Breathing Lessons

Meditation practice and using an inhaler can have surprising parallels

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.

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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.

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Mariah Burton Nelson
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