Listen. Happiness? It just looks different on people like me.
—Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water
In Ithaca, New York, Tibetan prayer flags hang from the eaves of rambling Victorian houses, and quaint little carriage houses, and dilapidated A-frame houses with Pabst beer cans lining porch railings. Their lilting red, blue, orange, white, and yellow squares make no sound in the breeze, so thin and soft is the translucent fabric. On Aurora Street, in Ithaca’s Fall Creek neighborhood, the Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies sits nestled in a nondescript turn-of-the century house painted a deep burgundy with gold trim. The prayer flags alight the house like year-round Christmas decorations. Down the narrow alleyway running just behind the monastery, Cascadilla creek burbles over shalestone, plastic bottles, discarded road signs, and outposts of tall, thick grass that curve like spider plants.
When I walk my dog daily past the monastery, I sometimes glimpse Namgyal’s monks, their maroon or orange robes shushing as they slowly walk the neighborhood, or work in the small front garden, or mow the lawn with a quiet push mower. My pup, a high-strung cattle dog mix, sniffs the short trains of the robes suspiciously, takes a few steps sideways. Then she pulls me down the alley towards home.
If you’re from anywhere else in upstate New York, Ithaca is as mythic as its Homeric namesake. My friend Lisa actually calls the city “Mythaca.” We laugh about this on coffee dates, where we also discuss her therapy appointments and my generalized anxiety disorder. We poke gentle fun at the former flower children who wear Flax linen clothes and take three kinds of yoga classes. Lisa and I both wear a lot of black and rely on tennis and cycling, respectively, to manage stress.
Like Odysseus’ home, the one to which he can never really return, Ithaca is sensationalized, a caricature of itself. Even the graffiti is Ithaca brand. On the wall of the former library, before the city commissioned a vibrant mural, a tag artist kept spray-painting the word “Respect” on the stucco wall. “Be Happy” reads the sidewalk on Linn Street.
In homage to the glacial lakes, waterfalls, and gorges that make up Ithaca’s natural wonders, you can buy a t-shirt emblazoned with Ithaca Is Gorges. I’m a bigger fan of its variant: Ithaca is Cold.
A popular bumper sticker here reads, Ithaca: Ten Square Miles Surrounded By Reality.
The city’s economy is buoyed by the presence of Cornell University and Ithaca College, my alma mater. Unlike other post-industrial places in upstate New York, cities like Binghamton, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Utica—virtual economic and artistic deserts—Ithaca has an art theater, an independent bookstore co-owned by members of the community, a long list of thriving restaurants that use locally-sourced ingredients, and a public dog park democratically designed with small and large dog sections.
I grew up in greater Binghamton, about an hour south of Ithaca. The area was once home to the Endicott-Johnson shoe factory, and later, the IBM corporation, but now it claims record unemployment, perpetually gray skies, and structural damage from two massive floods that struck five years apart in 2006 and 2011. In March 2012, just months after the floodwaters again receded, Gallup released its annual quality of life polls, and Binghamton’s scores reflected its dismal state: #1 in most pessimistic, #5 in most depressed, and #2 in most obese nationwide. My mother emailed me the newspaper article, complete with a comments section suggesting that Binghamton residents took a slanted sort of pride in these designations—their worries and heartaches, their cynicism and lack of ambition, their waists and butts, all justified by the extremity of their living conditions. The pervading attitude was like, “Yeah, we’re fat and think most things suck, but we’re still here, and that makes us way more badass than you.” I laughed. And I felt a little homesick, to tell the truth. I kind of like being extreme. I kind of like being sad.
I’ve always been conflicted about the pursuit of happiness line in the Declaration of Independence. On the one hand, it’s a hopeful and ballsy move on the part of the taxed-without-representation colonists. On the other hand, I detect arrogance at the core of Jefferson’s ideal.
I’m not well versed on the philosophies of the Enlightenment, so I can only talk about this from a personal and contemporary perspective, and how I believe Western (okay, American) sensibilities about happiness are corrupting, or at least changing, Eastern practices of yoga and meditation now championed in every remotely progressive pocket of the nation. The population of Ithaca hovers around 35,000, which classifies it a small city, but residents can choose between over twenty different yoga studios advertised in our White Pages. In addition to the Namygal Monastery, we also have the Zen Center, a sixty-acre facility formed from the dregs of an old hippie commune. Both Cornell University and Ithaca College offer meditation classes for credit, and yoga and Pilates classes run daily at their fitness centers. The majority of my friends and colleagues can make enthusiastic recommendations about where to go for the Ashtanga, Bikram, Iyengar, Kripalu, Sivananda, hot, power, restorative, or children’s yoga to which they’re most loyal.
One friend, when contemplating whether or not to move from the area, said, “I already have a yoga class here. I’m settled.”
I’m being hard on Ithaca, flippant towards its sense of self, but the fact is, I went to college here, left for graduate school and my first teaching job, and then returned to teach at my alma mater when I could no longer take living in rural Alabama. I love it here. I love the gorges slicing through the city like ancient Roman aqueducts. I love the paper-scented independent bookstore and the inky dark art theater. I love the smorgasbord of yoga studios with their tall, sun-drenched windows and shiny, blond wood floors. I love the optimistic graffiti and happy, Flax-clad people.
But back when I was in college—when I was in the reckoning of woman-daughter-writer—sometimes my anger at Ithaca’s relentless optimism won out over my love for its good heart. And sometimes I wanted to run my yoga practicing, meditating boyfriend down in my car.
Let’s call him Simon. Simon, who tried to save me.
If anyone has ever tried to save you, then you know how infuriating it is. How there’s arrogance at the core of that, too.
Simon and I dated for three often turbulent years. I was an atheist substance abusing writer, and he was a secularist-Taoist-Buddhist occasionally substance abusing writer. We fought. Standing barefoot in the street fighting. Drunken phone call fighting. Slamming doors fighting. I admit most of it was my fault. I resented him for dealing with me as casework, as someone he could help. Like other young, financially independent women discovering the inequities of gendered life amidst creative writing and women’s studies classes, I felt entitled to my rage. Obligated, even. Rage was my feminist cause.
In his last semester in college, Simon took a meditation class as an elective. The class was taught by the Jewish rabbi who ran the multi-faith chapel on campus. Simon, who had pronounced attention deficit disorder, eventually passed a final exam delivered in the form of a twelve-hour silent meditation. Only much later did I understand what an accomplishment this was.
I didn’t take the class, but I hated it. Simon became obsessed with meditation. He meditated in the middle of parties. He meditated while driving. He meditated at the gym while I ran myself into a frenzied sweat. I’m exaggerating some of this. But what’s true is that Simon was discovering his serenity and silence at the same time I was discovering my anger and voice.
Simon tried to teach me meditation as a cure for the vicious insomnia that dominated my college years with its static gray chokehold. At night, when I lay awake in bed clenching my leg and jaw muscles, a fierce shadow spreading over my electric and exhausted insides, Simon told me to banish my thoughts and focus on my breath. Most nights, I ended up banishing him from my apartment. Then I stayed up all night listening to Carissa’s Wierd (the band’s spelling) and talking softly aloud to the white cabinet that hung in the corner of my room.
Simon bugged me for months to go with him to Namgyal, where the exiled Tibetan monks offer free public meditation three evenings a week. When I finally agreed on a snowy winter night—crisp and clear and brick fucking cold—I focused so hard on my breathing that I ended up hyperventilating on the floor cushions.
The conflation of meditative practices (and “meditative,” in this sense, refers to sustained contemplation and reflection, as well as yogic posing, transcendental chanting, and other religious forms of meditation) with increased levels of happiness seems to be a uniquely Western notion. To be “Zen” in the West is to not let shit get you down. To be unencumbered by or dismiss negative emotions. Americans in particular have become uncomfortable with feelings of depression, anxiety, anger, loneliness, and jealousy. Buddhist meditation stresses the confrontation and release of suffering; the concept of happiness in most Buddhist cultures is called Enlightenment, which is something more akin to powerful, resourceful self-awareness. But for Americans, feelings of suffering symbolize a failure at our own pursuits of happiness. To feel unhappy is unpatriotic.
Several years ago, on the advice of my doctor in Alabama, I began taking an antidepressant to cope with the sizable depression that came with isolation in a place far from my home. My grandfather had just died, and my father had had his first heart attack. I felt helpless and despairing over eleven hundred miles away, in a house surrounded by acres of cow pastures and no people. My husband was proud of me for taking a calculated step toward feeling better. But my decision embarrassed me. My mother has taken Prozac all of my life, and I associated the meds with hitting an emotional bankruptcy I hoped never to see myself.
My fears were confirmed when I confessed to a lifelong friend about my new prescription. Let’s call her Karen.
Karen and I were in her car, on our way to go hiking during one of my semester breaks, when I told her I had started taking Pristiq. “Figures,” she said, taking a sip of coffee from her thermos.
“Figures what?” I said.
“Figures you’d choose a pill over choosing happiness. Why can’t you just choose happiness?”
In February 2012, the formidable online journal Slate reported that “impatience trounces sympathy” for Facebook users reading others’ negative status updates. Citing a study from the University of Waterloo, Katy Waldman found that more self-confident Facebook users have less tolerance for others’ use of the social networking site as a “safe space” for sharing sans cheerful lacquer. “I find these results oddly heartbreaking,” writes Waldman. “It seems an irony typical of the Internet that the people who feel safest expressing themselves online actually damage their social standing when they do so. Not because they’re somehow opting out of the real world, as Facebook critics like to insist, but because they are lulled into relaxing their façades.”
Recently, I polled my Facebook friends about depression and anxiety. How does it manifest both physically and psychically? How does it affect their loved ones? Their work? Their social lives? The responses floored me. First, they were largely categorical. In general, men reported worrying over money and job security, and tended to make jokes that included six-packs as coping mechanisms (both the literal and figurative kinds of six-packs). On the other hand, women mostly reported worrying about worrying itself. The notion that they may not be as happy as other people distressed them, and this fear became a secret they carried just under the surface of their grateful, glowing Facebook statuses and pictures of their kids’ birthday parties, like “a volcanic hot spot,” as one responder put it, something that would, she thought, inevitably get expressed.
So, how did it get expressed?
In a deluge of private messages, these women revealed the true nature of their emotional beasts. They drink. They save answering machines messages in case it’s the last time they hear someone’s voice. They close their eyes before making a left-hand turn in their cars. They put their psychotropic drugs in Tic-Tac containers. They check into hospitals with their vacation time so their co-workers won’t know where they are.
I cried while reading one of the messages. It came from the wife of one of my dearest friends. She and her husband are devout Christians with two beautiful daughters, a New England home close to family, and what appears on Facebook to be hundreds of loving, supportive, non-cursing friends. For years, I’ve admired her photo albums (she’s a talented and prolific photographer), quaking a little at the sight of so much centrality of family, so much happiness. What I didn’t see—what no one saw—was my friend’s wife cutting herself alone in the bathroom.
At the time of our conversation about my antidepressants, Karen had been practicing yoga regularly for years. I took her callousness seriously, took for granted that her lifestyle meant she knew more than me about what it takes to be happy. Shortly after our hike that day, I quit taking the pills. I still don’t know if or how they would have helped.
But something else happened around that time, too. I went inward and started writing again. To be economical about this, I’ll just say it turns out that the best writing comes from an empathic place. A place that can vividly imagine another’s experience of life without judging that experience, without otherizing it. And that empathy—its daily practice—can be quite meditative in its own right. It can even bring its practitioner something like peace. Something like joy.
Today, some aspects of the American pursuit of happiness are precisely built in place of empathy. Jeffrey Sachs, writing for the Huffington Post, claims that corporate policies like the ones that have left the majority of upstate New York financially crushed, have created “the logic of America, to the point that the Supreme Court can no longer tell the difference between free speech and untrammeled corporate power.” And such corporate domination of our politics and media, Sachs believes, has left Americans with a dearth of “trust, honesty, and compassion.”
It’s no wonder, then, that Binghamton is pessimistic, depressed, and gaining weight.
But Sachs also describes a country he sees as the globe’s great hope. In the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan, Prime Minister Jigme Thinley has developed what he calls Gross National Happiness (as opposed to Gross National Product). Together with Sachs, Thinley hosted a congregation of world leaders to discuss how individual countries can begin to re-prioritize national efforts to better support “a sense of community, trust, and environmental sustainability.” Unsurprisingly, all three require more empathic economic philosophies. With an emphasis on meeting people’s basic needs (which the author identifies as clean water, health care, education, and “meaningful” employment), striking a balance between healthy consumerism and healthy living, preserving the planet’s natural viability, and developing more nuanced systems for measuring a society’s wellbeing, Sachs and Thinley believe we can raise the global happiness quotient.
Such conferences do indeed spark optimism in me. In fact, descriptions of this utopian global society sound a bit familiar.
They sound like Mythaca.
There I go again, getting snide. Let me bring this meditation on happiness back to its breath: language.
Part of my resistance to the Zen culture of America comes from the way we narrowly and simplistically define its terms. Happiness should be devoid of sadness. Meditation should be quiet. Yoga should be done on a mat in a bright room. Though I respect that studied masters of these practices have developed systems to help people achieve their well being goals, I think it’s time we allowed for other interpretations of what is yogic, meditative, or happy. I recently saw this post on Facebook—a picture of a snowy road with the words “Quietest people have the loudest minds” printed across the top. Grammatical error aside, the sentiment suggests that quiet people think more deeply or actively than talkative people. If this is the case, then I’m intellectually screwed.
I’m a loud person. Friends, family, colleagues, they all say the same thing: They say that my voice “carries.” Meaning that if you listened to a group of people on tape, you can pick my voice out immediately, trilling a little higher, bellowing out a bigger decibel. It’s not because I’m trying to drown other people out, or because I’m just rude, but because I take solace in using my voice. I use it to move more comfortably through the world. This is as true in writing as it is in speech.
My husband jokes that he can always tell when I’m working on an essay because I’ll talk at him, not with him. “You’re talking your way to meaning,” he says. “You have to vocalize your understanding before it’s real to you.” He loves me, so he listens generously to the one-woman show playing weekly at our house.
When we lived in Alabama in the house surrounded by cow pastures and no people, I thought I was going to die from silence. Our house was set back so far from the road I couldn’t even hear the logging trucks go speeding by. During the day, when I’d step outside to let the dog run around, I’d feel my chest tighten with every second of silence that encroached on me. That’s how my anxiety works–at night in the hours before bed, in remote, peopleless spaces, after too much time in literary isolation, anxiety comes and steals my breath.
I fall asleep with the TV on. I feel at ease in New York City.
I’m also a cardioholic. While Simon was trying to teach me how to regulate my breathing, I was teaching myself how to regulate my heartbeat. In college, at the campus recreation center, I attracted the stares of many a gym-bunny for the way I ran on the treadmill, pumped on the elliptical, climbed on the Stairmaster. I sweat hard. My ponytailed hair does not look cute. There is freedom in not looking cute while exercising in mixed company.
Lately, I’m addicted to spinning, a form of intense indoor cycling offered at my gym. A yoga class meets across the hall from the cycling room, and my instructor, a triathlete, often refers to our class as anti-yoga. It makes us laugh and taps into the cyclist’s desire to be something closer to Binghamton-style hardcore, but really, I think the comparison is less justified than we’d like to believe. In spinning, we work on form and endurance in our “poses.” There’s the seated flat, with arrow pose. There’s the standing climb pose. There’s the jogging pose, fingertips lightly resting on the flat of the handlebars. Sometimes we work on “quieting” our upper bodies and concentrating solely on moving our legs. Sometimes we use only our right leg to pedal. Then our left. With each pose, the goal is to sustain—our heart rates, our resistance levels, our postures, and our mental clarity to endure.
When I get restless or short-tempered at home, my husband never asks about my menstrual cycle. He asks about the last time I went to the gym.
I have been back to Namgyal, though. My friend Katie and I started going to the monastery’s public meditation on Wednesdays this summer. For me, it was part research. But I made a promise to myself not to get hung up on meditating “correctly.” Instead, I would meditate however it felt best.
Going back to the monastery allowed me a better look at the significance of asylum. Founded in 1992, Namgyal provides shelter for the exiled Tibetan monks who live there, which means that Ithaca’s empathy has literally saved their spiritual lives. Here, they can practice and teach and live peaceably.
The meditation room, located on the first floor in what would traditionally be someone’s living room, has about twenty blue mats and circular cushions for the public to use. The monks who lead each meditation sit at the front of the room, off to the side in front of the fireplace. The displays on the mantel and in the open facing cabinets and shelves are curious. Stacked cans of Bumblebee tuna. Planters peanuts. Del Monte fruit cocktail. An Ithaca College graduation medal draped over a light fixture. A row of figurines that look like Tibetan versions of Hummels. A vase of fake flowers.
The meditation sessions last approximately forty-five minutes. They start and finish with Tibetan chanting, done in rumbling, gravelly harmonies. In between, twenty minutes of silent meditation. The monks almost never address us in English, and never give us instructions on what to do with our legs and arms and breath. They simply begin, and in beginning, invite us along.
My friend Marissa, a writer and yoga teacher, occupies a special place in my heart these days as we–both young and at the start of our careers–learn to steer ourselves with our convictions. She, too, once lived in Mythaca, and describes herself as doggedly optimistic. But the writer in her reaches for me across the divide of our differences, and vice versa. When I’m sad—and like a good Binghamton native, I’m prone to sadness and pessimism, if not (yet) obesity—Marissa never tells me to buck up and hit a yoga class. She encourages me to write. She is intimate with writing’s meditative qualities. She knows how writing sustains. She knows how it slows. She knows how language itself can open or close down possibility.
In turn, I listen when she tells me that, just as people judge my curmudgeonly nature as unhappy, people judge her spritely nature as naïve. Apparently, to feel anything too openly in our culture is to invite suspicion.
But Marissa told me something really beautiful once, something that galvanized East and West for me. She said that her favorite part of yoga class is the final relaxation pose. “Sometimes,” she said, “I just collapse on the mat and burst into tears.”