Last year, I spent most of my days hanging by the skin of my teeth. Granted, I was the editor of this page then—being a full-time student and editor is no walk in the park.
But the daily fight with my own body and mind didn’t begin last year. In my first month of college, I felt like I slipped into the deep end of a pool, and I’ve been fighting to get out ever since. It’s not that I never felt sad or depressed in high school. I did. But in college, my depressed self became paralyzed with anxiety over how much control I had—I would obsess over every single decision I had to make. I was convinced that I wasn’t strong enough to pave the path for my own life. The freedom of my future, the freedom anyone else could have relished, frightened me. Every single night, I was filled with dozens of anxious thoughts I couldn’t quell.
I wondered how much I mattered in this scheme of things, if at all. Some of the time, I felt good about myself. Most of the time, my answer to that question was not at all. I was confused, lost, and I wanted some fucking direction.
At the very beginning, I tried to fix it through religion. I yearned for religion and spirituality—not necessarily because I truly believed in the philosophies behind the religions, but because I wanted something that told me I mattered in this scheme. When Bible study members stopped me on College Walk, I gave them the time of day—in fact, I gave them my email and phone number. I once allowed a Hasidic Jew to make the case for why I must be Jewish by blood. I never actually seriously considered Judaism, but the possibility of having something in my life that was organized, that was stable, that told me I mattered, was an attractive option—one of the few options that I would deem the “right decision.”
But a religion that brings you instant solace is like joining a two-day diet that promises to carve off 10 pounds. I had tried to accept the idea of a god before I could even think through the concept of a god. When you’re spending every waking moment glued to your books or untangling your complicated love-hate for yourself, when the hell do you have time to think?
So I didn’t think about the idea of God. I put off thinking about it, and I put off thinking about my spiritual health—I could barely even think with all I had on my mind. My problem came to a head in the middle of last May. After the second time I burst out crying on the subway because I couldn’t stop the demoralizing voices in my head, I decided I would stop putting up with them once and for all.
This summer, I went to weekly meditation sessions with the Bhakti Club. I didn’t feel like I had to immediately jump into a religion—during our discussions, we mostly discussed Hindu philosophy and thought about how it applied to ourselves. When I least wanted to exit my room, I would meditate for three minutes before getting the nerve to walk out. I would stop in religious places wherever I went—St. John the Divine, St. Paul’s, Buddhist temples in Chinatown. Though my mind wasn’t ready to jump to a religion, to select a specific direction, these quiet spaces made it easier for me to isolate the anxieties I had about all the options I was afraid of screwing up. I focused my mind not on my miseries, but on itself—I became responsive to how it felt and why, to what made it happy, to what made it tick.
Not everyone’s anxiety and depression story ends with spirituality, and not all of them have to. But drawing the elements from religion and spirituality that worked for me allowed me what I had wanted before—a better sense of direction.
My Bhakti meditation beads can be found at the bottom of my purse every day—now and then, when I have the time, I take them out and think the Hare Krishna mantra in my head, and they soothe me in the worst of times. To me, the idea of religion was beautiful, and still is beautiful. At the moment, though, I have recently been able to cool my mind down and isolate it from the anxieties—I have yet to fully chew down on the idea of religion, of a god.
Last week, after I exited one of my afternoon classes, I stepped into St. Paul’s. I sat down at the familiar pews and looked up at Jesus Christ’s face in the mosaics. I peered at the people praying on the left side of the room, saw their faces in deep concentration. My mind felt focused, still, unperturbed.
I may not know the answers, but it’s good to know I have a place where I can sit and focus on my mind on the simplicity, the stillness. Sit, and just be.
Andrea García-Vargas is a Columbia College senior majoring in English literature and creative writing. She is a former Spectator editorial page editor. The Elephant in the Room runs alternate Fridays.
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