This morning I woke up feeling relatively collected and stable, an uncharacteristic yet welcomed sensation to accompany me throughout my day. I finished my chores before settling down for a cup of tea; I can’t drink coffee anymore—yep, anxiety. But, as I took note of this rare imposter of calm stability, I pushed caffeine aside, reaching, rather, for meditation. I grazed along my gopher trenched lawn to a smooth space illuminated by the sun. I perched myself upon the scratchy warmth, crossed my legs, and closed my eyes.
These days, meditation has transformed into an elusive panacea, a recommendation from the dualistic ends of doctors and monks alike; yet, there are many who are still eluded by both the benefits and literal process of closing your eyes and breathing. According to the NIH—the only statistic provided being from 2012—only 8% of adults claimed to practice meditation. For me, meditation is a place of darkness where I don’t have to worry about what’s in front of me. The trigger of visual stimulation reminding me of my pending obligations to reality is rendered null. Meditation—with my eyes closed, consciously counted breaths, and internal gaze focused between the backs of my eyebrows—gives me permission to occupy my self-created space for a marginal fifteen to twenty minutes each day.
As I sat, temporarily disabling one sense, I gained another; I felt the familiar swirly wisps of anxiety smolder into my chest. I allowed it to just be. My anxiety is a wave I no longer swim against; rather, I surrender to, as it carries me to a new place of knowing. I refer to it as “creative potential” now, thanks to a healing haircut I received by a chanting yogic healer in L.A.
I lived in Los Angeles for almost three years and, during that time, successfully lost my mind. Cold brew was my power source, every relationship—both professional and personal—was fleeting, and I traded my old hand-me-downs for someone else’s at Buffalo Exchange. I had moved there to “become” a writer and actor, blindly taking steps in that direction, unknowingly developing the experiential skill of discernment.
When I first moved there, I received a few offers from talent agencies to work in the mailroom. Everyone, with seemingly steady jobs at each of my three internships at production companies, had all recommended I start at an agency, where the pedigrees of the business are groomed. During my last interview at the final agency to make me an offer, the head of the Below the Line Department asked me, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
I had manicured a formulated response, which had previously granted me access into another agency’s training program; a position I declined, at the recommendation of my then-current mentor, to see what other offers would emerge with time.
“You know, I don’t know yet. Sometimes I see myself as an agent and sometimes as a producer. But, that is why I am here: to learn and take advantage of this opportunity to work with the best.”
He looked at me without any inspiring confirmation that he appreciated my diplomatic response.
Alarms—muffled to the outside by the density of my skull—sent signals of panic through my brain.
“Now, if you’re gonna work for me, you have to be honest with me. So, I will ask you again: where do you see yourself in five years?”
The curtain of white embarrassment dropped across my face. My heartbeat—previously restrained by overconfidence—broke free as the situation’s trajectory veered off-course.
My previous performance had been to prove that I had the negotiation skills to do what it takes. So, I ruminated on his blunt assertion to be frank.
“Maybe he could be that one person who really does care about what I want,” but before I could slyly craft my neutrality with the illusion of truth, it escaped.
“I want to write and act.”
There was a dramatic pause as he stared at me from behind the pointed gaze of a rigid father.
“Then, you will die here.”
His accessible vulnerability caught me off guard as he delivered this morbid guarantee. I could feel the piercing edges of his heart snag on the remnants of a dream, the regretful reminder of his own inner call left unanswered.
“You won’t have time to do anything here beyond work. I work ten-hour days and you are supposed to be here before me and leave after I do.”
His words exponentially faded as I consulted my own conscience.
“What is happening? Why had every mentor, producer, assistant, and agent suggested this as the sole route to where I wanted to go when a member of the epitomized destination was suggesting otherwise?”
I had never considered the alternatives. I hadn’t gone to film school nor had any idea of where to begin to network and meet people while writing outside of the sacred waxed marble of designated industry property. I had always considered myself fortunate for even getting as far as I had without those shimmering prerequisites. So, why was this man’s unwavering advice arousing a change of heart—or mind—within me?
His proposal was that of freedom; freedom from routine, the regimented, the expected. Freedom had been verified by a representative of the realm of convention as a place that truly exists. Therefore, he was highlighting the subtext of my potential marginally-compensated incarceration before I impulsively signed the dotted line: to choose what I was being told to do was to sacrifice what I actually wanted to do.
As I dropped out of meditation, I peered around at the awe-inspiring abundance of nature. Its profound green that signifies vitality made more pronounced by the light of the sun, a sun that is a delicate balance of the essential and the excessive; without it, there wouldn’t be life, but, with too much, that life can be wiped away. I envisioned a NY Times article in my head and a discussion about millennials, as I forewent my tea (again), guiding me to engage my laptop. I typed “anxiety” into the Google search bar, clicking on the “News” category to browse for what I intuitively felt called to research. I scanned the first page of results when I came to Alex Williams’ article from a few weeks ago, “Prozac Nation Is Now The United States of Xanax.” It discusses that Generation Y (aka: Millennials) has been attributed with anxiety as a broad sweeping sociological condition, as opposed to an individual based psycho-emotional diagnosis. The most pronounced moment for me from this angst-inducing article was the contribution made by Kai Wright, the host of “The United States of Anxiety” podcast: “‘We’ve been at war since 2003, we’ve seen two recessions,’ […] ‘Just digital life alone has been a massive change. Work life has changed. Everything we consider to be normal has changed. And nobody seems to trust the people in charge to tell them where they fit into the future.’”
Amidst Wright’s macro observations, the one reoccurring concept is “change.” Many articles I browsed through were concerned with how change is continually manifesting rather than the proactive steps we are taking toward a resolution. We have identified the underlying “problem”—that change is omnipresent—right? So, then, the follow-up question remains: how do we live within the boundless possibility of change?
Even prior to 2003, change was happening because change is a constant. Evolution is predicated upon change and even science is still trying to figure out how our universe came to be: “The challenge for the origin of life is then explaining how billions of atoms could come together into a state of significantly higher free energy.”
So, perhaps, it is safe to say that over the last fourteen years, we have evolved at a pace beyond conception all the while major unpredictable events have occurred, reinforcing this truth that not only are we unable to predict the future, but, nor do we have control over how change manifests? That maybe these events were a part of a collective realization about the human attitude toward change to get us to look at life a different way?
When I first met change, I was 19. The Great Recession had struck a year prior when I was still naïve enough to be unaffected by the rhythms of the outer world. I danced within a fantasy bubble during my freshman year until a seismic after-shock popped my sheer safety net of ignorance. My dad was without a job and my family could no longer support my being away at school. Instead of fear or resistance, my initial response was one of adaptation. I would move home, get a job, and commute to school on my days off. However, that version of simplicity was only relevant from the optimistic point of anticipation of a future situation. Once I actually came face-to-face with my new reality—that felt like it had been created upon my behalf—home assumed a new meaning. My parents were empty vessels, struggling to make sense of the world just the same as me. My job came with high stakes as the front desk agent of a five-star luxury hotel, starving me of any free time to plan an escape route or even consider that as a viable option.
See, the reason I had never considered alternatives—prior to my agency interview—is because I had been shown that life is a formula by the generations that had come before me. Yet, in the wake of the recession, this structured idea—”hard work + education = success”—no longer applied. The structure upon which we, as a society, understood life disintegrated and we lacked a coherent back-up plan to replace the former failed ideology. Therefore, without any grounded guidance on how to proceed without a common system in place, we panicked.
Without money, how would one survive? Without an education, how would one get a job? Which reinforced the former fear, since without a job, one wouldn’t have any money.
Around this time, my anxiety inflated as an orange life-preserver clutching snug around my waist as I scaled monstrous waves fueled by this collective fear. Change was everywhere; I had forfeited the quintessential college experience for a broken family; the once fluid comfort between my mom and dad had transformed into a restrained hostility that was invisible, yet corrosive. I hemorrhaged tears between work and family dinners within the darkness of my room. This all-encompassing force had seemed to be the direct cause of my unhappiness—anxiety, my shield, and depression, my shadow—and I didn’t know how to find a solution. No one was showing me what to do or suggesting ways to cope with this accidental version of hell.
Currently, one of the people closest to me is grappling with crippling anxiety; the obsessive kind where one concocts hypotheticals in their head and observes as the psyche wrestles with each worst-case scenario that pops into the ring. All I want to do is help them by offering them the enlightening tactics that I’ve discovered for myself. However, due to their demanding job that requires the totality of their faculties, while simultaneously trying to negotiate time for brief inhalations above their flood of anxiety, they have yet to implement any strategies in a consistent fashion. Rather, this person returns home, burdened by these thoughts, exasperating over their inevitable return, and their manipulation over the way this person navigates through life.
What is one of the tactics I suggested?
During my initial bout at 19, I also had associated anxiety with a negative experience because of its physical distress; the more I resisted it, the worse it got. Without anyone to turn to, money to see a therapist, or the invention of Instagram to find inspiring quotes, I journaled. I wrote to myself every night, even when I was dog dead tired, because I found that through the materialization of my emotions and thoughts onto paper, they made more sense. My anxiety was a previously misunderstood catalyst; its physical sensation had been asking me to pay attention to what was happening around me and, in turn, how I felt about it. By looking at my feelings outside of myself, like words in a book, I could objectively see what needed to change and draw connections, based upon evidence in my own life, for myself.
Through this unwavering engagement with what my body was telling me, I was gradually rewarded with personal revelations. I eventually realized that my anxiety stemmed from this idea of life as a formula not being the truth of reality. Leading me to the second step of learning to live with change and anxiety: addressing the misalignments between the reality of the situation and my previously held beliefs about it. I had been shown that life did not happen according to a plan; first, at age 19 and, again, at 23. So, if I couldn’t control that change, I had to find something I could control instead: my belief system. By writing down new principles that resonated with me, instead of the ones I had been taught to accept as truth, I was choosing to embrace the inevitability of change, rather than resist the nature of its existence.
Over time, my engagement with introspection has evolved into a personal exploration for the answer to “how to live.” Which, I’ve determined is the point of life: to constantly be searching for that answer. Through this lifelong search, I no longer consider my life to be an externally determined constant, but, rather a work in progress. I am steadily constructing an internal house of meaning, determining how I see life for myself, based upon my constant reflection on what my experiences have taught me. Life doesn’t have to be defined by struggle via a traumatic event or a self-limiting diagnosis. Rather, it can be a stream of liberating lessons through which we create our own understanding of life as it happens; self-knowledge serves as the cement, experience as the bricks, and the acceptance of change as the ground upon which the foundation rests and expands.