My fingers grip a desktop so tightly pressed one almost misses the fact that it’s not wood at all. A highly polished blizzard of wooden dust and gluey, formaldehyde-laden soup, almost certainly. It is full of emptiness and poison.
If one of the staffers were to walk in right now they’d see a body erect behind an oversized Apple monitor, the face a frozen stelae.
They may also see the white-creased joints and tips of eight fingers lined up a few inches behind the keypad. Inside, this body vibrates violently, its entire biology screaming a warning. I want to run. Instead I freeze. Breath is drawn as if through a crackling reed or wheeled up like water from a well. It enters and exits my core in deep, directed breathes. Then pause. Then nothing.
Moments pass before the next inhalation comes with a start. The process levels out again with a steady yogic exhalation moving, almost imperceptibly, a creased corner of a lunch receipt.
“I’ve got to get the fuck out of here,” I mutter.
Instead I sit for another ten, twenty minutes. This is work, after all. I’m supposed to be here, at my station, controlling the flow of information, orders, productivity. But I’m just here for show, waiting for my replacement. I’m living up to my word not to leave until then, or at least not before the end of the year.
I stand up and walk. The shortest route from my chair to the stairs, down and out, out and up the street, down a set of stone steps to the river. I walk with attention. A few times I cry, just a little, as I ask God what is wrong with me, why I’m not getting better. Once or twice I deliver it like an affirmation, thanking Deity for taking away my anxiety.
Sometimes that works. More often I just focus on my breathing and observe the moment: the shape of trees, clouds, the way my feet sweep over the cement path, the push of gravity, my thickness. Maybe I repeat slowly, with control, “May all sentient creatures everywhere be happy.” Maybe I imagine my breath is wind filling not my lungs, but my heart. That this wind starts and stops here inside this mystical organ that directs the universe.
I am sitting by the water. I am crossing a bridge. I am on a dirt path. I am losing focus. A barge moves by — I don’t remember hearing it — and the water folds back, back upon itself, inverting the wall, the path, the bushes and trees of the opposing bank. I am losing focus. One fold into the next, water always changing hands, hiding another emptiness.
Beneath the dancing surface is fluid space, its meanderings imperceptible without the occasional snip of cottonwood leaf or piece of plastic betraying a hidden whorl. It hides (buries?) the homes of river cooters and aluminum cans, engine parts and leaden fishing weights.
Sometimes there are fish. Their only notice a sudden, audible redirection of the shimmering collage and streaming ripples that will travel until they die, this way or another. One less insect sitting on the light.
A convincing teacher (reanimated by my car’s compact disc player and stereo speakers) once told me, “Suffering is the repeated unwillingness to accept things as they are.”
I took it to heart. I made lists. Everything I could think of that I regretted, disliked, resented went on them. I made other lists, too. Lists of acceptance. One from last September read:
I accept completely who I am and take full responsibility for all my actions: good, bad, neutral.
I accept that I am prone to panic attacks and intense bouts of depression.
I accept that I live in [insert resented municipality here] and likely will for at least four more years.
I embrace my heart that is full to bursting with the desire for love, service, companionship, …
I’ve crossed out: “
+ resist motivations of self-interested love or ego or …”
Once I distrusted every pulse that came from my heart. After all, there was a time I had chosen self-destruction and nearly secured it. Now that I’ve set my mind on living I’ve started to see the heart as the only voicebox for both the evolved and assembled portions of my brain and my best shot at liberation.
I listen to every squirm. I lose focus. I redirect my gaze. I get lost in the swirl of shapes, the rebounding ripples, the exploding gulps of air at the surface.
Sure it feels like reading tea leaves today, but practice. Practice.
I return to the office uninterrupted. I reach my office alone. I answer a few emails. I watch a video. No one monopolizes my time any more. Not since I gave notice. Not since I gathered my team together to tell them I’d been having panic attacks for months. But slyly, one by one, they’ve begun to tell me their secrets. Their troubles. Nearly all of them.
They’re secrets that I’ve kept. They travel within me, stirred up in my own emptiness only when my attention dives deeper to sift through the cool murk. Only then do such secrets reenter awareness. Every walk I take is a sifting through what has come before and been deposited in the depths. But then I’ve lost focus. I have to focus again.