Sunday, May 31, 2009

Shambhala SunSpace - John Tarrant’s “Escape Arts in Delusionville”: My Average Life

John Tarrant uses some popular culture as a teaching tool. Very fluffy.

John Tarrant’s “Escape Arts in Delusionville”: My Average Life


Q: “What is the Way?”

A: “Ordinary mind is the Way.”

I like finding features of popular culture that point the way out of the mind’s prison. It is as if a trail of breadcrumbs had been left where least expected.

Sometimes these features are influenced by Buddhism, sometimes they are just rhymes. I find the rhymes intriguing because they indicate that someone has found a method for hacking the mind, and that the mind likes to hack the mind, which is where Buddhism came from.

Viedemerde.fr (VDM) is a French site devoted to the truth that life is suffering. Vie de merde means — well, use the Babel translator. In the French way, VDM is devoted to offering the truth of suffering as short, tight exemplary narratives that are classified by subject — Amour, Argent, Enfants, Sexe, Travail and my favorite, Unclassable.

Viedemerde often has a rueful or droll touch:

Today I brought my lingerie home from my boyfriend’s place and found some that did not belong to me.

Today I had a big argument with my girlfriend who accused me of being narcissistic. Leaving home, I decided to write a text message to get her to forgive me. Lapse or inattention? I signed off with “I love myself.”

When you post on VDM it is rated with a little benediction: “It’s true it’s a VDM, it’s confirmed.”

Since Americans wanted to celebrate the Buddha’s dark diagnosis of the human condition in their own language, FMyLife.com arose. FMyLifes are postcards from Delusionville, narratives of failed hope, more emo and histrionic than Viedemerde.

Sometimes FMyLife is a miscellany of simple complaints, but the ideal post depends on a mapping problem, an irretrievable misreading of a situation:

Today, I was waiting in the car while my mom went into a store to get beer. A few minutes later, some random guy was knocking on my window telling me to open the door. I started cursing him out, thinking I was getting attacked. Turns out he worked there and was putting the beer in the car.

Today, my brother came out to our family as being gay. My mother starting crying because “She wanted grandchildren.” I told her that I was planning on having children. She started crying harder.

Today, I was on the bus home and on the phone with my best friend discussing my sex life with this new guy I’m seeing. I was telling her all sorts of raunchy sex things we’ve done until someone taps my shoulder and says “I’m sure he doesn’t appreciate you saying this in public.” It was his mom.

The site is intended to prove and even relish the idea that the cards are against you and your life really is a soap opera.

FMLs are rated by clicking on the message, “I agree, your life is f***ed,” which is perhaps taken as empathy, or clicking on “You deserved that one.” FML provides a dose of despairing chaos in case that is what you need to tune your day, your job, your mind. You could say FML’s purpose is consolation by diagnosis — Things are out of whack, dude, which is the first noble truth of Buddhism.

So, that’s the story so far — the human condition: we’re all messed up, tough cookies. Then, crawling out of the swamp, as web consciousness evolves, is another possibility. MyLifeIsG was created by a couple of undergraduate UCLA programmers as a response to the question posed by FMyLife.

Instead of depicting delusion — in the throes of which we are helpless — MyLifeIsG offers experiences in which for no deserved reason, life rocks. It records common moments of the goodness of life, a domestic version of Walt Whitman’s garden variety epiphanies. MLIG has a user rating system like Digg, which moves popular stories to the front.

The ideal post is specific in a novelistic way, and perhaps really small:

Today, it was someone else’s birthday. My teacher made cupcakes. I ate one, and it was awesome.

Sometimes there is a domestic discovery:

Today, I decided not to let my parents fighting affect me personally.

Daisies are my favorite flower & I got some a week ago, They’re still alive & fresh & there for me to wake up to everyday.

I haven’t gone grocery shopping in the longest time, and began to think that I had no food left. When I threw together all the ingredients I had, it was absolutely delicious.

The other intended path was to record things that are rarer, such as unsought gifts:

Today some stranger put money in my meter while I was gone, to keep me from getting in trouble.

There is also a certain amount of wistfulness:

Yesterday, I convinced my sister to come home from college. I miss her.

Today, everyone in my family was at the dinner table, including my father.

and sometimes, the miraculous –

Today, I successfully grabbed a stuffed tiger from one of those plastic arcade boxes with the robotic arms.

The site’s inventors say they intended it to be funnier than it currently is. People post:

My boyfriend loves me very much

Or,

Today I had sex for the first time today

…which is OK, but not the original and more interesting idea of noticing the goodness in the small and present things, moments that carry their own justification with them. MyLifeIsG situations leave you with a goofy grin because they don’t matter too much, and yet they are great anyway.

As a further exploration of the original MyLifeIsG impulse, one of the MLIG designers then started MyLifeIsAverage. It parodies other social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook and readers vote on the entries (again as in Digg) and the site organizes itself in that way.

There’s a Zen story in which a student asks,

“The teacher down the road walks on water. Do you have a miracle?”

“Yes I do.”

“What’s your miracle?”

“When I’m hungry I eat, when I’m tired I sleep.”

That’s the spirit of MyLifeIsAverage. It offers depictions of spectacularly ordinary life. As it says, “This is a place to post the mundane things in your life, and read about what makes life normal for other people.”

Today was a day like most other days, except that I wore a flannel shirt I found under my bed.

The joke is that there isn’t a joke and especially that it isn’t emo, or gothic; the moment of blood, terror, betrayal, or humiliation doesn’t appear. MyLifeIsAverage deconstructs the heavy significance of our emotional reaction to things. It’s an anti soap opera, in which anticlimax has become a desirable thing.

Today, I didn’t have sex. But I’m 14 so it’s okay.

Today, when I woke up my legs were black. But that’s OK, I was born that way.

The student who started the site is Guru Singh Khalsa, a Haight Ashbury kid who went to UCLA. He says, “I am convinced that the reason that I find these so funny is a Zen thing. I started it for no reason in particular, other than that I liked it enough for me to feel pleased with it even if no one visited the site.”

Lots of people visited it though. MyLifeIsAverage was on servers that were intended to deal with 500 hits an hour. The tech writer for the Washington Post picked up the site when it had been in operation for a couple of days and suddenly it was getting 7000 hits an hour and Pepsi was calling about sponsorship. This is possibly too exciting for an average moment — heading back into MyLifeIsG territory.

The excitement indicates the paradox that people are happy to be welcomed into the world of the ordinary. The core point is realizing that pretty much everything people do can be an MLIA and there is a profound hilarity implied by that.

There is also a kind of ground clearing for appreciating events:

Today I went to the kitchen to make a PBJ sandwich. I went to the cupboard, but I was out of jelly, so I ended up making a peanut butter only sandwich.

It’s not so far from this to Walt Whitman’s moments of eternity in common life –

Now I will do nothing but listen…

I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clatter of sticks cooking my meals.

The simpler the better:

Today, I sent a text to my girlfriend. She replied with “What…?”. I realized my text didn’t make sense so I re-worded it. Then she understood.

Today I made a batch of 18 cupcakes out of a recipe meant for 24. Some of my cupcakes came out too big. They taste fine.

The heart of the site is how simple things endure even in difficult times. There’s a freedom in noticing what’s warm and alive. So there you have it: a bread-crumb trail out of Delusionville on a social network site.

John Tarrant is the author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros and Other Koans to Save Your Life and The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, & The Spiritual Life. He directs The Pacific Zen Institute, devoted to koan study and the arts. For more from John, visit his website, or view all his SunSpace posts.

Post a Comment