wearing a ridiculous costume. Nonetheless, the friend whom I trust vouched for this guy. “I’m going to give him a chance,” I had said to myself through gritted teeth.
He grew on me. How to describe it? He was inscrutable, a defiance of the stereotypes I expected based on his appearance. First, he struck me as very relaxed to the point he may have been caught in a daydream of his own thoughts. Then he would surprise with an attentive comment. This might be followed by an absurd, childish joke—mugging, screwing up his face like an early Jim Carey skit. No one laughed. No one knew what to do. Apparently he was doing this for his own amusement. He often cleared his throat with a sound insinuating intent to huck an enormous loogie on the floor. The first few times he made this noise I got preoccupied with the question of where he was storing all the phlegm. But he would speak soon after, and it was apparently gone. He walked like a meandering young child, rarely in a straight line. But with dignity, quite purposeful. And circuitous. Could it be that all of these unintelligible behaviors constituted his natural, unmanaged self?
I find it is hardest to be myself when I could be confused with someone in costume. To dress and act in an ordinary way may not be very interesting, but at least no one can accuse me of pretending. How could I be pretending if I’m just acting and looking as expected? “At least I’m not thirsty for your attention,” I reason. “I’m not one of those people who need to make sure you see them the way they hope you will see them.”
My discomfort with bald manipulation passing as self-expression results in a tendency to scrutinize other people for fakery. Unusual behavior or dress feels inauthentic to me because I usually don’t see courage; I see neediness. It reminds me of the guy who lived on my dorm hall at the Christian college we attended. He blasted metal bands like King Diamond and festooned his room with pentagrams and Satanic goats. While he was striking a rebel pose, all I could see was his pleading desire to be different. I thought he was ridiculous.
Yet in moments of honesty, I have felt the specter of self-recognition beneath my judgments of the poses other people strike. I see my own lack of courage to admit outwardly that I care deeply how I am seen. Perhaps I spend so much time wondering how to frame my thoughts for others because I am deeply uncertain what to say about myself? Even if I find the thing I want to say, will you believe me? Can I sell it? Against my better judgment, Lady GaGa makes me weep because I can’t seem to write her strangeness off. I get the sense that she has to be different. There is a life or death kind of seriousness about the way she is; temerity and need is replaced by complete commitment. She sells it. It’s not her poses that move me; it’s her commitment to them.
Why have I never been able to commit to pursue what I want from others—even at the level that my college roommate did? Beneath the disgust I feel at these poses lies a deep reservoir of sadness; I am not known—even as an imitation. This sadness is almost unbearable when I watch David Bowie. He seems to have lived on the other side of a door that I don’t know how to open. I have made occasional, tentative forays: a change of clothes, a stanza of poetry. But under the withering sun of scrutiny, absent patience and curiosity, these seedlings of individuality cannot survive.
I did find a kind of pose that I thought of as my true self: I was the doer of objectively useful things. I was the holder of real responsibilities. This pose took a lot of work: what I needed to sustain it had to be mined from other people. To some extent this is indeed part of being human. We do need validation. But that need felt like despair as I lacked sufficient internal ballast to see that much of what I encounter from other people has little to do with me. I practiced seeming unruffled, but it was hard not to feel that everything was personal when my very person was nowhere to be found. I was right to be looking hard for it. But not there, not in the responses of others. Rather, hovering at the edge of my conscious mind, I knew there exists some beautiful illogic whose inscrutability derives from its refusal to elicit validation. When I listen to the music David Byrne, I know it is possible to contribute something original and personal that makes no effort to explain itself. “Stop making sense.” I studied it; goddammit, I would learn how to not make sense and to do it convincingly.
Eleven of us were sitting there in the goateed loogie-hucker’s living room on the morning after the ceremony. A man sitting across the circle from me shared that during the night’s ceremony various clients appeared in his mind questioning him.
“I kept thinking, am I qualified to work with this one?”, he said. “Shouldn’t I know more if I’m going to supposedly guide or help them somehow?”
He must have been a therapist or coach. He was shiny bald, probably in his forties with a mid-size frame—active looking but in a dad kind of way—with a salt and pepper beard. He had bright blue eyes that felt kind. He waited just a moment before he spoke each sentence as though he needed to check to make sure it was the right one. I liked the way he seemed to be searching not for the sentence that made the most sense but for the one that he could speak with the most conviction.
After he had set up a little drama with these questions about his qualifications, I could feel the group listening in expectation. Well? What happened? This was a place for insights. Did his insight arrive? “And then I realized that I am qualified to do my work.” No, despite my sense that he had clarity now, he did not say anything like this. Instead he said: “I kept wanting my wife to be there for a moment to give me a little hug. It felt so good even to be ready for her love.”
Then, amidst the endearing oddness of the old man, the relaxed kindness of the middle-aged man, the attentive quiet of everyone in that room, as I perched on my little wooden chair, it occurred to me that there are three ways to strike a pose. In the first, I insist that I am not posing at all. In the second, I pour myself into the pose with all the seriousness and commitment I can muster. In the third, I inhabit the pose fully but have no idea what the pose is! I know only that I am leaning toward something, trying it on for size. What it is I have yet to learn.