We're re-running this story as part of a countdown of the year's best personal essays. To read all the entries in the series, click here.
I suffered a bout of acute anxiety after witnessing a car accident. I had been standing outside with a friend when it happened — we were hanging out on a street corner in our Brooklyn neighborhood, chatting, our toddlers running around us in circles — when two cars collided and came close to hitting us.
We were both upset at the time, of course. Everyone around us was. Our kids were screaming; people around us were screaming. The drivers of both cars were upsettingly silent.
But well after that terrible event was over, after the ambulances came and went and we returned to our homes and hugged and our kids were pacified with snacks, I continued to relive what had occurred. My friend did not. I know this because I kept asking her how she was doing. She seemed fine. She didn’t have flashbacks. She didn’t, say, constantly obsess over death and read the dictionary all day because it was the most neutral, non-death-related book in her possession. Her heart rate didn’t hover around 150. Her startle reflex wasn’t through the roof. She was a little show-offy about it, to be honest. Showering, leaving the house, like some kind of superhuman.
I spent a couple of weeks suffering until my husband convinced me to call my psychiatrist. I didn’t want to. I felt stupid about it. I couldn’t even do trauma right, I thought. Get it from something impressive, like a war, or being on fire.
Even my psychiatrist didn’t believe that my intense reaction was from this particular incident. She wanted to think it was triggered from something earlier. “Wasn’t this the same corner you were on when 9/11 occurred?”
“No? I mean I lived near this corner. I wasn’t outside, though.”
“Yes, but if you were to go outside, did you see the smoke from there?”
“I…sure. I mean. Sure.”
“Well, you see. We have collectively been traumatized by 9/11. This was a recurrence of a much older wound.”
“This was a really bad car accident, though.”
“I’m sure it was. Now I’m going to tell you something personal about myself,” my psychiatrist told me, “but it’s for professional reasons. You’ll see why in a minute.” She paused. “After 9/11, I felt moderately agitated and had an accelerated heart rate.”
She looked at me.
I realized that was the whole story, and I said, “Oh, okay, thanks.”
At this point in my life I had not yet met a psychiatrist who was not, in some way, weird as shit.
She continued. “I attended a meditation course being offered at the time by a foundation, and I found it extremely helpful. I think you should take this course. It’s going to help your anxiety and be a lot healthier for you than taking Xanax every day.”
“I definitely don’t have a problem taking Xanax every day,” I told her. “Xanax is fine.”
“This course will be better,” she said. “I just want to warn you, however, that the place is a little cultish.”
“Do you mean it’s a cult?” I asked. Now she had me interested.
“Not exactly. Sort of. It might be. But it’s an innocuous cult, if it is one. Just go in and learn the technique and ignore the cult parts.”
I was intrigued. I’d never come this close to a cult before. Would they try to get me to join up? Could I take the course with some ironic distance, and maybe compose a witty essay about it afterward?
As it turned out: no, and no. I could not. I fell all the way in, and if they’d even tried a little to compel me, I would have become a devotee in a hot second.
I always knew I’d be an easy get for any cult. My first inclination is to agree with anything a person is saying to me. I can shut this off once I get to know someone and it turns out they’re my enemy or loathsome in some way, but always, when I first meet a person I want to be seen as agreeable and pleasant.
As a freshman in college I was befriended by a cool sophomore named Cambria — a name that should belong to a fashion designer or an era, not a regular college kid — who told me about this great moneymaking venture she was getting into. “It’s called a pyramid scheme,” she said. “And here’s why it can’t lose.”
“Say no more,” I said. “And take 100 dollars from me. Sold.”
All I had to do, she told me after I gave her my money, was con a few more people into joining up, which of course I never did. The moment she exited my dorm room I came to my senses, realized what I had done, and never mentioned the $100 to Cambria ever again. It was my own fault, really. I half-expected Cambria to refund me my $100, but she never did. She’s an OB/GYN now and I assume she makes a nice living. Probably none of it from her pyramid scheme, but you never know. Meanwhile I’m a writer, and frankly that loss of $100 still stings.
I’m no different from most of us. I want easy money, and failing that, easy answers. I want a plan that will solve everything complicated in my life. I don’t have time to figure everything out, and even if I had time, I don’t have the confidence that I’m going to figure it out on my own. In other words, I want a cult. A nice one, though. None of that suicide business. So when my psychiatrist told me about this place that would whisk away all my worries, I called immediately. Did they want me to also renounce all earthly possessions and swaddle myself in rough linens? I would have considered it!
It turned out they did not ask me to do those things, but in order to get this meditation technique from them I first had to last through a three-day workshop.
The first day was about eight hours long, led by a young woman wearing white linens, like she was Jesus, and no shoes (also like Jesus), gazing at us serenely with her long natural lashes and perfect skin, her light brown hair pulled back into a bun. I was with about ten other people ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s — professionals, men and women of all races. We looked like someone had chosen us to be on the cover of a continuing ed catalog.
We didn’t learn any techniques on the first day. We were promised the secrets that the guru had discovered through years of intense prayer, but it was a complicated technique that we had to earn through a day of exercises that would “open us up.” Pictures of the guru were everywhere. He was heavily bearded and beaming.
For our first exercise we had to mill around as if at a cocktail party, but instead of making small talk we had to look each person in the eye and say “I belong to you.” I considered jumping out the window. I would rather plummet three stories to the pavement below than say “I belong to you” to stranger. Everyone else, fortunately, looked equally embarrassed. We all chuckled and muttered “Ibelongtoyouhahahaha,” shrugging amiably like, this is what we gotta do, right? For the patented guru technique?
And then the instructor approached me and looked me in the eye with her clear blue eyes and said, unapologetically, in a clear voice, “I belong to you,” and I believed it. It dazzled me. My mouth burbled out some sounds back at her, but all I could think was: I want that. That thing she has? Want it. It might have been her perfect posture or her complexion, but it seemed that beams of goodness were shooting right out of her face. I wanted in.
The exercises continued all day: We demanded “who are you?” to each other until one or the other person cried; we danced with our eyes closed while our teacher and her equally beautiful assistants banged on their tambourine and exhorted us to let go, really let go; we laid down on our backs while the teacher instructed us to remember being younger and younger and then remember before we were born and remember being infinite beings. I became an infinite being with the rest of the class. I was all in.
By the time I got home at the end of the day, though, I was mostly embarrassed. It felt like I had gotten too drunk and made an ass of myself. I hadn’t made out with this class of strangers, at least, but I had definitely told them I loved them and maybe some of us hugged for a beat longer than is socially acceptable. I told my husband about the events of the day with all the ironic distance I could muster. “You’re not going back, right?” he asked.
“Well,” I said, “I’ve already paid.”
The next day I walked in determined to keep myself sane and maybe take mental notes for the humorous essay I would write. Within minutes I was back under the spell of the guru, or more specifically, his beautiful acolytes. Would I tell the class how I was a wretch and unloved? I sure would! Would I cry in the arms of a Colombian stranger because I had never known the love and acceptance that he had known? It’s honestly a little hard to remember!
While I began to doubt that a meditation technique even existed, I didn’t exactly care anymore. I felt better than I had in weeks. This might have been a load of bullshit, but it was bullshit that had relieved me of my racing heart and death obsession.
That’s when the instructor and her assistants (all of them beautiful and serene) told us we were ready; we were going to learn the much-vaunted technique from the guru himself! The teachers were so excited that I thought he was going to make an entrance, perhaps descend via a pulley system from the ceiling.
We all sat cross-legged on the ground. It was time.
What we proceeded to learn was not a meditation technique at all but really just a complicated way to hyperventilate for 45 minutes. The first part consisted of vigorous inhales and exhales and felt like something a Russian bad guy would do before engaging in fisticuffs or jumping into the Baltic Sea.
And then the guru was in the room. Or rather, his voice, whistling out from the speakers around us.
He began to lead us through his sacred breathing thingy. He intoned the words “So” and “Ham” while we were to inhale on “so” and exhale on “ham.” It went like that for forever. Sometimes it was slow, sometimes it was fast. So….ham. So ham. So ham! SO HAM! I thought it would make a good tagline for ham. I wanted ham.
Mostly I got dizzy. At one point I felt my right hand curling into a fist with my index finger outstretched and then my hand began to climb into the air. It was like I had a giant foam finger in my mind that told me that we were all #1. After we were finished and all talking about our experiences, I mentioned this foam-finger phenomenon.
“It sounds like you were pointing toward heaven,” the teacher said.
(I learned later that your muscles can contract involuntarily when you hyperventilate. Science can be so disappointing.)
We went through the technique a few times, just to get it down. I felt like I had exited my body, but I was close, floating a few inches above it. I was disappointed that all we had done was, basically, pant, but at the same time, I felt amazing.
I left that class determined to breathe like this every day. I tried, really I did. But I had a toddler, and I was so tired. Ninety-nine percent of the time I’d fall asleep. The timing of the technique was complicated, and soon enough I forgot it. We had been invited to retake the class anytime for free, but there was no way I was going to spend another three days rebirthing and telling people I belonged to them.
As much as I want to make fun of the class, though, it worked. My panic attacks ended. (For a while, anyway.) I stopped obsessing about the crash and the screaming and the blood. I could play with my kid again and not cry about the inevitability of loss. Maybe the class was silly, but damned if it didn’t cure me. At that moment in my life, it was exactly the cult I had needed.