Contemplative practice is about seeing clearly. Perception is everything. Especially how others perceive you. Too often in practice we focus on abstract goals like compassion and wisdom, which is noble, but if there’s one thing you can control, it’s your image. Appearances are illusory, which is all the more reason to ensure your illusory appearance is one of the utmost serenity. One must be able to talk the talk and walk the walk, or, in this case, sit the sit. Follow these simple instructions and no matter how much you are suffering on the inside, you will appear tranquil on the outside.
Awareness of the breath is central to meditation. But ordinary breathing conveys nothing to the outside world other than the fact that you are still among the living. So, when in the presence of others, especially when meditating, unleash the contented sigh. Basically, it involves a deep intake of air, followed by a long, drawn out expulsion of air through the nostrils, culminating in a warm, soft sigh, like you just tasted a subtle but exquisite amuse-bouche at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Go ahead and practice. Take a few contented sighs. I’ll wait…
I bet you feel pretty good now! But that’s not the point. You sound great!
Have you ever seen the author photos of spiritual teachers? They all seem to have perfected one of two sophisticated visages. The first involves a slightly raised brow and a bit of a smirk. as if someone surprised them with a really enjoyable eye exam. It’s like they are super content but not ecstatically so. This is perfect for most run-of-the-mill situations.
The second visage involves beaming so radiantly, it’s as if you’re a kindergarten teacher and a student brought you an apple. This involves a full-on, wrinkles-be-damned, ear-to-ear, close-mouthed smile. It implies real appreciation for your student’s gesture, mixed with some pity, because they are six years old and think an apple is a viable gift. This look is perfect for flashing at people who seem to think they are better than you.
Cultivate both of these looks. Whatever you do, never employ a basic, teeth-baring grin. Showing your teeth implies that you have nothing to hide and, of course, you do.
What we’re going for here is not a sailor’s voluminous output but the occasional, completely unnecessary, well-timed F-bomb.
For example, let’s say you’re in a group talking about Mahatma Gandhi. You might chime in with, “Oh that old s**thead!” This suggests that not only are you familiar with Gandhi, but that you and he are old cronies who enjoy nothing more than a good roasting. You want people who hear you curse to think that you are totally chill and also totally connected.
Think: lululemon outfit right after an attack by a small bear. You want to have modern, simple, fitted apparel that suggests you don’t even think about your outfit, even though it is aesthetically pleasing and multi-functional. Then, when someone says, “Oh, I like your pants/shirt/jacket,” you can respond, “This old thing! It was my mom’s/dad’s,” as if you simply inherited a perfect fitting, timeless wardrobe from your parental clone. If they then say, “I didn’t realize lululemon was around in the 70s,” say something like, “As far as you know!” Then give them the beaming radiant smile and walk away fast because they are definitely onto you.
When you sneeze, it should terrify everyone around you. Then act like nothing happened. Do not acknowledge the sneeze. Just carry on. Those in your vicinity will understand that your casual relationship to bodily function is a sign of complete ease. Use this method when blowing your nose as well. But for the love of god, never say “gesundheit.”
People might assume that, since you meditate, you are a vegetarian. Do nothing to dissuade this assumption. You can even publicly decry the eating of meat. Then, when out to dinner, order the prime rib. This shows them that to you, rules are mere suggestions that you have transcended.
On the flip side, scold others severely for breaking even the most minor rules. Like if their shoelace is untied you might grab them and shout, “The fabric of existence is made up of minutiae and if you unravel a shoelace you unravel reality!” A well-timed slap would be great here, but only if you really know the person. This lets them know that unlike you, they have not nearly transcended rules.
Listening to others is very dangerous. They could challenge you, or say something that is actually enlightening, blowing your cover. Instead, when people are done talking in your vicinity, chime in with a complete non-sequitur about your surroundings. Something like, “You know, I really adore the sound of traffic,” or “The air always tastes a little buttery at this hour.” They’ll be faced with the embarrassing realization that while they were blabbering on about something inconsequential you were doing the dignified work of being present.
Don’t say “namaste.” Don’t bow to others. Don’t talk about chakras or reincarnation. Don’t burn patchouli oil. That stuff used to work but people are more knowledgeable now and you’ll just seem like a phony. And the difference between seeming like a phony and being a phony is the difference between ridicule and worship.
I’m not talking about the gooey, compassionate kind of paying it forward. What I mean is, if you follow these simple steps, you’ll have everyone around you fooled into thinking you are supremely wise. You might even achieve the hallowed plateau of Enlightenment Confirmation Bias, where everything you say and do becomes further evidence of your divine insight. Once you get to that level you will be inundated with adoration, fame, and money-making opportunities. Take advantage of them. Just don’t forget to send me a cut you old s**head!
Alex Tzelnic is a writer and Zen practitioner living in Cambridge, MA. If you see him in public, grab your shades because his radiant smile burns bright.