I used to do guided meditations almost every day. Square breathing — breathing in for the count of four, holding for the count of four, exhaling for the count of four, holding for the count of four, repeat — became second nature.
Before the pandemic, I found that the majority of my stress and subsequent sadness stemmed from schoolwork, deadlines, job searching and interpersonal conflicts. In the sporadic moments when it all felt like it was too much, I would breathe. After a few minutes, or sometimes even seconds, the fog of sadness would dissipate, and I was left feeling like the sudden flow of oxygen throughout my body cured all. Deep breathing made me slow down enough to realize that, yes, problems existed, but they were small enough to overcome. I would dry my eyes, pull my hair back into a ponytail and go back to work.
Now, problems don’t seem so small. The stress of schoolwork has turned into a pendulum that swings back and forth between caring too much and not caring at all. Due dates have become an abstract concept to me in this world where differentiating days don’t exist. Not to mention the constant political turmoil, 247k COVID-19-related U.S. deaths and an everlasting quarantine.
Deep breathing doesn’t make these problems seem manageable. The count of four doesn’t change the fact that, until the pandemic is over, finding a job really means finding another reason to sit behind a computer all day in my pajamas.
When meditating stopped working, I searched for another way to escape this sadness, to clear my muddled brain, to find joy. My solution was small and more efficient than I expected: Make plans.
I recently spent a long weekend with a friend who lives in Brooklyn. It is not a safe time to nonchalantly travel, but I rationalize my trip by knowing that I had limited exposure on the train, and I thoroughly sanitized my body. When I got there, instead of hibernating in Baltimore, I hibernated with him.
Maybe it was the company, or maybe it was the change of scenery, but that weekend, and even the week leading up to it, did not feel monotonous or draining. Having something to look forward to — even if it was just watching Netflix in a city a few hours away — made a difference.
Sadly, when the trip was over, I almost immediately found myself moping around again. I instinctively tried to cure the heavy feeling in my chest with meditation and deep breathing, but the moment the meditation stopped and I opened my eyes, the weight of the world would return.
It’s frustrating that mindfulness, a practice I’ve spent months trying to incorporate into my life, doesn’t alter my negative emotions. On the contrary, sometimes it seems like the more I sit and think about myself, my acquaintances and the world we live in, the more hopeless things become. So instead, I find something to look forward to as a positive distraction.
When I was clearing my inbox a while ago, I came across an email from Pure Barre at the Rotunda. In an effort to regain their client base amid the pandemic, the studio offered a free class. I thought to myself, Why not? The class was brutal (think a mixture of ballet and Pilates), I woke up horribly sore the next day, and I was entirely sure that I needed to include this workout class into my weekly routine.
Yes, I wake up early to make it to the 6:30 class, and yes, waking up that early sucks. But when I’m on my walk back home after class watching the sunrise and knowing that the world is still asleep, I’m happy because I know I’ve already accomplished at least one thing that day. And every night before class, I’m happy knowing that that feeling of pride and excitement waits for me the next morning.
I’m sure the novelty of this class will wear off, but luckily I know that my little sister will be coming to stay with me in a week’s time. Knowing that I’ll get to plan her itinerary here, which will probably consist of baking and going on walks, is something to look forward to. And after that, I can be excited about going back home to Los Angeles.
These things are small, but life is also pretty small right now. Our lives revolve around an intimate bubble of people, and we spend all our days inside. It’s important — now more than ever — to know what’s going on in the world, but internalizing these problems to the point of depression, becoming a useless shadow of a person, is no good to anyone.
It’s okay to be a bit selfish when good comes from it, either for yourself or for others. So learn to treat yourself. Learn to know that a movie night or a dinner out or a trip home is waiting for you at the end of the week. Learn to expect that good things are coming, no matter how small.