Snorkeling in My Subconscious
I’ve been doing a new type of meditation — “therapy” is an equally good word. There’s really nothing to it (all I do is set a 30-minute timer and sit quietly with myself), but the effects have been profound.
What I mean by “sitting quietly with myself” is that I let my attention go wherever it naturally goes, while trying to maintain awareness that I am sitting here, now, in the background. Whenever I notice that I’ve lost that awareness, or that I’m feeling impatient or distracted, I anchor my attention in the sensations in my body, then let it go wherever it wants again. If something intense, like a pang of anger, comes up, I try to give it space, lightly saying “you’re welcome here” to the experience. I try not to overthink what I’m doing, trusting my gut when something feels important. So if I feel like I need to cry, I just cry, without trying to check whether I’m truly present every second.
This simple practice has uncovered so much under the surface of my mind! It’s a bit like snorkeling — until you dive in, the water seems perfectly uniform, but underneath the glories are endless. One of the most interesting “fish” I have found are the emotionally charged memories which spontaneously bubble up to the surface when I am sufficiently calm. Here are a few examples.
- I noticed I was stressed about an upcoming social interaction. I let myself fully inhabit that feeling and… Poof!
I am back in third grade, my bully Victoria pushing me down to my hands and knees. Pulling down my pants. Sitting on my back. I am back in third grade, a humiliated horsey.
Here, now, on my meditation bench, I can’t stop crying.
My teacher, Mrs. P, can’t stop apologizing. She gives me a beautiful little bear-shaped stamp. She pampers me for the rest of the day. She has never scolded Victoria this bad.
I love the stamp, but I don’t deserve it. Doesn’t Mrs. P. know that today was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing but the culmination of the little cruelties Victoria had been piling on me for months?
The tears come, and come, and come. Had I carried this sadness here all the way from third grade? At the end of the sobbing, there is calm.
2. I am back in Oxford. I see every shade of ochre in the sandstone, every gargoyle. I walk across the lime-green quad to the stately dining hall. The space is as it has always been, not one inch of air misplaced.
The memory is dense with feeling. Intoxicating awe at the privilege of being here, at the sight of every blade of juicy grass and every sandstone curlicue. Around that, something dark and heavy. Nostalgia? No, the feeling seems internal to the memory, something I carried with me often across this quad.
I am inside the dining hall, sitting at the edge of a group of unfamiliar faces in the flickering candlelight of a formal dinner. Inside, the darkness intensifies.
Loneliness. The word comes as if from outside me, but when it lands, my body shudders in recognition.
Oxford had been a dream come true, but my time there was punctuated with periods of despondency. I called it depression; the word “loneliness” never crossed my mind.
I found it hard to make friends with British classmates; most of the people I was closest with had been visiting students who disappeared after one year. Of course I was lonely.
3. I feel lost. The feeling is connected with a sensation in my hips, but every time I try to focus my attention on that area, I bounce off, like there’s something lodged in there causing me to skid. I feel impatient, distracted. A minute goes by without me knowing where I am. “You’re welcome here, lostness,” I remind myself.
I am back in Warsaw. I’m about to start an orienteering exercise for my scouting troop; I need find my way to given point using map and compass. There’s a knot in my stomach; I have no idea what I’m doing, but it feels too late to admit it. Should I be going north? South? I toss a mental coin, grit my teeth, and go.
“Eve?” I hear my mentor’s voice behind me. “You’re going the wrong way. Are you sure you know how orienteering works? Do you want more time to learn and try this another time?”
I should have known this by now. Everyone but me knows how to find their way.
That familiar flash of embarrassment stands for more than just high school scouting. I suddenly realize that a part of me believed that everyone except me already knows how to find their way in life. I had felt not just lost, but terrified of asking for directions.
4. I’m at my first advanced contradance. After the first number, my partner asks: can I give you an advanced-dance tip? “Sure.” It’s easier if you spin in the opposite direction to how you’ve been doing it.
I can barely hold back the tears. I mumble something about needing fresh air and stagger towards the exit. I sit on a park bench and sob; the minutes tick by. Why am I such an overwrought wreck? Why can’t I stop crying? Why can’t I just go back to the dance?
I let myself feel all of that day’s pain and shame. From the comfort of my meditation bench, it suddenly makes sense. It wasn’t just about dancing. The experience had been a concrete manifestation of an existential fear: the fear of waking up on my deathbed to learn I’d been running after all the wrong things. The fear that I had never been as advanced as I thought I was. That I didn’t belong here. That I never belonged; thinking I did was no safeguard.
The fear was exactly this: I had been spinning in the wrong direction all along.
I cry during almost every one of these sessions. That might sound horrible, but these are the cleansing tears of music, of poetry, of safety. Most of all, they are teachers.
The more I’m taken back to the past, the more I understand the present. Of course I’m afraid of meeting new people; a part of me still believes that anyone could turn out to be Victoria. And when I realize that, the fear lessens.
I think of this meditation as mental reshuffling. An experience triggers a memory, which triggers a feeling, which triggers another memory. After I observe this sequence of events, it stops being inevitable. I don’t have to consciously try to stop it — social interactions just no longer send me into a panic; dances naturally stop provoking existential dread.
The more of these friendly tears I let fall, the fewer tears of rage and helplessness I experience off the meditation bench. I no longer need to avoid my feelings; I know I have space for them all.
All illustrations mine.