Did the Film Wanderlust (and my Life) Have to Go That Way?

February 26, 2012

(or) Why Stereotyping is as Ineffective in Films as it is in Life

I wrote a screenplay based on my experience at Spa Samui, a holistic health/detox spa in Thailand. Thus, I was excited to see the film Wanderlust, produced by Judd Apatow and starring Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston. I laughed a lot and enjoyed many moments. It’s one of those films where you are pretty sure where it’s headed, so I’m not too worried about spoilers (though stop now and read this after you see it if you want to keep the suspense).

The film starts by showing us two versions of the miserable life you get when you focus on stuff and status—first in a New York City micro-loft and then in a suburban Atlanta McMansion. When our heroes head to the commune, it seems like a welcome respite. We see all that’s good in the world about sharing, living off the land, minimalism, free love, and connecting to nature. Your typical viewer might think this is all too good to be true, and the film-makers don’t disappoint. Sure enough, we learn that the leader turns out to be a conniving fraud and that the founder sneaks off weekly to a diner to gorge himself on meat. This perpetuates the stereotype that nobody really likes being a vegan and that the ideal of communal living is only an ideal.

I could criticize the writers if only I didn’t use some of the same conventions in my own script. The fact is that there are many people living their bliss in cramped studios in the West Village and sprawling McMansions in suburbia just as there are many vegans who actually dig wheatgrass and don’t crave meat. In a film, in part because there is so little time, it’s often most convenient to go for the stereotype. Yet in doing so, it sells the film, and more importantly, its audience short.

When Jennifer Aniston’s character starts to evolve and come into her happiness on the commune, it’s a beautiful metamorphosis. For the first time in her life, she feels a sense of purpose and bliss. So why must it end? Why, in the front or back of our minds, are we thinking that you can’t actually live here? Where will you send the kids to school (even if you don’t have any)? What about your 401k? What will you eat on Thanksgiving? And how will you explain this to your friends and family living in the “real” world?

This hits so close to home for me because I lived a version of this fairy-tale. I left New York City in December of 2006 for a two-month vacation. After spending three weeks on the island of Koh Samui–twelve days of which I fasted–I came back to America, sold my half of my literary agency and moved back to Koh Samui. I was there for six months straight (and more than a year in all) and everything fell into place.

I wasn’t living in a commune. It was more of a little town that had everything from million-dollar homes to $6/night A-frame bungalows. It had all the great things you associate with a commune (nature, yoga, healthy food) and yet also had all the conveniences (wireless Internet, air conditioning, a thriving economy). I lived with a woman I loved (monogamously) in an amazing house that was a two-minute walk from a spa on the beach with a world-class restaurant, a steam room and an infrared sauna, a book and video library, and a great mix of travelers, businesspeople, students and healers.

With the exception of the bedroom and living room, which had doors that locked, our entire house was outside. There was no front door, and I always laughed about how anyone could steal our pots and pans. I would get a world-class massage almost daily for $9 and then drink a fresh coconut that had just been knocked off a tree. I got in the best health and shape of my life, honed my guitar skills, and made incredible friends. And while a part of me enjoyed it and savored it, a part of me never really believed this was my life.

Watching for the catch? So was I, if only because I never could have imagined that life could be this awesome. You may be looking for the hole in the story, thinking that this all sounds great if you have a trust fund (which I don’t). Even though I was on vacation, I met authors Hajjar Gibran and Jon Gabriel and sold their books to imprints of Simon & Schuster. I could have stayed and lived a country club existence on a tropical island on $900 a month and had plenty of chances to earn income. If I wanted to, I even could have put some of those commissions in a retirement account.

As for the healers and health practitioners, I learned they were human. Some of these hippy-dippy types drank, smoke and wolfed down cheeseburgers. This only made me love them more. While we typically portray people who are health-conscious as preachy and hypocritical, keep in mind that none of these people were teaching anything that they didn’t believe in. You may hold the stereotype that a yoga teacher shouldn’t smoke, eat meat or road-rage, but of the dozens I know, I still haven’t met one who holds out him or herself as perfect. In fact, I never felt more accepted and loved for who I was. Most of my friends didn’t even know my last name, much less where I went to college, and affection came based on personality, not pedigree.

I’m still trying to figure out why I gave it up all to come back to a more “conventional” life in America. Now that I reflect more on Wanderlust, it’s not the film-makers’ stereotyping that bothered me. It’s my own. I’m sure my friend Mark England would remind me that it’s all my own projection. And I would agree. Because just like most viewers of Wanderlust were likely thinking that living in bliss would be too good to be true—that you have to come back to earth and live in the real world—I thought the same thing. And sure enough, I came back down to the real world and haven’t felt that awesome since.

I’m ready to feel that way again. I’m headed to Costa Rica tonight, Northern California in late March, Thailand again in April and North Carolina in June. Who knows where I may find that bliss?

When I do, this time I will know that I am in the real world.

And since I’m the director of my own life, I don’t need to follow stereotypes for the sake of brevity or convention.

When I find that bliss, I can, and will, choose to live in it.


Yoga Teacher Going Postal!

January 12, 2011

(or) Before You Yell Hypocrite, Check the Projector

“That’s the thing about a human life—there’s no control group, no way to ever know how any of us would have turned out if any variables had been changed.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love

No way. Couldn’t be her. I couldn’t see her face, but from the back, the short brunette had the identical haircut as Claire. She was clearly annoyed, as would be expected from a mere mortal as the line at the post office slowed to a crawl. It only got worse when one of the two tellers, expanding queue be damned, closed her window and headed for lunch.

How did I know the fidgeting, exasperated woman wasn’t my friend Claire? Because Claire is one of the most amazing yoga teachers on the planet. She not only speaks of gratitude, love and acceptance but she’s the living embodiment of it. Even when I don’t feel like doing yoga, I’ll often take her class just to get a dose of her inspiring vibe.

Finally, the brunette made it to the teller and as she headed to the door, I saw that it was, in fact, Claire. She gave me one of her delightful hugs and when I asked how she was doing, she said, “I need a yoga class after that line.”

This reminded me of another yoga teacher who I had breakfast with after one of her classes. When her order didn’t arrive, she not so delicately stormed to the kitchen and demanded to know what was taking so long. I told my friend James this story and he said, “Everyone has a yoga teacher story, most of them involve road rage.”

I find it interesting that if we see someone go ballistic after an anger management class, our natural reaction is, “Well it’s a good thing he’s in class.” But if we see a yoga teacher or a spiritual practitioner lose it, we’re inclined to cry “hypocrite!” What we fail to look at is how said teacher/practitioner would have acted without their practice. For all we know, without yoga, the irritated Claire might have been the batshitcrazy Claire. And rather than jonesing for a yoga class, she may have been jonesing for a shot of heroin.

So why is it so typical to judge spiritual teachers? For one, it’s a test. We want to know if what they’re teaching works and judging their behavior seems like the best way to do it. We also may do it to give ourselves an out. See; it obviously isn’t working for her, so why bother. And yet another reason is one that I’ve been focusing on a lot these days—we are simply projecting. When we ourselves act hypocritically, we tend to be quick to call others out for what we perceive as hypocrisy. Yet is it really hypocritical for a yoga teacher to be impatient? Is it hypocritical for a meditation teacher to smoke two packs a day? And is it hypocritical for a health writer/advocate like myself to occasionally eat ice cream right from the container at two in the morning?

I prefer to use another word that starts with an H: human.

I just returned from Koh Samui, my former home, where my friends are mostly yoga teacher and spiritual practitioners. They do incredible work at Spa Samui and have been instrumental in the healing and happiness of thousands of people, yet none of them would be accused of resembling the Dalai Lama (big hitter). To discount their imperfections as hypocrisy or as evidence that what they do isn’t effective would be short-sighted.  Had I done so, I would have missed out on some of the most transforming experiences of my life.

The first book I read on health was Andrew Weil’s 8 Weeks to Optimum Health in 1997. Twelve years later, he spoke at my school, The Institute for Integrative Nutrition, and I was surprised to see that he looked overweight. So does that mean I should stop eating organic produce, having news fasts, and taking steam baths because Weil, 67 at the time of his speech, didn’t look like Charles Atlas?

More important, is it absolutely true (who loves you Byron Katie?) to say these techniques are not working for Weil? How do I know if he practices what he preaches? What do I know about his genetic make-up or his lifestyle? And going back to Elizabeth Gilbert’s quote, how could I possibly know what he would look like if he didn’t employ these techniques?

Most of us teach what we need to learn. That’s why when I find myself quick to judge, I recognize it as a projection of my own self-judgment. At that point, I remind myself that imperfection makes us human and it’s my choice to love myself, and in turn love others, in spite of those imperfections. Even the painfully inefficient U.S. Postal Service, I choose to thank for inspiring this column. I love you too!




How My Funk Transformed Into Whistling Zip-a-dee-doo-dah

January 10, 2011

(or) Put on Your Lipstick and/or Your Jockstrap Every Day

I’m not sure if I’m in withdrawal from my trip to Thailand or if I’m suffering a bout of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but I’ve been in a funk lately. I know I’ve got it rough: it’s 56 and partly cloudy in L.A. while most of the country is in a blizzard and I want you to cry me a river. The thing about funks is that they work to sustain themselves. The more I’m down, the less I want to leave home. And even when I’m out, I’m not radiating the type of energy that’s going to attract the right people and opportunities into my life. Thus the funk takes on new life—if I allow it.

My friend Felicia learned from her mom that no matter what was going on, she should put on her lipstick every day. It was her ways of saying “fake it till you make it.” That is, show the world you are together (the lipstick being one easy polish) and the world will put you back together again. Since Felicia works from home like me, she has the opportunity to hide. But instead, no matter how she’s feeling, every day she puts on her lipstick and faces the world. Invariably, she hears a song at the coffee shop that makes her smile or strikes up a conversation that pumps new life into her. And even if nothing miraculous happens, she’s giving herself the opportunity to change her state.

In basketball, when you’re missing shot after shot, the lack of confidence often leads to more misses and then a reluctance to shoot. That’s why you often hear that a shooter has to keep shooting. Stop shooting and you’re even more stuck. The only way out of the rut is activity.

As it was, last night I made good on my pledge to get involved more with my community and went to a yoga class followed by a potluck. I ended up talking to the teacher and will be her guest at a screenwriter’s group tonight. I also replied to an email about another project and was rewarded with an invite to a party for the Auburn-Oregon game tonight. And here I am, life-long night owl, up at 7 a.m. and writing another column. Things didn’t just shift. No, it was my actions that have rendered my funk officially over.

And here’s where things get really strange. I went to a party on Labor Day in 2009 (nearly a year and a half ago) and met a woman at a party who was divine. She was the type of woman who instantly made me say, “I’d marry her today, no questions asked.” Turned out she was from England and had also done a fast at Spa Samui in Thailand (perhaps this explained her radiance). We chatted for a bit and got along well before she put a dagger in my heart when she mentioned her boyfriend. Anyway, I recall e-mailing her just to stay in touch and not hearing back. Then, five seconds ago (I swear—I could not make this up!), she friended me on LinkedIn. A coincidence? I’ve learned not to try to explain these things, but certainly an affirmation—and a funk-buster if there ever was one. Twenty-four hours ago I was glued to my couch; now I’m whistling zip-a-dee-doo-dah out of my asshole.

When things are going bad, inertia will set in and want to keep you in the house. It’s these times where only your resolve will get you out of the house. You don’t have to leave with the intention of setting the world on fire; you just have to go. As Woody Allen said, “showing up is 80 percent of life.”

On Second Thought, Stephen Covey Can Kiss My …

May 27, 2010

(or) Why the Word “Seeker” Is no Longer in my Vocabulary

I feel a bit like Amy Adams’ character in the film Julie and Julia the moment she realized that people were actually reading her blog. Though I’ve never met her, Roberta is also an alum of Spa Samui, the detox spa in Thailand that changed my live. When she complimented my blog, I responded by writing, “I’m now working on clarifying the central theme of my message, and I think it’s about SEEKING.”

Roberta’s response was: “I was a student of Adi Da for seven years at one time. He said something on this topic that has stayed with me, which is ‘ALL seeking is suffering.’ Kinda’ like you can’t enjoy the Garden if you’re always running outside to chase some butterfly which you are convinced is much more exotic and appealing than “the Garden”. And you are always somewhat miserable because even if you catch a butterfly or two, you are still deeply unsatisfied. In fact, until we deeply relax and abandon all ‘agendas,’ it seems that we don’t even know that we are IN “the Garden”!

Her e-mail stopped me in my tracks. When I talk and write about goal setting, visualization, creating change, and being more efficient, it implies living a better life. It also implies that there is something better than the present, better than what we are experiencing now. And not to get too Eckhart Tolle on you, but all that exists is now. Perhaps even more dangerous than thinking there is a better life than now, is the idea that we, as human beings, can somehow be “better” than who we are in this moment.

As I wrote in a previous column, the term “transformational work” is really a misnomer. It’s not about transforming; it’s simply about getting rid of the wax so the bell (who we really are) can shine brighter and ring clearer. We don’t need to transform—or to seek. If anything, we need to appreciate who we are and re-connect to that essence.

The irony is that as I was writing this, I emailed one of my coaching clients with a very Covey-esque challenge that her goals be specific, quantifiable, and have a deadline. If it seems like I’m swinging the pendulum, get used to it. There are multiple ways of looking at things and you have to find your own balance. After living in the New York City rat race for three years followed by the yoga and daily massage paradise of Koh Samui, I’m still finding my balance. For me, goal-setting is a useful tool, and Stephen Covey is a great resource. So no, I’m not asking Covey to kiss anything; I just need to remember that setting goals and “seeking” are not synonymous. And that this moment, and me, are perfect as they are.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist…and be even more perfect tomorrow.


Roberta suggested the work of Andrew Cohen. He addresses the apparent paradox between “being still” and “having goals” fully in his teaching, which he is now calling “Being and Becoming.”