Learning to Breathe
For years, I lived with a debilitating panic disorder; I hyperventilated so badly that I thought my chest would explode. But I also became fascinated with the brains of Tibetan monks who meditated so effectively that their pre-frontal cortexes lit up on MRIs.
What if I could become a serene Tibetan monk? I wondered one day. What if I learned how to meditate? What if I found teachers, healers, and therapies that could heal me?
Maybe I could meditate my way from panic to peace.
I spent a year studying with wonderful Buddhist teachers, beginning with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, a monk who’d suffered panic attacks as a child. “In Tibet, we use this idea to help with meditation,” he said at the first silent retreat I ever attended. “Meditate like an old cow pees. Not a steady stream, or it’s all gone, too fast! A little bit of a time is good.”
I was frantic to be calm. But I vowed to meditate every day for twenty minutes, and gradually things in my life began to slow down. I practiced with my eyes open at first, resting my attention on swaying grass, moving water, and leaves crunching under my feet. I made videos of what I call Breathtaking Moments. “It’s amazing what you can see when you sit still,” I began to tell people.
Sharon Salzberg taught me the basics of livingkindness meditation. “May I be safe, be happy, be healthy, and live with ease,” I began saying to myself. A renowned neuroscientist, Dr. Andrew Newberg, scanned my brain before and after an eight week period where I practiced lovingkindness meditation on my own. Scans revealed changes in my thalamus and frontal lobe, much like changes noted in the brains of the meditating monks I envied.
“Usually, when you can’t feel compassion, you’re in pain yourself,” another wonderful meditation teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, taught me. “Only when you can get yourself out of that pain can you help others by showing compassion.”
And so I began to examine the pain I had been too anxious to investigate for most of my life. I worked with a skilled therapist who used body-based therapies - EMDR and Somatic Experience Therapy - to process painful memories and release trauma that had been stored in my body for years. I had armored myself in the course of my lifetime, and I began to shed some of that armor. I began, miraculously, to become less frightened.
As I healed, I spoke with brilliant mystical rabbis, studied with the Dalai Lama, and forged a powerful connection between my stronger mind and body. I learned how to accept my mother’s deterioration from Alzheimers with more grace. Bob Thurman led me and other students through a rehearsal of our own death as we studied The Tibetan Book of the dead.
My journey wasn’t all painful. Warm, scented oil was drizzled onto my third eye. I consumed a lot of chocolate. My connections to people all over the world became loving and rewarding.
My journey has had its ups and downs, but I’m not racing to get anywhere anymore. I’ve stopped taking a daily dose of Klonopin, which I needed for over a decade, to ward off panic.
Still, there are times when my heart races and my confidence crashes. But on good days I’ve learned how to be both vulnerable and courageous. Happy childhood memories have come back to me, replacing the painful ones I’ve processed. I am at peace.
And as my mother declared to me one day. “I’m not aching for anything.”