Maybe the girls are just growing up, but this season of Girls, more than any other before it, seems to be focused on finding an answer to one not-at-all simple question: How do you live a happy life? This week develops the theme, following Jessa and Adam as their relationship deepens past love and into money, Shoshanna as her bubble of happiness in Japan bursts, and Hannah and Loreen as they look for answers in the world of pun-named feminist wellness retreats.
I’ll be real: I am the Hannah at all wellness events. There is nothing less Zen than going around with a group of fellow Zen seekers and showing off how Zen you are. Whether it goes by Zen, Tao, prana, or qi, the philosophy of universal balance and peace that makes up the spiritual basis of yoga and meditation is dependent on a state of forgetting, and Hannah and her spiritual sisters are the definition of hyperaware.
Between Hannah’s two-day retreat at Dhanimahila (which, amazingly, means “rich girl” in Hindi) and Shoshanna’s own discomfort in Fantasy Japan, this week was a surprising development of the East vs. West culture clash that was hinted at in this season’s stunning Japan episode. Shoshanna’s foray began as an exploration of the possibilities that young white women find when they venture into a different culture, but this episode suggests the spiritual limitations of Western appropriation.
Both Hannah and Shoshanna seek happiness in new settings in typical self-centered ways, looking for the yoga pose or the fish pedicure that will satiate their desire for happiness. But Zen is expansion of the self via oblivion of the self, and Western reconfigurations of Eastern philosophy can’t seem to reconcile that loss of personal identity with our own culture of constant craving. As a society, we find meaning in desire — note the supply-and-demand construction of capitalism — but Zen is a philosophy in which desire is irrelevant. What is there to desire when you’ve accepted your place in the undying and boundless energy of the universe?
This episode of Girls looks at the by-now-ubiquitous meeting of East and West as it happens in our increasingly global culture, and finds only paradox. It turns out it’s not possible to simultaneously accept things exactly as they are while still holding on to the hope that things will improve for yourself. Loreen hushes Hannah's comments about the designer duds that dust the entrance of Dhanimahila, but even the concept of buying a Zen experience implies a transactional nature to the universe that betrays the philosophy.
But, as much as it is Hannah who rails against the artificiality of the retreat, the ultimate irony of the episode is that the life Loreen finally settles on for herself at the end of their two days in Dhanimahila is the essence of Zen. She accepts her reality with Tad and commits to enjoying him and the life they’ve built together rather than expending the energy it would take seek a perfect relationship. If she had known Tad was gay 20 years ago, maybe … but this is an answer that Hannah can’t accept.
Hannah's mother pledges herself to a life of simple pleasures with her father, and all Hannah can think to say is “I think you two did fuck me up.”
Hannah flutters around the episode debating the authenticity of The Nice Guy boyfriend she wants to dump, trying out (hilarious, sweaty, yoga pose) sex with a woman, and for what? It’s not for nothing that this episode also witnesses Hannah’s ex Adam on his own Zen path, though both Adam and Jessa would probably roll their eyes at considering it in those terms. But Adam’s offer to pay for Jessa’s schooling and Jessa’s unself-conscious acceptance eradicates our culture’s typical insistence on quid pro quo to establish a system of give and take, where the boundaries between who is giving and who is receiving are collapsed. Adam gives Jessa happiness and receives happiness himself. Such is the utopic structure of love. We’ll see if their relationship can continue in bounty — probably not, given the way this show works — but for at least an episode it provided an intriguing glimpse into what these characters might look like if they dropped their self-determinacy and started behaving as a community.
When will life stop being so difficult for Hannah? When she stops searching for the thing that will make it easy. Easy, like Zen, is a state of mind.