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.
Rurh, this is beautiful. It especially comes at a good time for me to remember to just breathe in and out, to sit with what is before me right now.
Thank you, Lisa. I have been so grateful for your own Thanksgiving posts at, your ability to be so honest about your experience. But maybe you’re breathing some openness and space into that unhappy, constricted environment.
Thank you Ruth for a lovely, thoughtful post. There are so many nuggets here that I will continue to ponder – Thay’s teachings will live on long after he passes and you are an example of that. The legacy of a true teacher. Also how we know something to be beneficial and we dedicate our lives to sharing that knowledge with others and yet we overlook the opportunity to use that practice for ourselves… Give yourself the gift. And of course, breath. The difference between life and death as well as the difference between life and living. Primordial. So simple so basic and yet so profound. Thank you.
Mary, thank you for writing this. You show me something I had not been seeing, a different way to experience this. Not as a pilgrim’s progress, but truly as giving myself a gift of love.
Ruth, what a beautiful tribute and deeply thoughtful piece of writing. I love the insight about not doing breath meditation all these years. I have recently discovered something similar. In my Zen discussion group we had been talking about imagining a journey, when in chronic pain – taking leaps and bounds over mountains to a favorite place. I suddenly realized that I could use this practice when I am suffering from my episodes of periodic paralysis. Instead of feeling trapped in my body, frantically willing it to end, I have begun trying this “movement meditation.” The movement is in my mind…but I can feel it inside of me, in the interior of my body, and it makes me feel less imprisoned, more free. Just beginning to explore this.
Michelle, what a beautiful idea! I love to imagine you leaping over mountains and valleys, bright sun on your face, unbounded!
This is so open and powerful and enlivening. In other words, this is the essence of you.
Thank you, Ruth — this is glorious!
Ruth, this is such a brilliant article! How many times over my lifetime I have spent struggling to change something that is – struggling against the physical pain, rather than flowing with it. I have been able to feel your words unlock that struggle in my body, allowing a new flow to emerge and for relief to simply enter.
As my new shoulder is healing there are times that I wish things were different, rather than simply sitting and allowing the changes to integrate. It seems that paradigm is now shifting to a much more fluid state. Your words and the energy behind them are truly a gift to humanity.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart!
Michelle, when I think of all I have learned from you, I am so happy to be able to give something back! Thank you so much for these words!
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