The room closed in on me. My fingertips went numb. My heart raced. I was teaching a late night class at the college.
We were discussing the series _Weeds_. I wasn’t high. But I knew something was wrong. I ended class early, and with effort made it outside and sat down trying to figure out what was happening.
In the weeks that followed, I went to the emergency room twice thinking I was having a heart attack. Several large co-payments later, I was told I was experiencing anxiety and panic attacks.
My heart was fine.
My thoughts were not.
Having a name for what I was going through did not change my situation at first. That summer was brutal. My panic attacks started happening regularly, usually at around the time the sun would set. No matter what I told myself or did, I could not stop them.
I became scared of leaving the house, of doing the things that I normally did. My life shrunk and I was forced to pause.
Looking back, I can see how I ended where I did. I had entered a perfect mental health storm that I wasn’t prepared for. Unresolved childhood trauma, the stress of raising a family of three teenage children, the loss of a parent to Alzheimer’s and an overall lack of kindness toward myself created a perfect environment for what felt like a disconnection from my body.
I entered a hell realm that seemed to have no end.
Although surrounded by a loving family and friends, I could not experience their love and warmth in my body.
What I didn’t know at the time was that I would meet the Buddha in my panic.
I did not have to go to a cave in the Himalayas to do so. I met her in my house in Miami as the walls of my room felt like they were closing in.
My meeting was unexpected.
I signed up for Eckhart Yoga, an online yoga studio out of the Netherlands. I started practicing with Esther Eckhart and as she guided me through the most basic of yoga poses.
I discovered my breath again.
Each forward fold and exhale, allowed for a more spacious and less labored inhale. Slowly, over months, I began to find my way back to my body. The panic attacks became more familiar and less frequent. I stopped being scared of them. I saw them as visitors who needed a bit of nourishment.
I offered cookies.
Working with the Prison
This summer I’ll be sharing the book Awakening from the Daydream: Reimagining the Buddha’s Wheel of Life with my meditation group at the women’s prison in Homestead.
(My prison work is part of my own freedom work. I’ve realized that I can’t be free by myself. The women teach me this all of the time.)
I came across this book through a mindfulness meditation training I took with David Nichtern. The book describes six realms which parallel our own mental states.
The last of the realms is hell. Unlike other traditions, however, hell, and all of the other realms, are not permanent. We move in and out of them.
The wheel suggests ways to navigate. It also points to something really remarkable. The traditional image of the wheel places a little image of the Buddha in each of the realms. No realm is left without one.
I love this and have experienced it.
For me the Buddha is my breath.
I can’t go far without her.
I’m presenting the book to the women and looking forward to see how the text and the practice of noticing the breath speaks to them and their experience.
Mental health is complex. What I have described above is not a prescription for anyone, but a gentle reminder that we can work with our situation. Doing so may take countless forms. Remembering that we are not alone in this process is already a little bit of the Buddha showing up in the unexpected space of our broken heart.