How Breathwork Helped Me Through Suffering

Woman with her eyes closed looking up at the sky with purple and green flowers in the background

My cell phone rang during dinner with friends. Scott, my husband, had collapsed and was being taken to the hospital.

Panic rose in my chest as I made my way to the ER. The doctors struggled to make sense of his symptoms. Was he suffering a heart attack? An aortic dissection? A strange cardiac rhythm? I gasped for air as the doctors wheeled him from room to room for tests– and again when he landed in the ICU. Breathe, I told myself.

Soon after entering the ICU, Scott flatlined. My heart flooded with terror. The medical team rushed to his room and after a few minutes his heartbeat picked up again. I held fast to only one thought: Breathe.

Scott was taken to the operating room for a temporary pacemaker implant. Breathe, I reminded myself. Ten days later we were told that Scott has a very rare heart condition. Breathe, I thought. One breath at a time.

Few of us escape difficult experiences in life. Often these are experiences we never thought we’d have to go through. Suffering is inevitable and, according to sages and mystics, a part of life. It is through these hardships that we find our true selves. Through the shocking early moments of my husband’s illness, I called upon my years of teaching breathing and meditation to soothe myself. This experience taught me on a whole new level what “minding the mind” means. I found comfort in being present in the moment with my breath- breathing in and breathing out with intention. My breath was all I could control.

How can we navigate unexpected suffering, trauma, and the ups and downs of being human? The first step is awareness. We choose to notice what is happening just in this moment. Instead of focusing on the past or future, we choose to be here, now. When we stay present with our breath in the moment, we learn to respond wisely instead of react reflexively to life’s challenges.

Throughout Scott’s time in the hospital, I often heard doctors discussing his case. “It’s amazing he’s here,” they’d sometimes say. “Most men die of what he has.” My mind seized upon these words, on their many possible meanings. Tears streamed down my face as my mind shuffled through a range of scenarios: Is Scott going to live? Will he ever be truly well? Am I going to be a widow? Buddhists refer to this kind of preoccupied thinking as the “monkey mind.” It’s the perfect name for the restless, ceaseless chatter that so often overtakes us. But how was I to calm my mind? Take a deep breath, I told myself. That was the one answer I knew.

Minding the mind means cultivating our thoughts rather than being at their mercy– and thereby shaping our experience for the better.

What we focus on gets larger.

What we think, we create.

From the first moments of Scott’s illness, I chose to focus on love, light, and healing. Throughout his hospital stay and the subsequent years of treatment, I prayed, breathed, and opened my heart to the comfort of family and friends. Now, I’m grateful to say, Scott is doing well. With help from breathing, meditation, and other healing techniques, he is defying what doctors thought possible.

So how do we mind the mind? Here are some suggestions to start your practice:

  • Notice. Start by noticing what are you thinking. By being present in the moment and consciously focusing on your breath, you are being mindful. From this place of mindfulness, you can learn how to respond to situations instead of reacting.
  • Breathe. Take one to two minutes to notice your belly rising and falling with each breath. This induces the parasympathetic nervous system and automatically calms your body.
  • Be kind. Notice how you talk to yourself. Do you use negative self-talk? Do you judge yourself? Try to catch your critical thoughts and redirect them positively.
  • Self-soothe. When you’re feeling unrest, put your hands together over your heart area and say, “may I be at peace.”

How are you living your life? Are you minding your mind? Are you living fully present in this moment or living in a state of near slumber? Strive to live openly and be aware of life’s beauty and time’s passage. This is what it means to be fully alive.