The search for a deeper understanding of self is both inherently natural and completely exhausting.
That kind of self-reflection can leave you sweating and chewing your toenails if you aren’t prepared for it. It’s the reason that we have reality television — so that we don’t have to do the hard work of sitting with ourselves and trying to figure out who we truly are. But we do reflect, because it seems more selfish to just wander through life and not think about what you want your contribution to be.
Since I was a kid, I’ve had a nasty habit of getting so anxious about things that I hyperventilate and black out. It could be about a phone call or a party or merely pondering what the hell I am doing with my life. Panic attacks can happen anywhere. I can be in my living room or in a restaurant, when suddenly there is gasping and shaking and trying to fight the tunnel vision and convince myself (and anyone else who might be present) that I’m not actually dying.
My shrink recommended that I try meditation. She sent me home with stacks of books and the instructions to just sit there and breathe. Just sit there. Alone. In silence. With my own self. I would have preferred a recommendation to massage my eyeballs with sandpaper.
I had an entire film career based on the fact that I could let my thoughts run away with me. Acting required me to completely believe the worst possible scenario, such as the fact that my computerized house was really trying to kill me, and let my body react accordingly. My mind was the master, and my emotions needed to follow.
However, I tend to do what I’m told and so, I sat. Every emotion that I wished would stay lurking under the bed, got in my face. Those voices pointed out all the other people in the world who understood how to do this life thing just fine, and how pathetic it was that I had massive anxiety about going to the grocery store.
But I still sat.
I started going to a weekly group that did Yoga Nidra, a deep form of meditative relaxation. Most of the other people in the group were vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. They possessed this disconcerting combination of looking both very young and very world-weary. They picked at their cuticles and talked about their PTSD. They mentioned their lingering pain from combat injuries and they pulled down their sleeves and tried to cover up the scars.
I stayed quiet at the gatherings, deciding not to bring up the whole “I’m stressed because I’m a former child actor” thing. It lacked the drama of mortar fire and made me feel like a massive jerk.
Instead, I just listened. I listened to these young warriors who knew more about sacrifice and suffering than I ever would. One guy told me he hadn’t been able to sleep more than a couple hours a night since he got back from his tour. He said this “chanting hippie shit” was not his scene, but he had actually started sleeping since doing a meditation practice. So, he was happy to trek down the pathway, which was draped in Tibetan prayer flags and Obama signs, to come to this little shed near the chicken coop in a yoga teacher’s backyard. He’d do whatever it took.
We sat together and breathed deeply. We sat with the voices that tormented us and we sat with the uncomfortable unknown. We didn’t fight with the doubts and fears and regrets, we just stared them down until they exhausted themselves and slithered away. We let go of the past and the future and simply practiced gratitude for this moment right here. Eventually, I noticed that I was spending less and less time gasping like a fish who had just leapt out of her bowl.
It wan’t like some lightning bolt where I saw God.
But I saw some peace.
And then I saw that maybe those are kind of the same thing.