Second Life

hangzhou2 hours southwest of Shanghai lies the city of Hangzhou. The Chinese treasure it as a jewel of the middle kingdom. Willow trees, arched bridges, temples, lotus flowers… it’s magical, and I have the great fortune to live and work by the shores of West Lake. Between classes at our yoga studio, I escape to recharge and be out in the flow. A hop on my bike, and I can be in hills of green tea within 20 minutes. A walk through the parks, or a conversation with the locals by the lake is a welcome change from the commercial center where I teach. See our studio sits on the top floor of a beauty salon for the nouveau riche. We are surrounded by Swarovski, Ferarri, Hermes, Armani, and Dolce and Gabbana’s flagship store. The irony of contrast is lost on many of the Chinese. To the uninformed, yoga is just another new foreign thing here. It’s packaged for fashion, a new lifestyle for the new money. Get your latte at Starbucks, new bag at Chanel, and catch a yoga class taught by a foreigner… the perfect day… just like in the brochure:)

In a city of 8 million, with a steady flow of tourists, you would think anonymity was possible. Not so for a white guy. Basically, there are always eyes on you. Never rude, just curious. Unlike other parts of the world, China’s doors were closed for many years. Tourism and commerce were both heavily regulated, and escorts required.  The average person you meet on the street has never met a foreigner, and my white skin might as well be neon as I seek a quiet corner to hide in a cafe between classes. 5 pages into a thick philosophy book, I feel it. Eyes on me. This time, it’s close. I peek over the top of my book where my eyes are met by the woman across from me. A white chick, and her gaze is fixed. Apologizing, Sharon breaks the ice saying her boyfriend was a member of the ‘cult’ that grew around around the book I’m reading. Ok, reading time is over, but this conversation has potential.

I was given Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous just last week. It introduces the teacher George Gurdjieff, and the foundation for much of his work in esoteric philosophy, told through the voice of his disciple, P.D. Ouspensky. My friend who gave me the book is a follower of Gurdjieff”s Fourth Way, and a member of his group. He is present, non-reactive, and patient in a way few understand. Sharon’s boyfriend had lived with the group at their center on the west coast of the usa. Her choice words weren’t exactly endearing; there was talk of brainwashing, something about zombies, and a long story of his eventual break from the group. I had agreed to read the book out of pure curiosity, but this was a tangible message for me to tread lightly through the pages.

Curious how we had both landed in this same cafe so far from our homes, I steered the conversation toward the present. She told me about her work. Sharon is an executive for second life, a wildly popular video game virtual world. In this game, players can create an avatar, a new ”me”, complete with new job, friends, housing, the whole deal. She went on to explain just how real people try to make it. There is real currency in this world. You can buy it with money, earn it through game play, trade it. People use it to buy property, advertising, even upgrades like plastic surgery procedures. Of course our discussion turned philosophical as we questioned the need for such a virtual existence. We didn’t reach any groundbreaking conclusions, yet marveled that she could earn such a comfortable living selling such an illusion.

Some of my best friends in China work in PR/marketing, helping brands establish a presence and cash in on the western wave. I have joked with them that we work on opposite sides of The Force. They selling false material dreams, and me guiding yoga lessons to see through it. Of course I’m always broke, and they all have tons of money, which can make the game more fun for sure. Again, it always ends in a laugh. I don’t take myself too seriously, and they don’t either. Why should we? It’s all a game.


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