Faking It (written 2015)

12/02/2015 09:19

“Faking it” sounds like a dishonest act. Pretending to be something that you are not. Yet once at a retreat, someone in the group asked the wise and experienced lay leader “What do you think of the adage 'fake it till you make it'?” and she answered that it was absolutely good advice.


The question came, I'm sure, from that overwhelming feeling we may have as we set out to open our hearts and change our minds, that there is an impossible perfection we're striving for. That even giving it our best shot, we're never going to get there. It comes, I think, from a sense of inadequacy and self-judgment. Only a saint could measure up.


I've given the teacher's answer a lot of thought since then. I've watched its impact on my own practice. And I've sat with it in meditations centering on loving-kindness, on equanimity and on compassion. And its wisdom, I'm convinced, runs deep.


Body, breath, mind and heart are intimately connected. When we are full of fear, our breathing changes,our heart rate quickens. When we are anxious, our stomach clenches, we have trouble sleeping, and we may suffer from headaches. When we relax in the warmth of a steam room or under the hands of a massage therapist, our minds unclench and our thoughts soften. Cycles of anxious mind-chatter quieten awhile. Breathe long and deep and you'll begin to relax. Deliberately make your breaths quick and short and you'll feel not just energy but, after a moment or two, the seeds of panic. Our thoughts influence our world, our bodies. And the postures and actions, the behavior of our bodies, influence the quality and content of our thoughts.


Thich Nhat Hanh says that while joy may be the cause of our smile, it is also possible for a smile to be the cause of our joy. His meditation instructions include curving the lips upward in a smile. Try it and you'll find a lifting of the heart, a lightening of the mind, is inevitable. Is this smile false? Is this faking joy? I think the question of which came first is one of those that mysteriously disappears, a kind of Zen magic trick. But there is a caution here. There are two kinds of “faking”: the distinction arises at the level of intention.


We often think that to pretend, to fake it, indicates duplicity. And this can be the case. When faking it is motivated by the intention to deceive, then it is a dangerous thing. Not dangerous just for the victim who may be taken in, but for the heart of the deceiver who is engaging in unskillful thought and action. If you put on smiles and kindness in order to convince your aunt to loan you money for a new car, this is duplicity. The intention is to take advantage, to harm another in seeking selfish ends.


How different is this from the mother who, tired and wanting only to rest at the end of the day, pretends to be excited about the sledding outing she has promised her child. Who, intending to please the child, intending to bring something good into the day, fakes her excitement. What often happens in this case, is that what began as a case of “pretend” gives rise to real joy for both mother and child.


Ajahn Sucitto suggests that the measure of what he calls the “great intention” is whether it is “for my welfare, for the welfare of others and leading to peace.” In choosing to smile when we sit to meditate, whether we feel like smiling or not right then, whether we feel like meditating or not right then, we choose what benefits ourselves and others, we choose what leads to peace. The skillfulness arises in knowing that when I am aiming not at perfection, but at harmony and non-harm in this moment, though I may need to “fake” the current action, I am working change on my own heart and mind.


Our impulses do not change in an instant. But as we learn to see them, we learn that we do not need to follow them. I can snap at the person who interrupted me, or I can take a deep breath and fake it, by responding with patience. Chances are that if I do the latter, I will notice the irritation evaporating.

If our deepest intention is real, faking it becomes making it, one action at a time.