It’s Thanksgiving today in the U.S.
I am giving thanks for breath.
For much of my life I have had trouble breathing. Colds turn into pneumonia or bronchitis; I have chronic asthma. And when I have trouble breathing, I panic. I struggle to breathe and the more I struggle the harder it is, and the more I struggle….
Deep in my closet of secrets is this secret: I know this is how I will die: struggling to draw a breath, to exhale, sweating with panic.
It’s not that I’m afraid of dying. Slipping in and out feels familiar and comfortable to me. In fact, lately, when the worst darknesses of the human psyche have arisen to posture on the nightly news, part of me longs to give up and go home for a while.
What I’m in a panic about is dying this way. Or, more specifically, having my last experience be this terrible struggle for breath, and the choking fear that makes it worse.
But this time something changed.
Thich Nhat Hanh was my first teacher. On November 11th he suffered a brain hemorrhage. He has been in a coma since then, his community gathered around him, breathing peacefully with him.
As I struggled for breath, I began to be aware of Thay’s peaceful breathing, and of another sound – the millions of beings he has touched, all around the planet, breathing with him, inhaling what is, just as it is, and exhaling peace.
And I decided that this time I would not distract myself, run away, push my dark secret back into the closet. I would sit with my terror and allow it to be what it is. I would offer it space.
I would sit with my breath and try to let each breath come and go as it chooses. Refrain from struggle, if I can. Or if I can’t, then let that too be as it is, watch it with compassion, try to breath peace into my own breathing.
And in these past days, as I have tried to do this – sit still instead of run away, allow my own breathing to be as it is – I have became more and more aware of all the others who are breathing. Of Thay breathing, of the whole planet breathing.
It has been as if my own lungs can relax, can rest on the vast ocean of breathing, become part of that ocean. As if, ultimately, I am being breathed.
It is still a struggle. Just holding still and not running away is a struggle. It is a struggle not to struggle!
I’ve been meditating almost every day for twenty-five years. I teach meditation! But in all that time I have never done breath meditation when I cannot breathe.
Instead, I’ve mostly been practicing other forms of meditation – loving-kindness meditation, body-based meditation, contemplation, prayer – but today the work is to sit here, just as I am, with what is so difficult.
I keep thinking of Thay, leaving in such a peaceful way, his clear bright gentle spirit expanding into oneness with all that is. I am grateful beyond words for the radiant gift of his teaching – teaching even now, by his example.
Because there is time still. I can practice this. I can give myself this gift. I can hold my own fear with clarity and compassion. I can be free.