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Claudia Zelevansky Headshot

Breathing Room

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Sometimes I get anxious.

There's some understatement to that. In fact, those of you who know me well are probably already laughing. And anxiety is in concept funnier than depression, probably because it tends to manifest in more energy. You're not in bed. You're carrying the bed around in the hope that you will sweat out the panic. I have a friend who has to walk for miles when he has an anxiety attack. The adrenaline hits and you're suddenly Superman, except you're not saving the world, you're just worrying about it with superhero intensity. There's that joke from Annie Hall: "Do you work out? Well, I have the occasional anxiety attack."

If you've ever had a panic attack in any form, this will probably resonate. It's certainly true for me. (Both that I am an inconsistent exerciser and a top-tier panicker. It's taken me a decade to associate getting my heart rate up with good health.)

Not too long ago, I went through a period in which the anxiety was very bad. It wasn't funny at all, actually. It was bad enough that I was willing to do what my father suggested, which you know means I was in terrible shape. I signed up for a meditation class.

Meditation in concept, was not an automatic for me. It seemed a little crystal-woo/feelings, and the fact that it was taught in a group made me think of this course in college called Small Group Processes. (I shout into the Northwestern ether, "Do not take this class!") Also, meditation is centered on mental focus, inward quiet and deep breathing -- none of which I had had in well over a month. I couldn't imagine it would work. I couldn't imagine anything would.

But I like school -- any school -- and so I walked into the large, yoga-like room for class one with the attitude equivalent of freshly-sharpened pencils. (I also had real pencils with me.) I surveyed the space full of strangers, old and young, as diverse as a New York City subway car, and all of a sudden realized this could be very enriching. I pictured people coming together, with me as the benevolent (if unofficial) teacher's assistant. I was sure I was going to be excellent at it. The problem: I had no idea what "it" was.

My hubris lasted exactly 20 minutes. It was terrible. The sitting was intolerable. I kept opening one eye and peeking. My mind raced, the person next to me never stopped moving and the door to the bathroom with the squeaking and the thoughts and oh my God and...

I headed home that night, sweaty and in despair.

But champions adjust, and so I came back for class two with a different kind of can-do attitude. Less We Are the World and more Rocky. I would run up the Philadelphia Museum of Art meditation stairs no matter what it took.

It went even worse.

First I tried to win. (Like Rocky.)

Then I tried to get an A, which if I'm being honest is just a merit-based way of saying I tried to win. (Which Rocky would have totally done if he had been school-oriented.)

Then I tried to never give up no matter what. (Just... no.)

So nothing was working and plus everyone was starting to talk about how much better they were feeling already. If anything, I felt worse. I was anxious AND a failure.

Deflated, I dragged myself to class three like a grumpy truant. I had no source of inspiration this time, no power ballad, no pencils. Again, we sat. We breathed. We sat. Sirens continued to wail on the streets of the city. People still got up to go to the bathroom like clumsy, drunk elephants. But finally -- broken, frustrated and without any literal or figurative plan, I actually began to grasp what I was supposed to do.

You see, I realized that meditation happens inside one's own mind -- I know! Who knew, right? Why don't they tell you that? And as such, no one would ever know or frankly care what I did except me. I would have to do it -- or not do it -- for myself. There were definite structures to the meditation, but not to my performance of it.

That revelation was liberating -- but also disorienting. Who I am if no one can see it? How do I know if I'm doing a good job? But as the measuring rods slowly floated away, I got scared, but closer. When you are panicked, you will do anything to make it stop. That's one of the reasons you race for five miles, because if nothing else works you may at least outpace it. At its worst, meditation will do nothing, but at its best -- as happened for me in tiny but critical moments -- I stopped trying to run.

For the first couple of months following the course, I meditated almost every single day, and it helped a great deal. But then, inevitably, I was feeling less anxious, and so my practice started to fall into that Mary Poppins bottomless purse of good intentions (sugar-free diets, learning to knit, French theory reading). But not completely. Even months may pass, but it's always there, standing by for when I decide to stop, breathe and sit all over again. I get in my favorite, dented corner of the couch. I close my eyes. I am sure it won't help. But it does. Even with the sirens and the elephant walkers. Even today.

For more by Claudia Zelevansky, click here.

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