Take a deep breath

Editor’s note: Anthony is taking the week off, so we’re re-running a column from 2008.

Despair sometimes seems inescapable, and when you’re in it it’s hard to get out. The only thing that works for me, since I can’t afford cocaine, is meditation. When things get jangly, I sit down and shut up. Maybe you should try it.

I don’t remember when I began to get a notion of what meditation is, but I learned how from Dan Connor, who was then a stockbroker, of all things. Realizing that my despair was my own invention, he taught me self-hypnosis, which for me turned out to be mostly meditation, though at first it was a terrific mnemonic device.

I would settle in a quiet place in loose clothes and focus on my breath, in and out. Then after a minute or two I’d remember that I hadn’t signed my son’s permission slip for the field trip tomorrow, or fixed that window that refused to heal itself, or planted the bulbs for next spring, or called my sick friend, or bought tickets for that play I wanted to see, or made a doctor’s appointment to renew my drugs, or paid the telephone bill, or become rich and successful making the world a better place.

So meditation was immediately useful, except that right after I’d think of the absolute necessity of painting the trim on the shed and realize how the wood was rotting away while I was sitting there doing nothing, I’d also think of how unforgivably irresponsible it would be for me to abandon my imminent spiritual awakening and the joy that was only moments away to paint a lousy shed that was bound to rot away eventually no matter what I did. Another dilemma. Then it would occur to me how I’d frittered away my worthless life and was wasting more of it sitting there breathing while the rainforests disappeared and my hard drive needed optimizing. You get the picture.

After meditation turned into yet another burdensome task that I hadn’t mastered and further proof that I didn’t deserve to be happy, Dan gave me the metaphor about housebreaking a puppy. When the puppy missed the paper, I wouldn’t scream at it for peeing on the floor or berate it for not understanding English. I’d just put the puppy back on the paper, over and over again, either that or get rid of the puppy. Since I didn’t think anybody else wanted my puppy, I began to give myself a break, one after another, breaks without end. When my mind inevitably wandered, I’d just bring it back on the paper. Breathing in, breathing out.

That’s still what I do, and that’s all that’s necessary. First, I sit down and shut up. And then when my slice of the universal monkey mind starts jabbering at me about the silliness of national politics and calling me names for not paying closer attention, I bring my retarded puppy back on the paper. I think he’s starting to get it. Breathing in, breathing out.