“I am giving myself permission to not think for the next hour,” I scribbled in my notebook. The jerking of the train made it difficult to write. “Everything will be waiting for me when I return.”
I proceeded to itemize all of the issues contributing to my overwrought state of mind. The list was long: money stuff, comparing others’ success to my own, all the things I had to get done, all the things I wanted to possess, self-doubt, mean self-talk. My thoughts were racing and destructive. And the fact that my brain had been marinating in a swampy concoction of wine, beer, tequila, and vodka the past three nights wasn’t helping matters. Clarity seemed so far away, peace a foreign concept.
How did this happen? I was pumped up. I was ready. 2016 was supposed to be the year of BOOM! Instead I was starting the year off, not with a bang, but with a whimper. I was a motherfucking anxious cucumber. I was paralyzed by a feeling of dread that was caused by no outside event or circumstance, solely my own brain. I was doing this to myself.
It started on December 31, when I was on a run with my roommate in Central Park. We were ending the year in the absolute best way possible. Ira and I discussed the highlights of the past year, and the things we were going to accomplish in the year to come. The excitement and sureness of my future achievement was intensified by the sparkling endorphins swimming in my system. I noticed for the first time this season that the leaves weren’t on the trees anymore. An inevitable rebirth was soon to begin, and I was eager to participate in this cycle.
I can’t remember how it came up, but it always does: talk of finances. I whined to Ira about how much I missed the easy income of working on a ship, but how my value of freedom overrides that lifestyle. It’s so tempting to go back, yet I left for valid reasons. But still… To visit a new country virtually everyday. To make a few thousand dollars a month just for hosting a thirty minute trivia every night. But the downfall: it’s existing in an alternate reality, removed from society. A glamorous prison. You’re forced to be “on” 24/7. If I ever have to hear another passenger say, upon movement of the ship, “Woah! We’re really rockin’ and rollin’ tonight!” I might jump overboard. But then I go back to the money and the travel and the close bonds I had with my crew…
I couldn’t think about anything else. I felt like a decision needed to be reached RIGHT AWAY. I was in a pros-and-cons back-and-forth tailspin. I’m sure Ira wanted to throw me on the subway tracks, but she’s much too sweet. A real life Russian doll. I was horrible company. The entire train ride home I was lost in my head thinking.
Thankfully I managed to shake it off and participate in New Year’s Eve festivities as usual. Classic NYE, I went too hard too soon, which resulted in missing the countdown altogether because I was asleep on the subway. But my dilemma was long forgotten amongst the drinks and the dancing and the friends and the laughter.
Unsurprisingly, I felt like shit the next morning. My insides were jammed with the aforementioned load of drinks, along with many slices of pizza I inhaled before conking out. And, of course, I had a gnarly headache, even though I had taken the B Complex pills my acupuncturist friend had given me a few days prior. It wasn’t long before my anxious thoughts started to resurface, but now they were magnified and spinning in all different directions. It started off contemplating a return to ship life, then morphed into a sinister case of cognitive distortion. Everyone has a debilitating fear of being homeless on the streets, right?!
It’s crazy. I’m really not the anxious type. Mood swings, yes, but not anxiety. Only twice in my life have I had it this bad before. Once a few months prior to graduating college, and once midway through my second contract onboard the ship when I freaked out over what the future might—or might not—hold for me. Everything has always turned out fine, amazing even. If only I could tell myself during my first anxiety attack, “Chill, buddy. In less than four months you are going to be spending the next year visiting over fifty countries on a luxury cruise ship, make a few best friends for life, and earn more money than you’ve ever had. Everything will be alright.” If only I could tell myself during my second anxiety attack, “Chill, buddy. You’ve never even been to New York before, but in less than four months you’ll be living there, pursuing your dream career, quickly making amazing friends, and experiencing life in the city you’ve always dreamed of. Everything will be alright.”
But that’s not how my mind works. Despite “knowing” better and preaching otherwise, I have to have absolute certainty before I can truly believe. I can’t sit back and relax until I’m sure that the future looks bright. And when it does, when I’m on the right track and can see the road ahead, I’m good. It’s the self-doubt that throws me in the depths of despair.
That is what prompted my visit to the Shambhala center on Friday night. On the bumpy L Train en route to the meditation sitting, I wrote. My intention was to get out all of my thoughts on paper so my head could be cleared by the time I arrived. This proved to be an excellent idea, because I was already feeling calmer as I climbed the subway steps to the street. I strolled up 6th, turned left on 22nd, and rode the elevator to the third floor, ready to let it all go and simply be. The energy of the lobby alone feels like sedation. Maybe there’s something else brewin’ besides incense? I walked into the shrine room and planted myself on a pillow in the front row.
As always, it was difficult at first. My mind wandered to and fro, but thankfully that exercise I did on the train really helped. I was focused, and re-directed attention to my breath whenever the thoughts crept up. Little by little the layers peeled away. Eventually, I got there. By the time the hour was up, I was fully immersed in the Now. The present moment had washed over me, and I willingly swam in it for a brief moment of transcendence. Or something like it. It can’t really be put in words, and there’s no use trying. Knowing it intellectually does nothing for you without experiencing it for yourself.
That moment is enough to sustain me for a while. But I shouldn’t wait to meditate until I need it. The problem is that, despite knowing better, I want to fix everything on my own. I want to solve my problems mentally. But what I am constantly re-learning is this: thinking is not the solution. Thinking is the problem. The ego hates meditation, because the ego ceases to exist in that space. It takes humility to give into your breath, because essentially you are giving up. You are giving up the reigns from your egoic mind and surrounding to all that is.
My problems weren’t solved when I left the Shambhala center that night. But I had the inner strength and clear-headedness to take them on. I regained what I had lost: the mindset of a warrior. I recognize the root of the anxiety as a feeling of lack or feeling “less than,” based on superficial ideals that have no basis in reality. The present moment is all that exists. As Alan Watts said, “The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”
Outside of the Now, life is just pretend. As long as we don’t forget that it’s a game, we can enjoy it. We can have fun playing in the shallow waters while residing in the depths of the present moment. Or as Shakti Gawain brilliantly wrote, “We can accept our lives here and now, flowing with what is, and at the same time guiding ourselves consciously toward our goals by taking responsibility for creating our own lives.” You can’t consciously create the life of of your dreams if you don’t know how to truly live in the moment at all. I forgot that myself for a minute. But peace of mind is only ever a breath away. Now that I’m centered, I can see the angel in the marble. I’m ready to carve.