A little over a year ago, back when you could do such things, I found myself at a “mindfulness” session, hosted by a fitness startup and held at a retail location in Flatiron for an athleisure brand that would later end up acquiring the fitness startup. I went because I was reporting a feature on the startup and I thought going would add good color, and maybe I’d learn something. I don’t know much about being good at mindfulness or meditation. I’m not sure I’ve ever relaxed once in my life. I can’t be alone with my thoughts in complete silence. I walk around my apartment with an old episode of a podcast playing out of my iPhone speaker while I make tea, or I listen to an episode of Criminal Minds while I make revisions to a story, or, as I am doing right now, I relisten for the thousandth time to Dua Lipa’s 2020 album while writing.
In pursuit of addressing my lack of chill, I reflected on a time that illustrated my complete inability to relax. When I first started seeing my therapist 15 months ago, I marched into her office on day one with a hand-written chart, color-coded in highlighter by urgency and priority, of things I wanted to discuss. Much in the same way that I showed up every day fall semester freshman year to COM 107: Communications and Society, sat in the front row, raised my hand to answer every question, and completed every extra credit assignment even though I already had an A, I was trying to impress my therapist. I admitted this to her a week later when we started getting into the real stuff but I didn’t have to. She told me this is a common thing with her clients. I guess everyone wants to make a good first impression on the person they’ve decided to entrust with their baggage.
Even when I’m doing a nice, ostensibly relaxing activity I have no chill. Two years ago when my friends went up to Hudson for the weekend, we arrived late in the night after battling Friday evening rush hour traffic. Instead of simply relaxing for a moment, we took to our roles instantly: Emma set off the entire alarm system in the house and opened a bottle of orange wine, and I prepared a whole chicken and several sides for dinner for 6 people. Doing everything, always is the only way I know how to function, and it’s nice when it happens to benefit the people I care about. There’s something gratifying about playing this role in all of my relationships but sometimes I can feel the exhaustion seep into my bones. It’s a self-imposed compulsion and there’s nobody to blame but myself. This makes me sound like I’m miserable, but I’m not. I’m just always on. It’s how I’ve always been. It’s what makes me good at the things I’m good at, but it also obviously makes me insufferable and annoying in other ways. I could tell you about how this is a function of capitalism and how in a more utopian society I never would have been conditioned to be like this but you’re a smart reader so I don’t think I really need to bore you with that.
In addition to everything else I’ve learned about myself over the past year, it turns out that hours and hours of idle time inside isn’t great for me. I’ve taken on lots of freelance assignments, listened to hours of podcasts, read lots and lots of books, combing through every inside, solitary activity I can do by myself. I’m exhausted and I feel bad about it and it’s still not like I’m doing much that points to actual progress. I haven’t learned a new language or built anything. So I’m trying to feel more comfortable with sitting with my thoughts and doing less.
In the same way you’d try to get incrementally better at running a 5K, I’ve been trying to get better at doing nothing. I set a timer, turn off my background noise, focus on my breathing, and see how long I can just…do that. The first time I did it I lasted 20 seconds. Then four minutes, then six minutes, then 11 minutes. I’m improving, which can probably be attributed to my obsession with numbers (longtime readers know) and not much else. I feel like I’m cheating because even though I appear to be doing nothing, my mind is certainly not doing nothing. I replay every conversation I had that day, or think about the unread and unanswered emails in my inbox. When I try to actively purge the thoughts from my head, I don’t know what to think about, so I start thinking about all the things I’m actively not supposed to be thinking about. It is a completely pointless exercise. I envy those who can simply be at peace with their thoughts and make it seem so easy, yet I don’t think there’s anything necessarily inherently better about having a clear head. My racing thoughts have always been enough for me.
Before the start of the event at the fitness startup I eyed a charcuterie spread that looked like it wasn’t meant to be touched. When I was offered a drink I opted for a boxed water over a can of charcoal-activated matcha. The multipurpose basement room was sometimes used for yoga classes, I had been told, but that night it was lined with rows of clear plastic chairs for us to sit and listen to some well-known women talk about being mindful. The lights were soft, the walls were off-white, candles burned, the bookcase held a copy of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot and the first Alison Roman cookbook. It was like being in my apartment, but conspicuously nicer. I sipped my boxed water and turned to two reps for the fitness startup. We talked about meditating and how difficult it was to actually do. We all agreed: we were bad at doing nothing. After a few minutes of group commiseration we each instinctively reached for our phones. In silence we scrolled, texted, tapped, and just performed the action of looking busy.