Searching For Space

We had just left my friend’s birthday party at a crowded bar in a busy neighborhood on a Saturday night in NYC. We hadn’t had much to drink because we could hardly make our way to the bar. It was hot, it was loud, and being over 30, we were tired.

We hailed a taxi and breathed a sigh of relief once we were finally on our way home. But just a few blocks ahead of us, blocking our path to the bridge and to salvation, was bumper-to-bumper traffic. The light would turn green, we’d move forward three inches, then the light would turn red. Green, another inch, back to red.

Given the time and location, this was pretty typical. I’d probably been stopped in this exact spot at least a dozen times. Not to mention the thousands of times (maybe even tens of thousands) I’d gotten stuck on some other block at some other time of day. I’ve been in more cabs than I could possibly count. “Taxi” was my first word after “ma” and “da.” That’s how much of a New Yorker I am.

But for some reason this night was different. Holding my boyfriend’s hand in the back of that taxi, crawling along Bowery, the flashing lights and party sounds of NYC all around us, it just happened — I had a full-on panic attack.

My heart started racing. My palms got sweaty. I couldn’t breathe. I felt faint. Out of nowhere I screamed to Fredrick to get out of the cab. He jumped and I stumbled out after him, panting on the curb between two parked cars. He was baffled, but I couldn’t get myself together enough to explain what was going on. I saw a restaurant across the street and ran, throwing open the door and begging the cleaning staff to let me use the restroom. I raced in and locked the door behind me, and there in a dirty unisex restaurant bathroom, I lost myself.

When I finally emerged to Fredrick’s looks of concern, I only had one thing to say: “I have to get out of New York.”

With everything I had in life, I didn’t have the one thing I so desperately needed — my space.

That was the beginning of 2012 and it took us ten months to make the move. Fredrick quit his job, I bought a Jeep, we sold most of our stuff, filled the truck with the rest, and drove on down to the Florida Keys.

For six months we lived in a two-bedroom house with a private dock on a canal that led out to the ocean. We caught our own dinner on our 16-foot skiff, watched sunsets with a bottle of wine from a secluded island only the locals know, stared at the Milky Way with our heads tilted back and a fresh log on the fire pit. It was silent. It was serene. It was the opposite of everything I’d ever known.

But the frenzy was still inside of me.

I thought I could get away from it, I thought I could leave it behind. I had given myself space, but only in my surroundings. I had failed to realize the space I really needed was within.

About 18 months after that taxi ride, I began to meditate. I started going to yoga every day. I found Buddhism. I eventually realized that it had been a lifetime of panic that came to a head in that one moment. The pressures to succeed, to achieve more, to produce faster, to attain, to possess, they were slowly killing me. My attachments and my aversions were causing me deep suffering. When I wasn’t moving forward, I wasn’t alive. That’s what had happened in the back of that cab; being stopped was as bad as death.

After another six months in Key West, we moved to San Diego where beaches and sailing are features of a major city. The rural life wasn’t really for us. And anyway, I didn’t need it…once I learned the space I’d been looking for was already mine.

I make my spaciousness whenever I want. Space for reflection. Space for rest. Space for awareness. Space for acceptance. Space for possibility. Space for peace. Best of all, I don’t have to do a thing. I just have to be. Human being, not human doing.

Now emptiness is my everything. Presence is my productivity. I am the designer of my own inner experience, and gradually, inch by inch, I’m beginning to feel free.

Originally published on March 10, 2014 on The Pastry Box Project.