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Breath

I’ve expressed my gratitude for breath before: “Oxygen is the real drug; breathing, the ultimate high.” Quoting myself! I’ve thought about breath a lot over the past decades, more since I began meditating, which curiously coincided with the end of a couple year asthma phase. My precious teacher told me at the time that sometimes people with breathing difficulties do better meditating with a different anchor than the breath. Did I take that as a challenge, or was I simply drawn to the breath because I had been all along? Either way, I’m grateful for how the past twelve years of meditation have increased familiarity with my breath.

I had a grade school understanding of how our lungs work, but until today I didn’t really comprehend how blood gets oxygenated. I’m grateful my NP sent me for pulmonary functions tests today, and grateful for the kind and focused attention of the respiratory therapist Melissa who gave me a quick lesson on lung anatomy, asthma, oxygen saturation, and why altitude matters. Yes, I suffered second-hand smoke from in utero until I left for college at 18; yes, my alveoli are functioning ever so slightly below normal; yes, I have what could be described as mild bronchial obstruction (asthma) that did not improve with an inhaler; but, unfortunately, her tests didn’t seem to reveal the reason behind my chronically low oxygen saturation. We’ll know more after the pulmonologist reviews the results, but in the meantime she concurs with NP that the next step is to get me onto night oxygen. She doesn’t think I should move to the coast of Maine, as the pressure gradient in humid sea level climes often exacerbates breathing difficulty, so there goes that fantasy.

There are complications to be worked out with the night oxygen, primary being that living on solar power I simply don’t have the electricity to run an oxygen concentrator. Period. I’m researching options. More will be revealed. Meanwhile, this whole exploration reminds me how grateful I am for each breath, and for the impaired but nevertheless miraculous lungs that diffuse oxygen into my blood and pull carbon dioxide out.

And in that perfect timing sort of way, a new avenue of respiratory therapy has opened up synchronistically. My dear teacher at the Hotchkiss Yoga Tree now offers a Pranayama class that can be taken via Zoom. I joined for the first time yesterday, and am excited and grateful to add this Tuesday class to my calendar, and incorporate the magic of Pranayama into my daily practice. Wishing you all Happy Breathing!

Acceptance

“Yacht Race off Boston Light” three days underway. This pink sky is one of the most challenging sections of any puzzle yet.

Yesterday was interesting. I was too tired to write about it last night, and probably won’t do it justice tonight, but want to express my gratitude to the imaging technicians at Delta Hospital. Everyone was so kind, from the receptionists on. There were some little glitches, at intake and with the MRIs, that would once have really frustrated me, but my growing capacity for accepting things as they are instead of thinking that they should be different served me well.

I may have never met a more tender, compassionate, and sweet tech than Toni, the woman who did the bone density scan. We were practically in tears of loving-kindness by the time she led me back to the waiting room. The MRI tech was very business-like, though also considerate and kind. I remembered Deb’s encouragement to ask for what I needed, so asked for extra pillows to support my knees to reduce sciatic strain; and when the classical music station wouldn’t play, I squeezed the ‘stop’ bulb. Remarkably, the only stations that would play were country, and something called ‘soft rock,’ which was horrible. I experienced extreme aversion during the first MRI as the DJ blithered on and on, and when there was ‘music’ its beat clashed with the machine noises inside my head until, despite a concerted effort to remain focused on my breath, I was completely rattled. I squeezed the ‘stop’ bulb again when anxiety rose to unbearable-verging-on-panic, and fortunately that was the end of the first session. I continued in blessed internal silence for the next three tests. It was a lengthy exercise in conscious relaxation, first my face, then abdomen, then shoulders, back to abdomen, back to face–as one area relaxed another tensed up, and I cycled through one after the other, consistently returning attention to the breath. Nothing like a long MRI to strengthen meditation practice.

During the whole second scan, there was a little lump in the pillow, which bored into my head. I breathed through that, but it got worse and worse. It was fascinating to watch my mind deal with all these sensational challenges. She wanted me to keep my head perfectly still when she pulled me out to inject the contrast dye, but I had to insist that she smooth the pillow. It wasn’t really a pillow, just a folded cloth. She was exasperated, and in a hurry. I said calmly, as she prepared my arm to stick a needle into it, “I need to not feel anxious, and I need to feel that you’re not in a hurry.” She softened instantly, apologized, and explained that there were two emergencies waiting and there was only this one machine, and one of her. This put things in a different perspective for me, and we both calmed way down. She thought to put a little lavender patch on my chest, which actually helped a lot. This experience, which was stressful and could have been really horrible, was transformed by my ability to accept things as they were each step of the way, do what I could to change them, and then accept again. And again, there was much tenderness and well-wishing between us as she walked me out.

I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I left the hospital, for the emotional skill with which I’d navigated the morning, and decided to treat myself to a deli sandwich. But there’s no deli near the hospital, so I stopped at Sonic to see what I could find. At the drive-up menu, I realized I couldn’t bring myself to order factory-farmed chicken or beef, so I left; but circled back and ordered three fried sides. I was glowing with acceptance when the little girl brought my limeade and a small bag, and was only mildly disappointed to find inside the bag just one little wrapped burger. I accepted the error with good cheer, and she said she’d be right back with my order. Way too long later, two more “Welcome to Sonic, may I take your order” queries, and finally my bag of sides, I almost lost it when I opened the bag to find they were small instead of medium, and there was no mayo. Acceptance out the window! Attachment in high gear: I wanted what I wanted and I wanted it NOW! But still, I managed not to be too grumpy. When the manager brought a double handful of condiments and apologized, she said “It’s just the two of us, people didn’t show up…” My perspective adjusted itself instantaneously, all frustration melted, and I assured her it was no problem. We smiled and laughed and wished each other happy holidays.

The food was a big disappointment. But I accepted that easily. Fast food is what it is. I drove home filled with compassion for the people who worked at the hospital, the patients who needed emergency MRIs, the harried staff at Sonic, and deeply grateful for the skill of acceptance.

Meditation

Monkey mind had me in its grip tonight but meditation quickly calmed the screaming beast inside. (photo from Unsplash)

I found myself ruminating about an upcoming stressful event, and getting more and more physically uncomfortable, feeling flushed and short of breath, anxious, shaky, even angry–all from my thoughts alone. I am grateful I’ve been practicing meditation for years, and recognized a good opportunity to use this skill to calm myself. I lay down and played a 24-minute recorded meditation by B. Alan Wallace called “A Tour of Shamatha Practices,” which focuses the mind on the breath. In no time, my breath calmed, my mind calmed, and I let go of unskillful thoughts and projections. I certainly don’t know what the future will bring: why waste precious time fretting over it? It could as easily go well as poorly, and the attitude I bring to it will largely determine how stressful, unpleasant, or comfortable it will be for me. I’m grateful meditation restored mental balance tonight, and grateful I had the presence of mind to turn to it instead of letting monkey mind ruin my evening.

Favorite Things

Using up the last of the dog-pill ham on a sandwich with Havarti, mayo, mustard, and homemade bread & butter pickles, along with the last of the squash soup. I’m grateful to have enough to eat, and to recognize my good fortune rather than take it for granted.

I’m grateful for the simple pleasures of favorite things, like the chartreuse blanket Deb gave me years ago, the hori hori garden knife from Lee Valley that Garden Buddy noticed the other day, double dark chocolate Milano cookies, Zoom cooking with Amy, year round Christmas lights, a hot shower, bees on flowers, happy shows, the Raggedy Ann doll I’ve had for sixty years, a camera phone in my pocket, and a cheese sandwich with plenty of mayonnaise. It’s great to be grateful for these tangible things, and important not to look to them alone for happiness. I’m also grateful for a “life of the mind,” and for meditation and other skills to train that mind; for knowledge and wisdom acquired through years of choices, mistakes, and unintended outcomes, along with deeply satisfying results sometimes, like this house I live in. I’m grateful for new ideas and experiences, for old friends, and for a heart that keeps on ticking.

Opportunity

Opportunity knocked, and I opened the door. I accepted the invitation to create an online Introduction to Mindfulness course for a large group of educators. It will be a cursory overview, a tip of the tip of the iceberg, that may entice people to try meditation and some basic mindfulness practices. My hope is that it will give teachers who opt to take it a glimpse of the possibilities that meditation and mindfulness practice offer to find mental and emotional balance in a complicated and stressful work environment. During this pandemic educators, like health workers, face increasing anxiety, overwhelm, and burnout due to short-staffing, higher workload, traumatized students, and conservative pushback against the science of masks and vaccines.

Mindfulness changed my life. I’m grateful for the opportunity I stumbled upon early in the pandemic to learn simple and effective skills to manage my own anxiety, fear, and depression, and transform my life into one of gratitude and contentment. I’m grateful for a decade of meditation practice, a year of intense mindfulness training, and the opportunity to teach these skills online, helping people explore their own potential for less mental suffering and more genuine happiness. I’m grateful for the decades of adventure I’ve had exploring fun, creative, interesting, and varied ways of making a living; for all the lessons, influences, and conditions that led me to discover my true calling and right livelihood at long last. I’m grateful for opportunities to share the gifts of meditation and mindfulness with this new custom course for Oregon educators; and with anyone who is interested in a more thorough exploration, through the Mindful Life Program’s Foundations Course offered online quarterly, with the next class starting in January.

Every Living Moment

Today I’m grateful for every living moment of this day. Not for the first time, I’m grateful to have woken up alive, with a soft cat stretched out beside me, after a pretty good night of sleep with not too much pain. I’m grateful for the fullness of this day with sunshine, coffee, meditation, conversation, introspection, a cheese sandwich, ice cream, entertainment, meaningful work, and a sense of belonging. And that’s just the beginning. And now the day is over, I’m tired in a healthy way, and I’m grateful for a bed in which to rest my sleepy head. I’m grateful to have been aware of all these things in the moment, grateful to be a conscious participant in my own life. It’s that simple.

Mind Training

I’m grateful that I found mindfulness practice. The world we inhabit is complex and often confounding.┬áLearning a few simple skills, starting with meditation, has helped me find more joy and contentment in life, and experience less mental and emotional suffering. I still get frustrated, annoyed, jealous, suspicious–just, not so much as I used to, and those afflictive states don’t last as long. I still hurt. In fact, I’m going through a pretty tough time right now, I won’t deny it. Sometimes I feel so empty it aches. But not all the time, and other times I feel profound gratitude just to be alive. To be able to share the skills and benefits of mind training with others, as I did this afternoon, is icing on the cake. Today, among other things and people, I’m grateful for the students in the Mindfulness Foundations Course I’m teaching now, and those I’ve taught before: when they tell me how the lessons and practices have helped them handle a challenging situation, or find more peace of mind or happiness, my heart sings. So even though I’m sad today, a week after Stellar’s death, I’m also happy. I’m grateful for all my teachers through the years, and for my constantly deepening understanding of life’s endless lessons.

Curiosity

I looked up rattlesnake pole beans. I had assumed, like many of the references, that their name derives from their purple-speckled skin, but I found one article that mentioned it comes from their propensity to wind themselves around the supports or their own vines like a snake. And then I found this one! I’ve picked quite a few that were twisted around the fence wire, or their own coiling stems, though mostly they hang straight down. I’m grateful that my curiosity about their provenance led me to find out this tidbit, and then find a perfect example of it.

I’m grateful, as always, for Stellar Stardog Son of Sundog. He spent a lot of time outside lying on his bed in the shade under the deck, which is kind of unusual. Something seems to be turning in him. His back end was as weak throughout the day as I’ve ever seen it, maybe the worst consistently. Maybe he’ll rebound again, and maybe this is a new normal, or the beginning of the end. I’m so grateful for this bonus year we’ve gotten to spend together, and for all the good days he’s had. I’m grateful for the curls of his ruff, and the way he sees me.

Another thing I’m grateful for today is that the prep for a colonoscopy has improved a lot since the last time I got one twelve years ago. This doctor at Delta County Memorial Hospital offers her own recipe, which includes a super sour sickly sweet 10 ounces of magnesium citrate–I chose grape, because lemon-lime is intolerable from past experience, and cherry is just icky no matter what. That went down ok. Then she has you add 238 grams (8.3 oz.) of Miralax powder to a gallon of Gatorade, your choice just not red or purple. I chose orange because for a few years in my younger days, I really liked orange Gatorade, in the context of a hangover cure: that, and a bag of salty potato chips, brought me right back into my body on the too-frequent mornings after.

This prep was far more mild than I’d expected, though the first few cups of it bounced right back up all at once. I hope I managed to keep enough of it down to do the trick. Yeah, it’s gross to think about, but a) it’s apparently important that we get this done from time to time, and b) the whole time I was drinking this two-weeks’ worth of laxative, I was watching the news of Haiti and Afghanistan, and I felt really lucky. Also, I set my mind ahead of time to engage in the process as if it were a meditation, committed to just being present in the midst and flow of it, observing my bodily sensations, being grateful for the effects, and optimistic for the outcome. Bringing a kind curiosity to the process has been a huge help in managing legitimate anxiety: An old friend did her first screening colonoscopy at 50 like they tell us to do, and they nicked her colon, and she died of sepsis.

“That’s exceptionally rare,” I’ve been told by many people. And yet it happens, and why would it not happen to me? I am not invincible, though my childish mind insists that I’ll always come home from whatever outing I undertake. This amazing human capacity for denial: It can’t happen here, it won’t happen to me, etc. Silly denial; and yet, the reality can be terrifying. Death is certain, time of death uncertain. I’m ready to face the music tomorrow, when I’ll be grateful for my chauffeurs Rosie and Deb, and pray that I come back home to Stellar, Topaz, Biko, and the glorious garden, unscathed and healthy.

Sleep

I’m grateful the new little dog down the road has finally accepted me.

I’ve been so tired today. I’m so tired now. Some days are just like this. There were crazy drivers on the road this morning, and this afternoon. A large calf was running loose on the highway as I drove home from a Delta doctor appointment (all is well) with all the US50 detour traffic; and a huge flatbed truck that shouldn’t have been allowed on our little road came within an inch of scraping me into the ditch at the hairpin curve. For all the mindfulness training, I was frazzled when I got home, and I slept for three hours after lunch. Ever since I woke up I’ve thought of nothing but more sleep. Ok, that’s hyperbole, but it’s all I’m thinking about now.

I am so grateful that I am usually able to sleep through the night once I go to bed. I know so many people who can’t: who either just wake up way too early or wake up multiple times a night to pee, or can’t get to sleep for a long time, or never get to sleep. I’m grateful for sleep, for six, or seven, sometimes even eight hours of it, for the physical and mental restoration it bestows. I’m grateful I have a good bed in a sturdy house, and that I have the relative peace of mind to be able to close my eyes and rest my head and all the busyness within it for at least a good part of the night–and sometimes a good part of the day. I wish you good sleep. And if you have trouble sleeping, I suggest a Jennifer Piercy yoga nidra on Insight Timer to help you relax body and mind sufficiently to rest easy.

Breath

Breathing in the peaceable kingdom, evening.

I focused on my breath a lot today.

I used to drive across the country once or twice a year, for more than twenty years. I felt really confident in my driving, and in my ability to handle anything that came up. But in recent years, while I’m still confident in my driving abilities, I’m less sure of the skills and wisdom of other drivers; also, the pandemic sapped my desire to go anywhere anyway. So I practiced focusing on my breath several times this morning before heading out on the highway, just to keep myself grounded. Then at the hospital, I breathed intentionally to keep calm through the intake and waiting areas. I’m grateful for how well DCMH maintains their Covid protocol, and this time I sailed through the process to get to radiology.

An MRI itself used to make me feel claustrophobic, but the new machine is like a giant donut and much easier to breathe in. I chose classical music, which happened to be a dramatic symphony that meshed in a fascinating way with the sounds of the machine. At the same time, I focused on my breath, with an awareness of thoughts arising and falling away. I surrendered to the noise: It was a lovely meditation. I’m grateful I have learned the mindfulness skills to approach this potentially grueling outing with equanimity, and make the most of what had to be done. We’ll know more later about the outcome, and I’m not worried about it, expecting only to gain information.

Then after I got home and decontaminated with a hot shower (one of the things in life I am most grateful for! Imagine–clean water flowing from the mountains through pipes underground, into a holding tank, pumped via solar power into my home, pouring out hot in a fountain in my very own shower! Life doesn’t get any better), I sat outside on the patio for a long time, just breathing, recuperating the energy it took to sustain equanimity throughout the day. Then I chaired a zoom meeting, and later sat outside again for a long while with Stellar and some cervid friends, breathing with the rhythm of the phoebes’ flights to and from their nest overhead; punctuated with occasional hummingbird frenzies off to the side. I spent a good portion of the day just being grateful for each breath.