The Reflection Of Perfection

Photo by Avni Nijhawan

Photo by Avni Nijhawan

“I like making people smile. It fills me up.”

By Adam Grossberg

At noon, the campanile bells ring in the distance as the UC Berkeley sidewalk fills with students. Heads tilted down, the crowd flows quickly, barely aware that in the shadows, atop a marble wall near Sproul Plaza’s perimeter, sits Benjamin Smythe. Legs dangling, he beams a constant, almost mischievous grin. Every few minutes, someone in the mob looks up and catches a glimpse of him and the cardboard sign resting on his lap. Often enough, they smile, wave, and continue on their way.

Today, as most days, Smythe, 37, displays his message, two bold words stacked one over the other: “You’re Perfect.” He wears a navy polyester running jacket, Adidas sneakers, and a black backpack. He has a closely shaved head and several days’ worth of sandy stubble. When talking to people, he locks their gazes with his piercing, almost unblinking eyes.

One man in the passing crowd stops, sets down a bag, pulls a camera out of his pocket, and points it at Smythe. After snapping a few pictures, he approaches curiously. “What do you mean?” he asks in a heavy Chinese accent, gesturing to the sign.

“What do I mean?” Smythe asks. “I mean that you are perfect.”

The man introduces himself as Jin, then pushes back, unsatisfied: “But, what is the purpose?”

“To see you,” Smythe says.

Jin blinks, unsure what to say next.

“There’s no real hope, just to see what happens,” Smythe adds.

“What is your occupation?”

“This. I have a very funny life.”

A funny life, indeed. Smythe doesn’t have a job. Instead he has his sign, a website, and a YouTube channel, where he posts free videos that explore the meaning of life.

Passersby often question Smythe’s motives. He responds with simple mantras that, depending on the recipient, can be considered absurd or illuminating. They might go something like, “I look at it as fishing for hearts,” or, “I’m like an ice cream man. I provide temporary relief, temporary moments of calm.” In a video made by an Austrian interviewer, Smythe offered: “Underneath all this stuff and turmoil of being a person is this calm and clear place. I like reminding people of that … It’s really selfish. I hold the sign because I love it when people feel good. It fills me up.”

“It’s like hacky sack,” he says. “The sign is an object I play with. It’s not as serious as it seems.”

Smythe came to this way of life seeking relief from the constraints of ordinary existence and, he attests, as a way out of his own despair. No one, including Smythe, would have imagined that it would pay the bills—eventually.

Smythe says his day typically starts around 6 a.m. He gets up, goes on a five-mile walk, then has breakfast with his girlfriend, Janet. They live together in a small space in Berkeley and share expenses, which has contributed to Smythe’s ability to survive off a modest income. Before Janet leaves for work, they usually spend the rest of the morning playing gin rummy—they currently have an epic game to 10,000 points going.

Smythe then spends a few hours on the Internet, responding to emails, booking plans for extensive travel, or making and uploading videos to his YouTube channel. The clips vary in location and subject, though they’re mostly of him looking straight at the camera and talking expressively. In one musing, he ruminates about how the mind is like the sky. All of our experiences and emotions are mere clouds floating by. No matter how much lightning or thunder there is, the sky remains unchanged. Everything just passes through.

Sometime after noon, he gets his folded-up cardboard sign, puts on his backpack, and heads out.

The seed for this funny life was planted in 2000, when Smythe met a homeless man in Santa Monica, California, who told him he was perfect. The man said he did it because he couldn’t see himself, but when people smiled, it reflected back and made him feel good.

Years later, in a moment of anguish, Smythe’s memory of the mystery man came flooding back. Inspired, he made his first sign and held it on a street corner for several hours. “It worked,” Smythe says. It made other people happy, and that brought him relief and even joy. One woman he remembers in particular came up and said, “Thank you. I really needed to hear that.”

But it wasn’t until 2008, when Smythe was living in Idyllwild, a small mountain town in Southern California with a population of less than 4,000, and working in a kitchen job he hated, that he decided to pursue a more enlightened life fulltime. He left most of his possessions behind and moved to Berkeley, where he has spread his message ever since.

When Smythe decided to take to the streets he saw his latest occupation “as a way to get over myself and to connect with people.” At first it was terrifying, he says. It felt forced and inauthentic. Now, more than five years later, the terror is gone, replaced by serene playfulness. “It’s like hacky sack,” he says. “The sign is an object I play with. It’s not as serious as it seems.” If people argue with the sign’s message, Smythe calmly responds, “That’s perfect too.”

After thousands of hours of sign-holding, Smythe has anthropologically divided people’s responses into four categories: no, okay, yes, and cool. No, which solicits shouted expletives and flying objects, is rare. Okay, by far the most frequent, is diverted glances and indifferent shrugs. Yes means smiles, waves, and thumbs-ups. Hugs, high-fives, and excited thank-yous translate to cool.

Smythe never got a college degree, but he has read widely and practiced Zen meditation for many years, and displays familiarity—even mastery—of the work of a gamut of enlightenment gurus he’s sampled. (He credits much of his own journey toward self-acceptance to a book by Cheri Huber titled There Is Nothing Wrong With You.) Earlier in his life, he had stints teaching outdoor education, yoga, and meditation. He says his life is guided by one question: “What do I want to learn next?”

What started as a simple experiment—or escape—-has evolved into much more. Smythe’s YouTube channel has more than 1,700 subscribers. They’re not just virtual groupies, though. They’ve become patrons.

Several years ago, he made an offer to his followers: Cover all my costs and I will come live with you for a week. He says that after a flood of responses he had to take the video down. Since then, he has traveled throughout the US, Europe, and most recently, New Zealand and Australia, living with strangers he finds through his videos and holding his sign. In East Berlin, he recounts, he stayed with a poor couple in a one-bedroom apartment. His poster read “Du Bist Perfekt.” In the coastal resort town of Rimini in northern Italy, he says he roomed with a family of seven, and the words said “Sei Perfetto.” In Stockholm, Smythe says he had a private room in a penthouse apartment overlooking a lake. His website displays photos of himself, often with the “You’re Perfect” sign, in Sweden, Ireland, and Germany.

His hosts’ motivations are always different, according to Smythe, and often remain a mystery to him. (Smythe would not confirm their identities.) Some people want companionship, spiritual guidance, or just a quirky American houseguest, Smythe speculates. “Sometimes I’m a little skeptical,” he says, “but I do my best to be open to all situations.”

Repeating his previous fundraising success, when his savings began running out several years ago, Smythe posted another video, this time asking for donations that would allow him to continue holding his sign. He calls it “Internet panhandling.” He calculated a year’s worth of expenses, which came out to $28 a day for rent, food, health insurance, and various bills. He set his goal at $10,000. He reached his target in just over three weeks, mostly through small donations of $20 to $100. (Smythe’s website also hosts ads.)

Why do people donate to him? Perhaps in large part because his message pulls the rug out from under the money-making enlightenment industry. Spiritual illumination worldwide is a multibillion-dollar business, from costly Transcendental Meditation courses to Deepak Chopra wellness retreats.

“Why would people pay to be told to trust themselves? Or that what is, just is? That enlightenment is all there is?” Smythe asks in a brief video rant about gurus who charge for their wisdom. “I just happen to be a voice saying, ‘You might not have to buy it.’ Why would I charge anyone in the world for what they are?”

Smythe is a bit more like a traditional Buddhist with a begging bowl. With Smythe, you can get enlightenment teaching for free, and if you choose to, you can voluntarily support him. It’s perfect.

“My dad always asks, ‘What do you do, exactly?’” Smythe says. “Then when I tell him, he says, ‘People pay you for that?’”dots-1

(A different version of this story was published in the East Bay Express.)