Point of View, Epiode 16: It’s Funny Because It’s (Sometimes) True
Episode 16 of the Point of View Podcast: In which we are far apart, but still connected to each other.
Stephanie: Hey there, I’m Stephanie Domet, I’m the managing editor at Mindful Magazine.
Barry: And I’m Barry Boyce. I’m the founding editor of Mindful Magazine and mindful.org. And I write the regular column Point of View.
Stephanie: And this is the Point of View podcast.
Welcome to a special, pandemic edition of Point of View. As we record this—me in my home, and Barry in his—many places around the world are locked down, quarantining, self-isolating, social or physical distancing—whatever you want to call it, we are doing it. Separately. Via Zoom! So today on Point of View, we’re glad to have an opportunity to come together in this way and talk about mindfulness and meditation and a particularly delicious spoofing of the mindfulness world courtesy of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s brilliant BBC show, Fleabag.
Hello, Barry Boyce!
Barry: Hey Steph, hey listeners out there! Hope you’re surviving the pandemic as best as possible.
Stephanie: Nice to have a chance to be together, hey Barry?
Barry: Yes, Once again on Zoom. I’m living on Zoom. It feels like another appendage.
Stephanie: Yes, me too. Everything happens on Zoom now, I’m having a happy hour later, coffee with a friend tomorrow morning—yup. Going to a literary festival, and chatting with you which I’m glad to be doing.
One of the things this period of self-isolation has afforded me, Barry, is the chance to watch all of Fleabag, in two big gulps. It also afforded me the chance to watch Tiger King, but I feel that that is a whole other conversation.
Barry: That certainly is a whole other conversation!
Stephanie: We’ll maybe leave that one for now.
But you’ve watched Fleabag and I wanna know what you want to say about Fleabag for those who have not yet gulped it up, as I have.
Barry: Fleabag is a half an hour dramedy. I think it’s about eight episodes per season kind of thing. You can gobble it up quickly or you can take it in doses. It’s part of a kind of show where it’s the theater of the awkward. The characters show an incredible amount of vulnerability which is often extremely hilarious and also very poignant. That’s what I love about it. There’s a couple—well more than a couple actually of really talented women doing some shows like this. There’s Issa Rae that has a wonderful show that’s in the 4th season called Insecure. Her co-star there is a Nigerian-American actress named Yvonne Orji and they explore in a similar way awkwardness, and the quality of friendships. And your relationships with your family and just also some really poignant moments come out and a lot of hilarity, we really get to laugh at ourselves. I don’t know much more I can say. It’s kinda profane, as is Insecure, but the profane is often where our awkwardness and vulnerabilities come out.
Stephanie: Wow, that’s an interesting take.
You write about this particular episode in the June issue of the magazine, in which Fleabag and her sister attend a silent meditation retreat. I feel like there’s so much to unpack in this little 30 minute episode—First of all, their father gifts them this retreat, clearly hoping that Fleabag will emerge … better, somehow. Or maybe just different. You write “this is the one-and-done approach to mindfulness”—and it’s really made more delicious to me by the fact that Fleabag herself has not chosen it, but rather has had it thrust upon her.
Barry: Yeah I think it’s really interesting the relationship that the sisters have with their dad. He tries to suppress and push down all the weirdness and vulnerabilities and challenges in their lives. Keep a lid on it all, so this is yet another attempt at doing that. Imagine somebody trying to tell you that you’re unbearable by sending you away to a mindfulness retreat. So that in itself is pretty amusing. And the two sisters are very different, and then now they’re locked up together in this silent retreat. As I say in the piece it’s a perfect depiction of the cliché version of Mindfulness.
Stephanie: It’s quite punitive, this retreat.
Barry: Yeah, well it’s also, the leader of the retreat is really super passive aggressive.
Barry: Ya know, “now just relax and be yourself,” but there’s no talking, and she has them cleaning the floors and they’re like galley slaves. When the writers picked up bits and pieces from actual retreats. Like on actual retreats, if you go away on a retreat, you may be asked to do some work.
Stephanie: But maybe not scrubbing the grout with a toothbrush kind of work?
Barry: Yeah not usually. Usually not. No.
I have cleaned a few bathrooms. But generally you’re cutting up vegetables, and usually the people who are cleaning the bathrooms are not also cutting up vegetables, they’re pretty attentive to that kind of thing.
Stephanie: Important hygiene note.
Barry: I think of course the main thing is that rather than the people coming to the retreat having an opportunity or some space to get in touch with themselves, they are assaulted by a regimen of ooey gooey calm, and that’s not how mindfulness works. Mindfulness opens up a space—and so often, ‘cause that’s the first place our minds wanna go like the dad, he thinks you just need to calm down, that’s the image of mindfulness and that’s how it’s often carried out. There’s a lot of kinda creepy and crappy versions of mindfulness. Caveat meditator. You have to be careful. Everything that’s called mindfulness isn’t the real deal.
Mindfulness opens up a space—and so often, ‘cause that’s the first place our minds wanna go like the dad [in Fleabag], he thinks you just need to calm down, that’s the image of mindfulness and that’s how it’s often carried out.
Stephanie: Yeah I love this idea of creepy or crappy, and this retreat is really both. Creepy and crappy.
Barry: It’s also good. I love the send up. Ya know it’s really refreshing to have the thing that you’re into and promoting to have it satirized. Because I talk a good game but I’ve also probably done a few of those things ya know, been passive aggressive about trying to calm people down, or been kind of holier than thou about being “more mindful” than other people, and that’s kind of the main thing that the person leading the retreat is, like, she’s “more mindful” than everybody else and you have to kind of live up to that standard. And that’s a really crappy way of teaching.
Stephanie: But, as you say, it exists. It is a way of teaching. There are creepy and crappy mindfulness programs.
Barry: It definitely exists. Also, there’s the spa-like atmosphere. That’s another approach, you know it takes place in this posh mansion. The spa version of a mindfulness retreat is another feature. Now I know a lot of people who have opened up and operate mediation centres and it’s not exactly like running a spa.
Stephanie: But of course in any satire, there are some tendrils of truth right? That’s what makes it funny.
Barry: Absolutely yeah! There had been attempts to turn—it happens a lot in the yoga world. You know, you hear all the time about yoga retreats in Aruba or Hawaii, or the top of a mountain in Ecuador. Ya know, you combine this privileged vacation with your inner exploration. When the really authentic mindfulness retreats it’s just a place to go that’s apart from the world. That’s another thing about this, what’s being satirized is collecting experience. Like you’re gonna go away and have an experience. That’s what the dad’s expecting. Like, the daughters are gonna go away and have this amazing peak experience, and are gonna come back as different people. No! That’s not how it works.
Stephanie: Right, it’s a practice, which indicates that it’s ongoing.
Barry: Yeah, it’s actually more like going away to violin camp.
Stephanie: Right, and then coming back and doing your weekly violin lessons, and your daily violin.
Barry: Exactly, and you know, violin, because of the intensiveness, you’re likely gonna get better or at least unlearn some bad habits you maybe have, but you’re not gonna come back as Fritz Kreisler, suddenly. I don’t even know who Fritz Kreisler is but somewhere back in my memory, There is that he was a great violinist.
Stephanie: We’ll put it in our show notes. (Laughing)
Barry: Yeah we’ll have to check that out, just insert, in my voice some other actual violinist.
Stephanie: Amazing. We have the technology.
Barry: Itzhak Perlman? Wasn’t he a violinist?
Stephanie: Maybe. Cello? Uh oh. We’re at the end of my knowledge of instrumentalists.
Barry: Well in any case, more like violin camp than a peak experience.
And peak experiences are good and great. One definitely could have one in meditation or on a meditation retreat. But they’re called peak experiences for a reason, like mountain climbers they get to the peak, but how long do they stay on the peak? Not very long because the air is too thin up there.
Stephanie: And they can’t all be peak experiences or then that’s just the new flat.
Stephanie: I really loved in this episode too that there’s the parallel men’s retreat also happening on the property, and it’s basically just a lot of very angry misogynists yelling at a blow up doll and being lauded for “getting their feelings out.”
Barry: Yeah man I—that one—I don’t have, I haven’t taken part or been involved in a real corporation, so I’ve never been part of a sensitivity retreat, so I don’t have as much—
Stephanie: I’m sure that’s not how they go.
Barry: Oh, I hope not, My God. I’d hope that if they’re trying to learn to be more sensitive to women, that they’d talk to some actual women.
Stephanie: Or at least not yell epithets.
Barry: I think it provided a good opportunity for Fleabag to escape. I think at one point she goes over and joins the men’s sensitivity retreat.
Stephanie: She creeps down the hill to see what they’re up to.
Barry, I don’t know about you but these days I’ve really been feeling like the Mindful Vulgarian’s time is upon us. His day has finally arrived. There’s so much material out there right now about using this lockdown time to improve your relationship with yourself, or deepen your practice of this or that, write a novel, learn a new skill, I dunno. Invent something, start a side hustle, whatever. And most days I just want to flop on the couch like a discarded sock and mainline the entirety of 30 Rock, or get lost in building endless subway systems on Mini Metro. So, I can’t help but wonder, how the Mindful Vulgarian is coping these days?
Barry: Yeah, well good luck with writing King Lear while during a pandemic. I heard something today, if I could remember it. There’s been a new coinage, Couch potat-riat—so by staying home on your couch, you’re a patriot.
Stephanie: Oh, that elevates my experience a little.
Barry: Unfortunately Steph, it’s in a commercial for Burger King.
Stephanie: Aw dang it!
Barry: They’re trying to convince you to stay on your couch, be a patriot, and order a Whopper.
Stephanie: I don’t like that all of a sudden. Nothing against a whopper but…
Barry: But I like the idea of a couch patriot.
Stephanie: Well it is that way to show that we really do care for each other and we are all connected, right?
Barry: Yeah, it’s, well. This is a multi-layered experience. It’s just a Dagwood sandwich of life. I mean first of all you’ve got to think of people who are dying. You know it’s a very large number, but it’s interestingly not quite a large enough number that all of us know somebody directly in our lives who has died. There’s a certain kind of distance, but we know people are dying. There are quite a few people who are going into the front lines. I have a friend who is a doctor. He works in nursing homes and he said “you know what? It’s even harder on the orderlies and obviously the nurses who have a lot of contact.” Then there’s all the other delivery people and grocery store people. That’s the first layer. There’s a lot of pain.
And then there’s uncertainty. Holy crap, man, you don’t wanna think like even four days ahead.
Stephanie: For the first time in my life, I’m living in the moment!
Barry: There ya go, man, this’ll throw ya right into the moment.
Stephanie: It’s wild.
Barry: And then, when you go out it’s like an episode of Black Mirror. You know, normally I swim. I can’t swim. Ya know, swimming would be great, if you could have a pool in your backyard, which I clearly don’t have. Because it’s a chlorine bath, that’s great during a pandemic.
Stephanie: It’s ideal!
Barry: Yeah! But if you have to go to a locker room to get to a pool, forget it, that’s not happening. So I’ve had to do a lot of walking. So people are walking, and when you see another person you have to like “okay, I gotta get away from these people!” I don’t wanna get within 6 feet of these people, and there are people walking all over the place, parks are closed. There’s a little park in my neighbourhood, some people got fined just for walking there, and at the store there are these lines with marks, and honestly if you’d seen an episode of a science fiction show depicting this, suddenly it’s turned into your reality. Another layer to dig down a little deeper, it’s, you realize it’s uncovered vulnerabilities that are always there and have always been there.
Stephanie: Like what?
Barry: You know, it’s always possible to catch a disease and die. Our life is very interconnected as much as we think we have this private preserve, and it really asks us to look at that. I don’t know whether it will occasion the kind of examination that might be helpful I mean, we’ve been knowing for quite a long time that we need to reduce consumption and we have reduced consumption and all we can think about is can we please go back to massive consumption, because it’s the only thing that seems to make it possible for us to live. Maybe we need to contemplate that paradox a little bit, so we’re thrown back on ourselves, and on a good day, I highly appreciate that, because the whole reason that I became a meditator stems back to my brother. I had two brothers who were arrested for transporting marijuana from Mexico into the United States, and they spent time in prison. My brother Neil lived in a small cell for over two years.
Our life is very interconnected as much as we think we have this private preserve, and it really asks us to look at that.
I mean, he got to go out and do things. He wasn’t in solitary or anything but he was locked up a while. He practiced a lot of meditation, and when he got out he continued that pursuit and he inspired me to do it. When you find yourself in reduced circumstances, this is something prisoners know about. There can be a window. Look at what happened with Nelson Mandela. His imprisonment made him so incredibly powerful. So a time of having your circumstances reduced and your life simplified can allow for a type of reflection. I don’;t know if you need to write King Lear but it can be helpful to have a time of reflection, and the moment when I want to go out to my local pub and hug my friends, and the moment I realize I can’t do that and I accept that, there’s a moment of reflection and it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to go to the pub and hug my friends, but it does mean that I’m taking a time, in this case a forced time, to let go of some things, and just be left with what’s left—and that’s a real meditation retreat. Not like the posh version with the passive aggressive woman trying to guilt you into being a better version of yourself. It’s just having time when you’ve let go of other things to reflect and see what’s left and what really matters, and when we go out again, and we will go out again, so for me that’s the good, the bad and the ugly of the pandemic.
Stephanie: And there’s some bathrooms to clean and some vegetables to chop so, it is just like a meditation retreat.
Barry: Absolutely! Absolutely man, ‘cause ain’t nobody else gonna chop those vegetables. Not right now.
Stephanie: Not right now. It was great to talk to you Barry.
Barry: Likewise. Glad we could do this and love to everyone out there. Please be well, take care, do what you can to help and—
Stephanie: Wash your hands.
Barry: Wash your hands.
Stephanie: “Wash your hands” is the new “I love you”.
Stephanie: Thanks for this, Barry.
This has been the Point of View podcast with Mindful founding editor Barry Boyce.
This podcast is a production of Mindful.org.
If you want to talk to us about what you heard on the podcast, or if you have a question for Barry, you can drop us a line at [email protected]
You can find more of Barry Boyce at mindful.org—pop his name in the search bar and you’ll find some audio practices, tonnes of stories, and all the other episodes of Point of View.
I’m Stephanie Domet. Till next time… hang in there, friend. Wash your hands.