This Is Us

An Ode to Murphy, or How I Finally Learned to Meditate

Maybe we’re all a bit like my shelter dog Murphy — we’re just trying to protect ourselves

It’s noon, time for my daily meditation. I open the app on my phone and press play.

“Let go. Feel your seat.” My butt is already numb.

“Now gently close your eyes.” I open my eyes — a little kid watching the bad part of a movie — then close them again. Why is the refrigerator humming so loudly? Should I get that looked at?

“Allow your thoughts to pass. Notice them, like a fly on the wall.” Will the refrigerator explode in the middle of the night?

“Notice your breath.” I suck in a gust of air from my nose, startling my dog. She gets up, rolls her eyes, then sits back down across the room.

Am I doing this right? “There is no right or wrong,” a guide would probably say. “Don’t try. Just exist. Be present.”

This is where the self-help experts have led me. Feeling anxious? Meditate! Stressed about work? Meditate! Can’t shake the overwhelming sense of impending doom? Ten minutes of breathing should do the trick!

From what I gather, meditation is releasing your thoughts so you become more mindful of the present instead of unsettled about the past or anxious about the future. It is, simply, letting go. But when you’re a control freak, “letting go” isn’t easy, and meditation can feel like a mild form of torture, somewhere between being buried alive and hopping on another Zoom call.

Amidst a pandemic, so many of us are feeling this way. Teetering on the edge of a meltdown, clinging to any sense of control we can, even if it’s organizing the refrigerator. Your brain tells you that if the vegetables are stored just right, maybe, just maybe, you’ll survive this thing.

I downloaded a meditation app after my first quarantine meltdown. My husband and I had just had a fight. Who knows what we were fighting about. Probably how the vegetables should be stored. Whatever it was, I grabbed my car keys, stormed out of the house, then wondered, “Where will I go?” In the before times, I would have driven to the bookstore and browsed the aisles to cool down. Now, there was nowhere to escape. I pressed my forehead into the steering wheel and let out a guttural scream. Then I thought, “This is not a proportional reaction.” Lockdown was getting to me, and it turns out, there are lots of apps for that.

But if I’m being honest, the anxiety started well before quarantine. A year before lockdown, I had gone to see a therapist. I was lulling myself to sleep at night with fantasies of jumping off a tall bridge. It wasn’t something I actively wanted to do, so I didn’t understand why the fantasy kept popping into my mind.

We’re all swarmed with anxiety to the point that absence becomes a fantasy. We dream about not being.

“Oh yeah, that’s common,” my therapist said, taking a sip of tea, as though I told her I had a hangnail on my left toe.

“Fantasizing about suicide is normal?” I asked.

But that’s not what I was doing, she said. “You’re not fantasizing about suicide. You’re fantasizing about what it’s like to feel nothing.”

The words felt like a warm shower. Nothing? How luxurious. And lots of people feel this way, she said. Maybe almost everyone. We’re all swarmed with anxiety to the point that absence becomes a fantasy. We dream about not being.

Being anxious feels like balancing the desire to completely let go with the desire to control every aspect of your life. “Control is a response to trauma,” a friend said to me once. And I don’t know if that’s true, but she said it confidently, so I believe her. “My therapist says it’s a way of protecting yourself by regulating your environment,” she continued.

It’s no wonder, then, that meditation is so hard. How are you supposed to let go of control when control is a coping mechanism? Maybe we’re all traumatized. Maybe being human is traumatizing. Our brains are wired to make sense of a chaotic world, which is distressing in itself. Our loved ones die, and we say it happened for a reason, but deep down, we can’t make it make sense. With enough senseless tragedies, big or small, we become a lot like my dog, flinching at any sudden noise.

When we picked her up at the shelter, the volunteers practically had to drag her into the meet-and-greet area. My husband and I crouched down, cocked our heads to the side, and smiled. She flung her shaggy, brown body onto the floor, let out a heavy sigh, and looked away.

The first time we went to the dog park, I grabbed one of the tennis balls. It was slimy with drool from all the other dogs who were running around, chasing their owners and wagging their tails. When I lifted my arm and tossed the ball through the air, Murphy tucked her tail and shrunk to the ground.

Maybe we’re all a bit like shelter dogs trying to protect ourselves, and meditation is the best we can do.

The world is filled with scary things, and she remembers them all. I watched the other dogs run to her, slapping their front paws on the dirt, lifting their butts in the air. Murphy backed away, avoiding eye contact. They didn’t know what to make of her. Eventually, they walked away and left her standing there, alone. If this dog ain’t me, I thought.

Maybe she’s all of us. Maybe we’re all a bit like shelter dogs trying to protect ourselves, and meditation is the best we can do. “I wish she could just be a dog,” my husband says. “She would be so much happier.” What he means is: If only she could unlearn everything her experiences have taught her. If only she could get back to a place where she didn’t have to worry, didn’t have to — as my friend’s therapist put it — regulate her environment all the time.

We do everything we can to help Murphy let go. Belly rubs. Ear scratches. Salmon snacks. None of it matters. When it comes to letting go, only one thing seems to work: her evening walk.

When she hears the clink of her leash, Murphy jumps out of the comfort of her bed and her ears perk up. Her back straightens. Almost like magic, her tail rises, then wags. Against her better judgment, she jumps on me, her tongue flopping out of the side of her mouth like a piece of stretched pink taffy. “What is this?” I laugh. “Who are you?” Briefly, she seems to remember: She’s a dog.

We make our way around the block, cutting through the cool evening air. Breathe in. I think about my day, the stupid thing I said in a meeting. Let the thought pass. I think about the email I forgot to send. Feel your feet on the ground. I think about whether I would be a good mother, whether I’m even a good friend. Murphy hops along like nothing bad ever happened to her.

Maybe meditation doesn’t have to be sitting in padmasana with your eyes closed. Maybe you don’t have to focus on your breath or chant or do anything, really. Maybe there are small ways the anxiety can fade throughout the day, and maybe that’s what meditation is anyway — even if you stumble on it accidentally.

Murphy walks too far ahead and I ask her to slow down. She looks back and waits for me to catch up, then we start walking again. Each step lighter than the last. For this moment in our day, she forgets the world is a scary place. For this moment, there’s only pavement, the occasional squirrel, and an entire world ready to be sniffed.

Note: Whether they’re ideations or active thoughts, reach out if you’re thinking about harming yourself. Here are resources.

Kristin Wong is a journalist and freelance writer. She’s written for the New York Times, ELLE, The Cut, and Glamour.

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