Are you a Zoë or a Zelda?
Are you a Zoë or a Zelda? I’m going to assume you don’t know what I’m talking about, so let me explain.
On the hit Netflix show Bojack Horseman, there are twins named Zoë and Zelda. Zelda is the happy, optimistic, fun-loving extrovert. Zoë is the moody, smart, pessimistic introvert. And in a now-classic episode of the show, it’s suggested that all of us are, essentially, one or the other.
Either you like sad music or you like happy music. Either you’re cheerful or you’re cynical. And even if you’re trying as hard as you can to be a Zelda to “make it” in the business world or Hollywood or politics, if you’re a Zoë, it will come out eventually.
Which brings me to meditation.
Let’s say that the point of meditation is to be happier – 10% happier, you might say. But what does that really mean?
In some corners of the mindfulness world, it means taking on Zelda-like characteristics: seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty, looking on the bright side, and cheering yourself up when you feel down. Turn that frown upside down! Think positive thoughts!
On behalf of Zoës everywhere, I dissent. I think the kind of happiness that’s meant by “10% Happier” and, in some spiritual traditions,, “the happiness that does not depend on conditions” is different from Zelda-like optimism. In fact, it can look like the exact opposite: like being completely at peace with being a Zoë, having Zoë-like thoughts, and being, sometimes, a little judgey of the Zeldas who are always wearing broad smiles on their Instagram feeds.
This isn’t to say that being a Zelda is somehow wrong. Not at all! If you want to look on the bright side, look on the bright side! It’s only to say that there are many ways to be “happy” in the deep sense, and one of them is to be happy with being unhappy at times.
Here’s another irony. Because meditation often involves sitting by yourself, it attracts a lot of Zoës. In fact, it can be really hard for Zeldas to meditate. Some find it hard to meditate alone, which is one reason an app like ours can be extremely helpful – just having that voice on the recording can help an extrovert get deep into meditation without feeling drained. Others find it unnatural to dwell on the difficult aspects of our lives, which sometimes come up in meditation. It can feel more authentic to get out there and live. Of course, there are ways to channel that Zelda-ness into good mindfulness practice – but it sometimes can be a challenge.
And yet, even as mindfulness attracts a lot of Zoës, meditation teachers and books often preach Zelda-ism. Some teachers always speak softly, in cloying voices, as if they’re always relaxed all the time. Others talk about “finding your Zen,” as if living a sane life is about blissing out on a regular basis. Still others promise the moon, which, if you’re a Zoë like me, only makes you feel worse when you crash down to earth – as you inevitably do.
Real happiness is much deeper than that. Sure -- real, deep happiness is with you on happy days when things are going well, but it’s also with you on the day you visit your sick parent in the hospital. You may be worried about them, concerned for them, sad, anxious, grieving – but you are also showing up for a person you love, and not afraid to be present. You’re accepting your emotions rather than pushing them away. You’re feeling what you feel, and letting go of the urge to make everything okay. You’re not pretending that everything will be alright. Because maybe it won’t.
That’s the happiness that unites Zoës and Zeldas. It’s that skill that we cultivate every time we meditate: seeing what is, co-existing with it, not trying to change it into something else.
The benefits of meditation do not discriminate. This short meditation is the perfect thing to do no matter what your state of mind is like.
Dr. Jay Michaelson has been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay is a journalist on CNN Tonight and at Rolling Stone, having been a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast for eight years. Jay was also an editor and podcast host for Ten Percent Happier for four years. He's an affiliated professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. Jay’s eight books include "The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path" and the brand new "Enlightenment by Trial and Error".