"A nine-year-old boy comes home from school and says to his mom, 'Pretend you're surrounded by 100 hungry tigers. What would you do?' Mom says, 'I don't know. What would you do?' Kid says, 'Stop pretending.'" -- Meditation/yoga teacher Anne Cushman
While many a nine-year-old shifts seamlessly from playful pretending to brute reality, we adults have a knack for getting stuck in an endless loop of destructive story lines. The Buddha taught that suffering arises when these story lines show up, unbidden, in our monkey minds, which secrete painful thoughts as naturally as our mouths secrete saliva.
That's the bad news.
The good news is that the very narratives that distract us from the present moment can show the way back to our true selves.
Consider the pretend universes of the pop music standards that have served as our cultural connective tissue for generations.
"The Great Pretender" by the great Platters exposes the singer's authentic bravery as he faces heartbreak head-on: "Too real is this feeling of make believe/Too real when I feel what my heart can't conceal." Of course, the great pretender is pretending to pretend, since after all this is just a song.
Jackson Browne's 1976 "The Pretender," on the other hand, is a "happy idiot" who "struggles for the legal tender." Yes, Browne goes a bit rhyme-crazy -- "tender, "contender," "surrender" and "fender" are fine; "end there" is awkward, but we'll give him that. But "ice cream vendor"? That's a poetic bridge too far. But what's really fascinating is how the piece has aged -- which isn't well: "The Pretender" is like a monument to that period's cloying anxiety about small-minded authenticity and self-discovery; coming after Kent State, Watergate and the Vietnam debacle, it represented revolution writ very, very small.
While there's no pretense in The Pretenders' brand of rock and roll -- they really are special -- the protagonists in 10cc's "I'm Not In Love" and John Waite's "Missing You" valiantly try to convince listeners (and themselves) that their hearts aren't broken.
Though that's a Pollyannish stretch, there is scientific evidence that paying attention to even our fleeting moments of wonder can incline our minds toward what mindfulness meditation teacher and author James Baraz calls "awakening joy."
Camus, hardly a Buddhist, displayed what's been called "Buddhist Bravery" when he deployed narrative as a powerful way of explaining "reality" to ourselves so that we become authentically (not fictionally) heroic. His retelling of the classic Greek myth of Sisyphus shows how the hero defies the gods by embracing life's absurdity: If the gods sentence you to an eternity of rolling a rock up a hill -- or struggling for the legal tender -- become a great rock roller (or rock 'n roller). Pretense can be powerful. Who makes the decision that your work is important? Whether you believe the answer is your boss, the marketplace, your colleagues, your customers or you yourself, the answer is, ultimately, that you decide.
In the terrific CBS series The Good Wife, Matthew Perry plays smarmy one percenter Mike Krestiva, who channels Mitt Romney, the "ingrate pretender" to the 2012 presidential throne. Matt (an actor pretending to pretend) and Mitt (an actual person pretending not to pretend ) are both rich, ambitious, shameless politicians making decisions in "quiet rooms" and taking a certain pleasure in unleashing one easily disprovable whopper after another.
Romney's inauthenticity is so transparent it gave his primary opponents Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich a chance to lambaste him without having to pretend outrage. Once it became clear that Romney would win the nomination and that the VP nod was on the table, both Ricky and Newtie allowed as how they just might be able to play well with a man they seemed to authentically despise.
Striving for authenticity -- via meditation or otherwise -- carries risks, among which is that the striving itself can be inauthentic, can be as ego-maniacal, smug and self-indulgent -- as dangerous -- as denial. A clueless colleague drunk-dials my Buddhist friend to brag about how he's the "better meditator." A glossy brochure arrives in the mail touting a meditation retreat with limo service, spa treatments and gourmet food. Health, wellness and safety educator" Robert Fellows (a former magician!) appropriates meditation as a motivational tool, advising busy business leaders on tight schedules to "Just sit there and pretend that you're meditating."
But for many millions over several centuries, mindfulness meditation -- the practice of sitting still and simply watching our thoughts and feelings come and go -- has helped to strip away pretense.
We were all nine years old once. Maybe mindfulness can help enlightening strike twice.