How to breathe through pain and pandemics
I have spent the last three or so years trying to keep myself alive. Other than going to the doctor and/or hospital a handful of times, I’ve rarely left home. It’s sort of been my own personal pandemic, as I have faced a continual series of new normals which have taken away my ability to roam this earth freely.
I’ve survived sepsis, a collapsed heart ventricle, a wiped out immune and tendon system from overprescribed pharmaceuticals, suicidal pain from a step in my spine, daily chronic pain, a double 11 hour neurosurgery, partial paralysis, a misdiagnosed infection that resulted in the amputation of a big toe, a rough nurse who broke my arm and a home caretaker that made Baby Jane look like mother Theresa. And worst of all, the very painful and tragic loss of my firstborn. Throughout it all, somehow, I am still holding on to a deep belief that life will get better. If ever I am to have an epitaph, it will be “she believed in magic.”
It’s no wonder I play Santa Claus in real life, and have done so for nearly 20 years. I really do believe in magic and it gives me the opportunity to offer hope to many children who might not have any.
Suddenly, along comes coronavirus and while there has been relatively little change to my daily life, I have watched as the world has come crashing down around me. I can see and feel the helplessness and dispair from the chair I rarely leave, and search for answers as to what I can do to make a difference.
All I really know for sure is what has carried me through years of painful seclusion and literally saved my life, over and over again. It nearly feels like my civic duty to share it with the world, as I believe deep in my heart that it can and will help others, just as much as it has helped me.
As human beings, we have more in common than less. While on the outside, we may look different and live vastly different lives, on the inside, we are near exactly the same.
We are given the gift of breath at the moment of our birth and it is taken from us at death. It is one constant we all share. We all breathe. We wake up and go to sleep breathing. All day long, we breathe. Our diaphragms expand and contract 20,000+ times a day, yet in spite of this constant and natural motion, we never once stop and think about that. It just is. While breath is literally the sole reason for life, too few of us understand the power behind it.
We don’t consider the ebs and flow of our breath and how profoundly it can affect our physical and emotional well-being. On occasion, you will find yourself telling someone to “just breathe” and it is most often as a way of calming high emotion. While it may not even be a conscious thought, instinctually, we are acutely aware that the way we are breathing matters. At any given moment, it can make us feel better or worse.
One of my teachers shares a fascinating analogy that most can relate to. For a moment, sit back, as comfortably as you can. Consciously relax and soften your body. Imagine the earth, lovingly cradling you in whatever position you are in. Unfurl your brow. Close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Feel and listen to your bodies subtle movements while becoming acutely aware of your breath, anchoring you into gravity.
Put a hand on your belly and feel it rise and fall as your diaphragm glides up and down and gently massages your internal organs. Your rib cage expands and contracts with each breath and this naturally promotes relaxation. After a few minutes of very consciously breathing to soothe yourself, make a tight fist with your free hand. What happens to your breathing?
For most people, it either slows down or actually stops. Take another slow, deep breath in and out and imagine you are breathing into that tight fist. What happens is your fist will naturally want to open up and relax. This is a very simplistic, yet complex example of how we can mindfully use our breath to regulate our emotions and the actual physical sensations within our bodies.
When you consider that the average person takes 20,000+ breath’s in and out each day, it makes us very powerful. And the best part is, if mindful breathing doesn’t work the first time you try it, on any given day you still have 19,999+ chances to try it again. What else in life is so forgiving?
You may notice that I’ve yet to mention the word meditation, and yes, it is what I am speaking of. Personally, I like to think of it simply as mindfulness and the ability to observe our lives as we live them, moment by moment. To mindfully pay attention to the world around us.
Unfortunately and especially now, our minds have become overrun with information overload, hindering our innate ability to focus on the here and now. Our thoughts are racing so fast, that it’s impossible to catch and process them. Catastrophic thinking is at an all-time high and each day’s news seems to make it worse.
Meditation has sometimes been given a bad name by those who simply try to capitalize and make money on it. Various “gurus” will tell you their way is the best/only way and will change your life, but only if you know “the secret“ and that will cost you money. This makes me very sad as there is no “secret.” If something is so wonderful that it has changed and even saved your life, why would you not want to share it freely with the world? Everything you need to know is available for free if you have the will and simply know where to look.
Mindfulness is a way of life, not something you simply do or say several times a day. It’s a living awareness of each breath you take and at every moment, you have the ability to choose how that breath will affect you. There is a great deal of science behind this process, and with practice, it is literally possible to physically change your brain. It is considered training the brain, much like one does to the body with exercise.
Mindful meditation (MM) is not a magic pill, but rather a learned practice that can lead to our ability to live with a modicum of peace in the face of almost any catastrophe. It is not simply a mantra we recite three times a day, it is a way of living, breathing and thinking 24/7, 365 days a year. While it is not a practice that will instantly change us overnight, in very short time we are able to see a marked difference within ourselves. We become calmer and slower to react in negative ways. Our thoughts become measured and we develop a gratitude for what we have as opposed to what we want, didn’t get, or used to have. We learn to accept and make the best of the here and now.
If you do a simple search, there are many free meditation apps available and I will share my favorite with you. It is called Insight Timer (IT) and offers thousands of free guided meditations as well as soothing music. There is even a free meditation course for those who are new to the practice. I learned of IT from a meditation teacher whom I have followed for many years. She is now also on IT and her recordings are free. If you are having trouble sleeping, she can likely put you in a coma. If not her, there are others who can do the same. With so many to choose from, you will certainly find the right “voice” for you. Over time, you will learn to soothe yourself and be able to effortlessly drop into your body and comfort your mind, without any spoken guidance at all. Starting out, it doesn’t hurt to have someone to hold your hand and help you keep your mind focused.
IT also offers courses on many subjects. If you join with premium membership, all of their courses are accessible to you for only $59 a year. You don’t need to be a premium member to access thousands of free guided meditations, but courses will then cost you five dollars. I would venture to say this is cheaper than most any prescription or nonprescription drug you can imagine. This pain course alone is priceless.
In the last two years, I have spent six solid months meditating using IT, either listening to guided meditations or calming background music. It literally saved my life as I faced suicidal pain last year due to a step in my spine which left my arms partially paralyzed. I am not sure where I would be today if I had not found the course on pain. Even though I was fairly proficient in MM after practicing it for over 20 years, I was still able to find new tools that helped me to face the nearly unbearable.
After surviving so much pain, both physical and emotional, I have to believe it can help all of us. There is even a search function so you can find guided meditations relating to your particular needs. If you listen to one and find it doesn’t “speak to you,” there are thousands more available. There are many available for children as well.
I am not affiliated with IT or its teachers in any way. My wish is to share my experience, in hopes it can help others in the way which it did me. We are all facing difficulties as our lives change before our very eyes and if I can help one person by sharing my path to peace, I will be grateful.
There is truly no need to pay to find this place, it is right inside of you, just waiting to tap into. It has been with you since birth, please give yourself the precious time you deserve to explore the powerful combination of mind and breath.
It may seem like a daunting task, but I promise you, if you give it long enough, it will become second nature. Every breath will become mindful, whether you are purposely practicing or standing in line at the grocery store. Your body will learn to breathe itself.
I am more than happy to help if you have any questions. You can reach out to me anytime @ email@example.com While I am not a certified teacher of any kind, I believe I can help almost anyone based on my experience alone. At the very least, I can share my teachers with you.
Through my non profit, Direct Effect Charities, I am working to put mindful meditation into the hands of those who may need it desperately, especially underprivileged families. We are working to obtain a large number of MP3 players on which we will install various MM programs. Our main goal is to reach children who are suffering during this difficult time, but we wish to help their struggling parents as well, so we will have different programs for both. The families we serve do not have access to computers or the Internet or sometimes even a cell phone. These are things most of us take for granted, but everyone is not lucky enough to possess them.
If you would like to help support or sponsor our mindful meditation program for children who are suffering, please reach out to me @ firstname.lastname@example.org I would be grateful for any help you could offer.
We are searching for large quantities of donated or inexpensive MP3 players, even if they are older models. I have to believe that somewhere, there is a warehouse full of them because if I know anything for sure, I know that there’s magic in believing. Please help me to believe.