Shallow Breathing

Shallow Breathing
This piece was originally written in 2007.

7:30pm, the sun is setting. A passing siren breaks the silence. Outside, the wolf pack howls. Sitting on the floor of the warehouse, my mind wanders to the paper I’m supposed to be writing. I hear another siren approach. “Big fire,” I think, and then the wolf pack starts up again. There’s something about a siren that makes wolves howl. Maybe they’re imagining a giant wolf dog in the sky singing the canine blues and they just want to sing along.

Monday night, meditation group at Stevie G’s warehouse. Three doors down lives a woman with a half dozen slightly domesticated grey timber wolves. If a stranger appears in the alley out front, they bark and yap, baring teeth, straining at their restraints. Whenever an emergency vehicle passes with its siren blaring – close or in the distance, it doesn’t matter – they howl in unison, the pack mentality.

Sitting cross-legged on a zabuton, I want to howl along with them – although I don’t think the other members of the group would appreciate it. Ten of us, on mats, or in chairs, quietly meditate. Yet in this relative calm my mind races with thoughts and fears. I’m supposed to have a twenty-five page paper done tomorrow. I’m supposed to read a couple of books that I’ve no interest in other than they’re required for school. I’ve got unfinished client files piling up at work. I’m supposed to be sitting here meditating.

A sentence comes to mind. I want to get up, write it down before I lose it. I’m always getting ideas when I meditate. A wolf howls, my attention wanes, the sentence is forgotten. I go back to concentrating on my breath. Air filters through my nostrils as my lungs expand. Across the room, the wall clock’s hands continue to move.

I exhale. My left foot starts to tingle as it falls asleep.

I’ve written five pages so far – only twenty more to go. I should be home writing. I should be doing some more research. I should be knee deep in revisions – crumpled sheets of paper littering the floor. I may have to stay up late tonight to get it done. I’m thinking of caffeine, I’m thinking of a latte. I’m thinking I shouldn’t be thinking of any of these things.

Work was especially insane today. By mid-afternoon I’d had enough. I wanted to scream, “I quit.” Walk out the door. Instead I just held on, letting the tension go deeper into the muscles of my neck. In my office, sitting at my desk with the door closed, I waited for the day to end. As I watched that little clock at the bottom of the computer screen, the tension slowly crawled its way down into my back. If I stay at this job much longer I’ll be paralyzed by anxiety.

My entire left leg is now numb.

I open my eyes. The approaching twilight has filled the room up with shadows. Stealing a glance at the clock, I take note of the time. With one long inhale, I suck in as much air as my lungs can hold. I close my eyes. In the clouded darkness, a rather unpleasant childhood memory appears in a vivid Technicolor. I involuntarily flinch. The image mercifully fades.

An old soul song floats in on the breeze through an open window. There’s a sudden burst of static, then loud rap music pierces the air. Someone in the apartment building behind the warehouse must be listening to the radio. I remember the first time I heard that old soul song. Summertime: car radio turned up, driving across the Midwest, many years ago. Inexplicably I sense, or rather, I almost smell the scent of wet pavement after a hard summer rain.

The kind of writing that I need to do for this paper is totally different than what I normally write. There’s really no enjoyment for me in this type of writing exercise. It’s not that I can’t write in this manner, I just don’t want to. Consequently this paper has become more a self-imposed traumatic experience than just another writing project for school. Instead of addressing it like other assignments, I’ve made it into this big overblown ordeal. I’ve become totally self conscious, entertaining a host of negative thoughts: I’m a moron, I can’t write, I’ve irreversible brain damage from all the drugs I’ve done. I’ve even dredged up the fear that I’ve used up all the words I know and now I’ve nothing left to express myself with.

My right foot appears to be going to sleep as well.

The tension in my neck and back is becoming unbearable. I can’t feel either of my feet. The screaming voices in my brain seem to be getting louder. I hardly think that this is what qualifies as meditating. Try to quiet your brain they say. The “they” that meditates, the “they” that doesn’t work at a rehab, the “they” that isn’t in grad school, the “they” that isn’t me. My brain doesn’t really do quiet well. It does chaos well. It does uncontrollable obsession well. It remembers every screwed up thing, every unpleasant incident, every uncomfortable moment I ever lived through. But tonight, at least, quiet doesn’t seem to be on the agenda.

The meditation gong sounds three times, signaling an end to the 20-minute sit. I lay back on the mat, stare at the ceiling. There’s an electric conduit that runs up along the wall, across the ceiling, to the light fixture overhead. Last time this place was painted, nobody bothered to paint behind the pipe. Even in the darkness the old ceiling color peeks out. It’s sixteen feet above me but I want to reach up and finish the job.

There are people talking all around me, I know all of them, care about them too. These are my friends. This is a group I belong to. Yet tonight I feel more in tune with the wolves outside, and I want to howl. In another hour I’ll be home writing my paper. In the morning I’ll send it off. In a few days I’ll get a response from my teacher. Then I’ll start this same process all over again. Some day I’ll get another job. Next June I’ll graduate school. Every Monday, if I’m in town, I’ll be at Steve’s warehouse and the area behind the conduit on the ceiling will never get painted.

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