About a year ago, healer and artist Bunny Michael started practicing a new meditation exercise. To replicate it is easy. You just need to close your eyes and envision yourself physically placing your arms around another version of you. Yes, that’s two of you, embracing each other.
“It’s so healing,” Michael recalled on a brisk January morning in a plant-filled studio/apartment in Brooklyn. “To envision yourself coming to you, holding you, and saying ‘You’re OK. You’re doing an OK job.’”
Michael, who uses the gender-neutral pronoun they, is somewhat of a budding Instagram phenomenon, so to experience their brand of spiritual wellness in the flesh is a treat. For a little over a year, Michael ― also an experimental rapper and occasional actor ― has been rising in online popularity due to their daily #Higher-scope, a regular affirmation meant to help others awaken their Higher Self. In other words, the imagined double Michael conjures during meditation.
“My ambition is to remember that true success is to accept myself for who I am right in this moment,” Michael’s Higher Self proclaims in posts liked thousands of times over. “I am constantly surrounding you in a personal bubble of love and protection,” they write, the text often affixed to dual photographs of themselves, an homage to the Evil Kermit meme.
Needless to say, Instagram isn’t always great for a person’s mental health. Scrolling through photos of people performing their best lives can stir up feelings of FOMO, envy, anxiety and obsession. But Michael, 35, uses their digital platform, anchored by over 47,000 followers, to encourage people to overcome fearful thinking and judgment ― online and IRL ― and replace those feelings with inner wisdom and love.
Michael wants to make social media feel less like a twisted addiction designed to make you hate yourself, and more like a community that sees you and genuinely cares.
In a vast world of social media influencers, this is how Michael attempts to set themselves apart. Their Higher-scope packages Eckhart Tolle-style spirituality inside the digestible and hypercontemporary form of a cute meme. The unique aesthetic appeals to a swath of Instagram’s most devoted users: artists, wellness obsessives, distracted millennials ― millennials who experienced the rise of Oprah, The Secret and vague dreams of actualization and now gravitate toward radical self-care, astrology and the occult.
Of course, Michael’s ideas aren’t neoteric ― the concept of a higher self is present in Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and New Age systems. But Michael’s strategy for disseminating their teaching is. What Glossier did for skincare and Rupi Kaur did for poetry, Michael does for New Age spirituality, and with similarly successful results. They’re the sagest social media influencer since KimKierkegaardashian.
When I visited Michael, they answered the door in a gray sweatshirt, jeans and winged liquid liner. Their hair was dyed neon pink at the roots and faded into a wash of pale violet turned white. “It makes me feel expressive of my spirit or something,” they said.
Inside their home, I spied a mostly complete puzzle, showing snowy mountains bathed in a golden glow. “I would never be able to make myself finish that,” I said almost reflexively. “Yes, you could,” they replied, living up to their online persona almost immediately.
Michael (née Melisa Rincon) isn’t from Brooklyn. They grew up around Dallas as the middle child of three. Their parents ― a second-generation Mexican-American father and Samoan mother ― opted to live in an affluent suburb so their children could receive the best possible education. Michael attended Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, and was always acutely aware of the ways they were different from other students; Michael lived in an apartment instead of a big house and had brown skin instead of white.
At home, Michael was known as the “sensitive child,” prone to crying when their sisters got in trouble, even if those siblings were being admonished for being mean to Michael in the first place. Sensitivity still plays a large role in Michael’s healing work. “Compassion gives u the vision to see through someone’s behavior to the truth behind it,” they wrote in a recent Higher-scope. “They have an unconscious fear they themselves are unworthy of love and care.”
Compassion gives u the vision to see through someone’s behavior to the truth behind it. They have an unconscious fear they themselves are unworthy of love and care.Bunny Michael
Like most people their age, Michael’s life on the internet began in the early aughts. Not yet the meme-happy healer they are today, the then-20-something theater graduate of Marymount Manhattan College was a musician peddling their work on Myspace.
At the time, Michael was performing under the name Bunny Rabbit in an eponymous experimental rap collaboration described on Spotify as “2 Live Crew-meets-Goldfrapp.” Together with producer Black Cracker, Michael created spoken-word songs at once dirty, fanciful and weird. Michael was the vocalist, adopting a deranged baby-talk tenor while rapping lyrics like “Mama sat under the tree and made me wash my dirty knees / With pocket posies marijuana, you can slap me if u wanna.”
The band toured with folk electro girl group CocoRosie and received some unexpected praise from former New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones. “I am fond of the deeply odd, occasionally obscene art rap of Bunny Rabbit,” he wrote in 2007.
Critical praise is great, but Michael was struck harder by the outpouring of goodwill they experienced from fans online. There were people out there who believed in the work Michael was making, strangers who expressed their support from computers hundreds of miles away. “We booked our own U.S. tour just by reaching out to Myspace people,” they said. “We posted that we wanted to come to a certain city and fans would make it happen.”
It was two years into Michael’s music career when they first read Eckhart Tolle’s bestselling 2005 self-help book A New Earth, which Oprah declared “one of the most important books of our times” in 2008. The follow-up to The Power of Now, the book stresses the importance of living in the present moment and creating your own happiness without dependence on material things. According to Tolle, the book is not intended to “add new information or beliefs to your mind or to try to convince you of anything, but to bring about a shift in consciousness,” using wisdom lifted from Buddha, Jesus, Bhagavad Gita, William Shakespeare, Ramana Maharshi and the Rolling Stones, among others.
Critics have accused Tolle of simply compiling spiritual thought’s greatest hits into a handy paperback; he doesn’t add to the body of existing work, he merely aggregates it, they say. For Michael, Tolle’s book prompted a spiritual transformation anyway. “It’s like when you’re a teenager and take acid for the first time,” they said. “You see the world from a new perspective.”
Michael and Black Cracker, who were also romantically involved, eventually broke up in 2010. The breakup precipitated the duo’s breakdown, and Bunny Rabbit was no more. Since they’d uprooted their life to tour, Michael was homeless for a brief period after. As a result, Michael threw themselves deeper into Tolle’s teachings, practicing Bikram yoga and meditation, too.
“I have to actively stay in the spiritual path or else I can go really off,” they said. “I think that’s true for most people.”
Michael also considers themselves a student of Helen Schucman’s 1976 A Course in Miracles, a 1,333-page self-help curriculum about shifting your perspective to replace fear and judgment with love. “Basically, it’s like ― this isn’t real type stuff,” Michael said, gesturing at, I assume, the physical world around us. “[Schucman’s philosophy] uses a lot of traditional Christian language, but a mystical understanding rather than literal.”
Schucman too has her critics. Christian New Age writer Moira Noonan described Course in Miracles as “Satan’s mockbible,” and many are skeptical of Schucman’s claim that the book was dictated to her by Jesus in a series of waking dreams. But the course remains hugely popular, with followers including Michael attending weekly meetings to fully absorb its teachings.
With Tolle and Schucman’s help, Michael said they’ve been able to work through pain buried deep in their past. For example, at age 15, Michael realized they were queer. Coming out to their family was difficult, causing Michael to temporarily move in with their first girlfriend’s parents. Michael and their family have since reconciled, but the trauma of that period still stings.
Inevitably, that pain ― and the spiritual work Michael was doing to combat it ― bled into their creative practice. In 2016, they replaced a list of goals hanging in their studio with a sign reading: “What do people need? 1. To heal from past trauma. 2. To feel safe to be their authentic self. 3. Inspired to contribute to humanity. 4. To feel loved, respected and appreciated. How can I help?” In search of acolytes, Michael turned back to the internet.
The first ever Higher Self meme appeared 17 months ago. It’s not a photo but a video, featuring two versions of Michael in a bedroom. In it, Michael One, in a T-shirt and underwear, throws a temper tantrum on their bed, pounding their fists into their pillows while jumping up and down. The other Michael watches on, unperturbed. “When your higher self tells you to face your shit,” the caption reads.
The video was viewed over 2,000 times. “OMG literally” and “Same same same,” people commented beneath it. Beloved queer astrologer Chani Nicholas “liked” it. It seemed like a sign, so Michael decided to keep posting.
These days, most of Michael’s Higher-scopes receive between 50 and 150 comments from followers. Some summarize their reactions with a simple heart emoji, others more thoroughly describe the impact of Michael’s words. One comment from earlier this month reads: “i’m having a bad day where people are trying use institutional ableism to get me down and scare me. I needed this ❤️”
In late 2017, Michael quit their waitressing job and started doing Higher-scope work full time. Much of their income comes from their Patreon account, which subscribers can donate to on a monthly basis. For $ 10 a month, Michael offers a customized pen pal service, to which around 70 people subscribe; half of the subscribers actually end up writing in. Overall, Michael has 238 patrons, most of whom pay $ 1 or $ 2 a month.
In January, Michael implored their followers to pledge to their Patreon account with a #Higher-scope meme. “I wish some rich person would discover my art and give me tons of money so I can survive off it,” the self said.
“Do you realize that if 10% of your followers donated $ 1 a month you could work on art full time? It’s not about rich people owning your art it’s about being supported by the community you serve,” the Higher Self replied.
Michael’s social media success has translated to other platforms, too. They guest-starred on a recent episode of “High Maintenance” Season 2, the web series turned HBO show about a weed dealer’s encounters in Brooklyn. Michael plays a “stoned AF” Brooklyn denizen who connects a friend’s parents with the dealer. Michael’s character is bubbly and phone-obsessed, their cotton candy hair matching their sheer, pink jersey top. The character feels familiar, like your typical millennial creative type. Which, in a way, is Michael at their core.
New Age sage, social media star, artist, entrepreneur, Michael is an unprecedented hybrid force that could only blossom in 2018. Every day, Michael inserts themselves into disparate timelines,sending their Higher Self out into a digital universe populated by other mega-meme creators like @gothshakira or @scariest_bug_ever. As their follower counts grow and their memes replicate, the banal experience of scrolling through Instagram comes to resemble something like a modern form of meditation. In doing so, they stretch the possibilities of the digital space itself. Instagram isn’t just a black hole of self-loathing, it’s breeding ground for empathy and peace. Followers aren’t just fawning fans, they’re gracious disciples. Likes feel more like love.
Of course, Higher-scopes are only one facet of Michael’s practice. They still make music, now under the moniker Bunny Michael. Their rap songs punctuate Higher Self ideas with florid imagery and a proudly slutty spirit. They occasionally perform at Brooklyn clubs and institutions like MoMA PS1, and their next album “Afterlyfe” comes out next month.
But Michael doesn’t define success in terms of bullet points on their resume. Michael says they feel successful when they are able to accept themselves as they are right now. Michael said all their creative pursuits converge on this single goal, and to help others realize it, too. “When you stop aiming for those small things and aim for a higher thing, to be uplifted, that’s when the world reflects abundance to you,” they said. “Because you feel abundant within.”
Not everyone will swallow Michael’s feel-good brand of spirituality, but for those who are open to their pastel-tinged version of self-acceptance and their utopian version of communicating with people online: Bunny Michael is the selfie-help guru you’ve been waiting for.
Bunny Michael’s upcoming album “Afterlyfe” will be released Feb. 18, 2018. There will be a release party at Rough Trade in Brooklyn, New York, at 2 p.m.