Breathing Lessons

Meditation practice and using an inhaler can have surprising parallels

BY: Mariah Burton Nelson

 

Two years ago, my doctor recommended something my Zen teacher, Cheri Huber, has been recommending since I first met her in 1984.

"Pay attention to your breathing," he said.

His reasons were different from Cheri's.

"You have asthma," he explained.

At first, I didn't hear the part about breathing. I didn't make the connection between asthma and my spiritual path. I did not say, laughingly, as Cheri often does in response to unwelcome news, "Oh happy blessed opportunity!"

Instead, I heard "chronic incurable disease" and "daily medication for the rest of your life" and "avoid things you're allergic to, including dust, pollen, dairy products, and your beloved mutt, Rocky."

Yikes! I love my allergens! I didn't want to fear flowers and trees. I crave cheese, yogurt, milk. And there was no way I was giving up Rocky.

Plus, I'm a professional speaker. I use my voice--including my breath--to earn a living. I can't cough through keynotes.

And I'm an athlete. Sports require breathing. I can't have a "breathing disease"!

Except--I do. Along with 15 million other Americans, I "suffer from asthma," as it says in my "You and Your Asthma" brochure.

Buddhism is "the path that leads to the extinction of suffering." Cheri says people seek enlightenment when they've suffered enough. After coughing convulsively for two months and cracking two ribs in the process, I had suffered enough. (My asthma is atypical, apparently, in that its primary symptom is coughing rather than wheezing.)

So I started taking my doctor's (and Cheri's) advice.

Funny, I'd never really paid attention to my breath before. Despite more than a dozen years of meditation, I'd never questioned the fact that I rarely breathe through my nose. I knew I had allergies--and I knew, without testing, exactly what I was allergic to--but it had never occurred to me to avoid those things. Instead, I accommodated my chronic runny nose and post-nasal drip by littering my house with Kleenex boxes, stuffing pocket packs into every purse, swallowing Sudafed before any public appearance.

According to my doctor, I have had "the sensitivity that produces asthma" since I was young. But I have not had the sensitivity to respond to my body's signals.

So I responded. I stopped eating dairy products. I started wearing a dust mask when I weed and mow. I began vacuuming more often. Rocky got more baths.

Best of all, my treatment program paralleled my spiritual program. It forced me to notice the moment. During those initial few weeks, I took three prescription inhalants (along with one internal steroid, prednisone). Each inhalant application involved spraying medication into my mouth or nose, then holding my breath for 10 seconds, then repeating the procedure two to four times--and two to four times a day. This added up to 24 hold-for-10 counts each day.

My doctor (a Vietnamese Buddhist, by the way) taught me that how you use inhalants matters. You must shake the canister, exhale fully, spray, inhale gently, then count to 10. This sounded familiar. My meditation practice involves sitting and counting my breaths from one to 10, then starting over.

So, in addition to Zen meditation, I did asthma meditation: Spray, inhale, count, exhale, repeat. Each day, 24 new opportunities to awaken.

How difficult it is to inhale medicine, then count to exactly 10 without losing track! (Do other "asthma sufferers" admit this?) I expected to be "better" at this. When I was supposed to inhale this way four times in a row, I could lose count not only of the one-to-10 count but also the one-to-four count.

The lesson became clear: When inhaling medication, just inhale medication. Like Zen: When chopping wood, chop wood. When breathing, breathe.

"This asthma diagnosis is the best thing that's ever happened to me!" I enthused to mother, who also happens to be a physician. Mom gently pointed out that prednisone can have an euphoric side effect.

Uh-oh. You mean I'm mistaking intoxication for enlightenment?

I hate it when that happens.

But about two years later, I'm here to report that the euphoria has lasted. Especially on the way to sleep, I can feel almost giddy about this simple experience: unobstructed nasal breathing. For the first time in my life, my sinuses feel as wide open as garden hoses, as empty as the mind between thoughts. What a miracle to breathe with my mouth closed! What ecstasy to feel oxygen ascend through both nostrils at once! How pleasant not to drool on the pillow!

Paying attention is also paying off in other ways. My coughing has subsided. And I no longer need the medication on a daily basis, just occasionally. Paying attention to those allergens, and avoiding them, seems to be doing the trick.

Fortunately, I don't have a life-threatening form of asthma. Therefore, paying attention to my breath and my health will not extend my life expectancy. Nor will such attention guarantee that I'll stop suffering entirely--from coughing, congestion, or other human frailties like shame or greed. But for me, so far, the promise of asthma seems to be this: Each day for the rest of my life, I will focus, at least for a little while, on my breathing, on my body, on these precious moments of being alive.

A happy blessed opportunity indeed.

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