Meditation 101.2 Breath is Life

If you can pull yourself away from the demands of work for just awhile each day and focus all that attention on the most basic part of your life–breath–you may find a different way of being, even in the midst of the most complicated situations. That’s what I tell myself, maybe not literally, but implicitly in my trip upstairs to my serenity room with my laptop under my arm, and as I click on the guided meditation about breath. . . .

My serenity room, as I like to call it, has its own history, and breathing in the air of that history is part of the paying attention and part of the serenity, both. When we first moved here in 1996, that room was Casey’s bedroom, he being the youngest, it being the smallest of the three rooms on our upper landing. As the older brothers began moving out, he took the back room and I turned the middle room into my office. There I wrote and did school work for many years. My mom’s and uncle’s letters, part of the family project, are stored in my mom’s old dresser. After Casey died, it’s the room where I went to close off the world and lose myself in Brahms Requiem, churning out poetry and crying my heart out. Then last summer I went on the retreat to Creative Expressions in Yellow Springs with my cousin and fell in love with the little apartment designed for simplicity and clarity. I moved my computer downstairs, thus emptying the room of some of the furniture and clearing a space, I imagined, for serenity. That’s where I sit, breathing in that history, and when I open my eyes at the end of the session, I see this poster on the wall in front of me:

"If you become a bird and fly away from me," said his mother, "I will be the tree you come home to."

“If you become a bird and fly away from me,” said his mother, “I will be the tree you come home to.”


One of the ways that we are taught to feel the breath, at least in the guided meditation cd by Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Steinberg, is to note when the “in” begins, when it stops, when the “out” begins, when it stops. Sometimes there’s a pause between the out and in, and it’s there that you can settle your attention on the body. I feel this moment or two of not breathing as a place of suspension, a place where you can glimpse the hugeness of the mind, all it can be. It’s like standing on a very high hill where the land stretches out. Even with your eyes closed you feel the space as something endless and you are small and at the same time an essential part of it.

The mind won’t stay put, however, and the return from wherever it takes us back to the breath is the essence of meditation practice, always returning, gently, patiently, without judgment. One of the thoughts my mind takes me to, when I’m feeling the air fill my lungs, when Salzberg says, “One of my teachers once told me to imagine every breath as your first breath and your last breath,” is Casey’s last breath. I try not to linger there, but somehow he’s there with me, though his last breath was not in his old bedroom, but on a county road twenty minutes away. The doctor who wrote the autopsy spoke of the shape of his lungs in a way that makes them sound like a beautiful cathedral.

I put this into one of the Casey poems, which made its way into my essay, “The Weight of a Human Heart,” and I offer it here:
Theirs is a numbers story: how the lungs weighed 440 grams, and the palpable bullet lodged 9 inches left of midline and 53 inches from the left heel, having blazed its path from the right shoulder, a downhill slope, 30-35 degree deviations. A story of contrasts. How devastating lacerations of lungs and thoracic aorta can leave untouched the adrenal glands’ smooth yellow outer cortical rims overlying zones of deeper brown cortical and gray medullary substances. How a body’s internal landscape tells of liquid harmony, where mucosa falls like drapery in longitudinal folds and walls are smooth and glistening. You couldn’t find a more perfect container for his 330-gram heart, even when yours has tipped the scale, even when the landscape has darkened and the waves rise and fall in silence and the story you tell begins and ends once upon a time.

If life is sacred–or precious, dear–or both, giving breath a few minutes of undivided attention–or a few seconds until the mind skitters away, so then a few more seconds, and on and on–might be the best way to say thank you.

Tender Moments

I am midway through the second week of helping out my mother-in-law, who is in recovery from major surgery for cancer. My sister-in-law Susan hasn’t been home for 3 weeks, and Evelyn’s other children, husband, and in-law children have been here as best they can to help her and to spell Susan. This has been a harrowing time for the family, especially her three children, but also those whom she has folded under her magnificent wing.

Thinking a lot about health, illness, age–how when we put “illness” and “age” into the same sentence we have an instinct to turn away. If we were skimming through a Table of Contents and saw both “Illness and Age” and “My Encounter with a Grizzly,” we’d turn to the bear story . . . Even something “Transition and Birth,” which I’ve had enough of, would draw me in first. We think of age as a necessary evil and illness as its unfortunate partner. But this kind of cancer, leiomiosarcoma, is rare and most common among children, an assault on any sense of fair play.

But illness, which is not really the same as the trauma of surgery, has no sense of justice, unless it’s a perverse kind, and then only in someone’s imagination. It is not a payback for this or that bad choice, except in someone’s imagination. It may be that illness is just a riotous adventure for microbes on a playing field that just happens to have feelings. Bad ones. Surgery is an assault of another kind–still amoral–but not some romp in the woods, more like each muscle, tissue, cell of the entire body struggling to rise after a terrible knock-down–but all working in sympathy with each other, united in common cause. There, I have anthropomorphized. . . . but that’s what we do.

I wanted to share something about tender moments–small though they may be–and how precious they are when we are in times of pain. Both these incidents happened several days ago, around the time when Evelyn was having bouts of respiratory distress, as many as three times a day, due to mucus plugs blocking her trach tube. One morning (or was it afternoon?) my father-in-law and I were at her side when she became increasingly pale, breathing heavily. “I have never been so fatigued in my entire life,” she said, and then a few moments later in a broken voice, “I am utterly miserable.” She tapped her trach and mouthed “respiratory.” I made the request, the CNA came in and she requested RT as well, calling down the hall. 30 minutes after the first call, RT arrived, but during the wait, Bob and I stood at her side, each of us holding one hand and watched her belly rise and fall, her throat rasping, her skin pale, her eyes anguished. Once the RT suctioned her and cleared out the tube, she recovered. Bob and I had exchanged glances twice during this ordeal–nothing said, but our faces spoke volumes. Afterwards I said, “That was enough trauma for one day.” “Yes, it was!” he responded. These moments of solidarity, unexpressed except in the most nonverbal ways, were unlike anything my father-in-law and I have shared. I’ll never forget it.

That day–or the next–all these days run together–Evelyn gestured for me to come closer, reaching for my hand. We were alone. Sometimes she likes to hold hands, so I thought that was all she wanted. But she gestured for my other hand then pulled me close. She pressed her face against my stomach as I stood before her, patting her back and then just hugging her. This lasted a full minute, and I felt blessed. She seemed better, too, as she settled into her pillow to await sleep.

Here’s the note she wrote this morning, several days later and after much progress, after the best night’s sleep she’s had in the past 3 weeks. “It was so deliciously wonderful to sleep last night.”
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