"Kathleen" 9 inches by 12 inches; ink on paper; $125
In November of 2001, I found myself terrified of dying. I had just turned 50, which was the age at which my mother had passed away. On top of that, the events at the World Trade Center that September had left many people in the US with a great deal of anxiety. Fears about anthrax and bombs swirled and merged with my personal fears of dying. That winter I got sick with bronchitis that turned into a serious pneumonia in which I could barely roll over to sip a cup of broth. Throughout months of illness I felt on some level that my fear of dying young, as my mom had, and my brother had years before, were what was making me ill. But despite that understanding, I was gripped in a terror that would not seem to let go.
In the spring of 2002 the pneumonia turned into asthma. As a singer this was even more scary. How would I make a living if I couldn't sing? My doctor gave me steroids and an albuterol inhaler, and although it did help me breathe, I felt anxious after using it. One day I read the fine print on the packaging and I saw that anxiety was one possible side effect. As if I needed more anxiety!
That was the moment when I realized that I needed to find support somewhere other than in those drugs, and in the diagnosis from one of my doctors that I had adult onset asthma, and would probably always have asthma. By doing an internet search: asthma + natural healing, I discovered the Butkyeo Method, which was developed by a Russian doctor in the 20th century, and has only been getting to the west during the past 20 years or so. I also found on line, to my amazement, that although there was no one in our area teaching the method at that time, my friend Susan Gladdin was bringing a Buteyko teacher from Indiana to give a workshop on this method that following week!
At the workshop I learned something that revolutionized my understanding of breathing. Although I felt starved for air and for the energy that oxygen brings, the way to get it was not to breathe more, as so many people with asthma do, but to breathe less, slower, and deeper into my body. At the workshop we sat practicing slower breathing by softening and relaxing our bodies, then holding our breath after a long outbreath, then breathing low and slow very quietly, like a sleeping baby. Within the first few minutes of practicing this I began to feel calm and I could feel the oxygen and energy returning to my cheeks and hands and feet and whole body. The science of this is that the red blood cells, in their journeys around our body, do not release new oxygen unless there is enough carbon dioxide in a particular area of the body. So the CO2 released by cells as O2 is used up is the signal to the hemoglobin to release more O2 to the cells. Buteyko theorized that if people are breathing too much their blood carries too much oxygen, and so new oxygen is not being released to the cells. It is counterintuitive at first, but in practicing the slow breathing method, it soon became apparent that the calm, rest and renewed energy I had searched for was available right away as soon as my breathing slowed down.
I had already been meditating for years, and with this new piece of information, to allow a long slow outbreath and a pause at the end of the outbreath for the CO2 to build up, my meditation took me deeper and deeper into a peaceful place, and within three months I was off all of the asthma drugs, and I felt back to my normal health Enjoying the twice daily dip into deep peace, stillness and calm, I wrote a song that winter with these lyrics:
Got enough socks
Got enough shoes
Got enough reasons to sing the blues,
What I need, you can't buy in a store
Found a little nothing on a back road
And I want a little bit more.
Nothing on my mind, no fear in my heart,
Nothing to finish and nothing to start.
When I get nowhere, no reason to leave
I'll just sit down here, on the grass and breathe.
Still, I felt there was something more to discover. I had read an article by an Indian teacher who said that on a complete outbreath, we face death. He also said that in a complete out breath the diaphragm massages the heart. I had not felt such a thing and I was interested in what that might be like.
All along the way, as I learned to allow my breath to slow down, I did it in a way similar to Vipassana meditation, by noticing where I was holding tension in my body, and allowing that part of my body to soften and let go. Over the months I had less and less tension in my belly and solar plexus. But one particular day in May of 2003 I noticed I was holding tension in my chest, in the area around my heart. I had never noticed this before and I suddenly realized that this chronic tension was preventing a complete outbreath from happening. So I asked my heart, "What's up with you? Why are you gripping like that?" After a long pause, I heard answer from my heart:
"I've been totally locked down since the last relationship you were in."
"Ah, well," I asked my heart, "Are you thinking of changing on that?" What I think was important was that I waited for an answer and didn't try to force it. I was being really present to my body. I was feeling quite peaceful, waiting several minutes for an answer, and suddenly, the muscles in my chest released and opened up in a huge new way. My diaphragm rose up into the opening and a very complete outbreath started to happen. I felt that massage of the heart from below, and it was amazing. My breath and diaphragm were moving freely on their own with nothing in me obstructing the flow. Every time the breath came up higher I felt joy, peace, and love, really tangible love, bubbling in and rising up out of my heart.. As someone who had lived with fear as a constant companion for most of my life, it was a miracle to realize that this sweet, tangible fountain of love was in me, not something I needed to get from outside myself!
I got up from there and I went into the world and discovered that same love flowing out of my heart was pouring out of everyone else's heart as well! I was teaching preschool music at the time. I remember sitting down one day with the very little kids, the 18-24 month olds. They toddled over to me and stood around me. They are so young and so open that there wasn't any need for words, we were just exchanging love, their little hearts buzzing and overflowing with it. Time disappeared. The teacher was puzzled, "Aren't we going to sing today?"
Wow, this is what people mean when they say HEART. I had not known before this. Now I saw, felt, and knew that love is pouring out of children, trees, grownups, dogs, birds, everything. That everything is made out of that same love that is always arising in my heart. I could feel that river of love coming out of everyone, even people who were being rude, or feeling sad, or mad. This love is deeper than our surface thoughts and feelings, always flowing, always connecting us to everything.
There was one more piece. A couple of weeks later in meditation, when I noticed that I held a lot of tension between my eyes, I asked my body what that tension was about. I was peaceful, resting in my heart, waiting for an answer. The thought came: "Don't tell me that!"
"Dont tell you what?"I asked.
"Dont tell me that everyone I love is going to die."
Instantly I went from the very peaceful heart awareness to an intense fear of death. I felt pure terror, I cried, I felt trapped in the big fear of death that had started this whole journey.
Finally, I remembered to ask for guidance from my heart. I put my hands on my heart and asked a different question. "What do I know in my heart about death?" What happened next was that the things I had believed about death started coming into my mind. It was like a Rolodex of thought: "You'll be alone!" "It will be scary!" "God will punish you!" And as each thought came through, I checked with my heart, and none of these thoughts resonated as truth in my heart, so I kept watching the thoughts and listening to my heart.
Suddenly, the tension in my forehead opened up and I saw something beyond form. It was like a light, a flame, or a knowing, a truth. I just knew right then that what I am, what all of us are, does not die. I knew then that the essence of people I love who had died, my mother, my grandmother, my little brother, were all right there with me in that moment, whole, and one with me. And then the understanding expanded, and I knew that all the people that were still alive that I loved and felt responsible for were right there and we were all one with no separation. The responsibility melted away, and all fear was completely gone.
That was it. My fear of death was gone. The fear of death I had had my whole life was just gone. I have great gratitude for the Buteyko teacher and other teachings about breathing and meditation, through which I was able to sit in silence and be with my fear until gradually and finally that deeper truth, deeper peace, deeper Love became evident. The songs I write and sing now are about that Love. And I pray, as Buddhists and so many others pray, that all beings may awaken to the awareness of who we really are.
Photograph by Kathleen Hannan
Debra Wuliger, figurative artist working with color, texture and pattern to celebrate life.
Image silhouetted with story. Ready for hanging.