This question was not born in me during a meditation, a yoga practice or a breath work exercise. It came to me in the moment of gasping for air, in the moment of trying to breathe and it did not happen. I don’t really know how many of you have experienced this already on different levels, probably everyone – it might have been only in moments of shock, in moments of stress, in moments of waiting for an answer, or in moments of expecting some other meaningful pieces of reality to come that have a seemingly significant impact on our lives.
We hold our breaths quite often, without realizing it. As involuntarily as this may be, it passes relatively fast and probably without a conscious note taken of it. But what if it stretches out and it remains with you for minutes, or longer? I had no idea what the pain of suffocating felt like before. It appears as a whole-body experience of slowly engulfing agony, not only feeling the pressure in my lungs, but as the oxygen levels go lower in my system, the struggle rises on a cellular level, like every bit of my body is fighting for survival. Some may call this a panic attack, and whatever definition helps us to bring more understanding and comfort attached to this state of being is completely fine with me. However, in those very moments when the paralyzing pain washes over me, labels matter very little. Meanings and understandings fade away and there is a singular need that my entire existence is focusing on: breathe!
Coming back from this state has many unfolding consequences. There are stages of euphoria, felt on all the different levels, from photons upwards to physically, emotionally and mentally. There are different kinds of fear arising about it happening again, about powerlessness, about the complete loss of control, about dying, about not getting any help at all. Mostly about my own physical form failing me at the seemingly simplest task it has. Like, how the hell does my body not know how to breathe?? Shame and self-blame can join in at some point, with the lack of understanding of what really happened so there is an openness and vulnerability to other people’s opinions, which can be often harsh and condescending. Somehow it seems that it is morally and medically justified to have a physical condition that prohibits normal breathing, but if it is a mental or emotional condition (hence there is no apparent physiological reason), then you are possibly accused of being a cuckoo, an oddball, mentally unstable, or you are just making it all up. The best advice I usually receive is to go on mood medication, or “stop being so stressful”. Right. How do I do that? I mean it. “Just relax, no stress.” How? Happy pills? Therapy? What kind? Relaxation? Yoga? Running? Homeopathy? Aromatherapy? Meditation? Retreats? Spa sessions? Are the answers that are popular and can help others my answers too? There is a gigantic industry built entirely around stress relief. It is not that we do not have choices, right? So I have tried them all. Useful? Absolutely. During those minutes or hours, everything feels better, even if it hurts a bit sometimes. And then, the next Tuesday comes and I am at work, or on the road, or cleaning the bathroom and the fear slaps me again, bringing disappointment and often self-criticism because I could not maintain the attained balance in the everyday.
The comeback from the last episode has brought something else in its goodie box. Not only did the usual euphoric/fearful stages take turns, but a recognition was born amongst them. The affair of scare and joy, it seems, has given birth to a new state of being, a lovechild which was….no, not gratitude. Sorry. I know that would be the most fitting answer here, however. It was more of an ability to simply exist. When breathing becomes a delicacy instead of a taken-for-granted natural state, it puts things into an entirely new paradigm. How is it a gift? How is it an opportunity? I asked myself these questions several times before, whenever the pudding hit the fan – and sometimes it is easier to gain the perspective of the opportunity during a messy situation than other times. Sometimes it is not really possible. Now, the questions did not emerge. Not then, and not later, because there was no need for the seeking anymore. For days, my entire existence was orbiting around the simple fact: I can breathe! The rest was somehow secondary; where, why, what, who, when. As long as the air entered and left my system peacefully, things were fine. More than fine. All else has become a bonus.
“Who are you, when you do absolutely nothing?” One of our amazing teachers asked the question during a retreat, and the real depth of this concept could not sink in – back then… What do you mean? How do I define myself when I am sitting still? If I quit my job? If not talking about what I do, then what do I say about myself in social gatherings? Now the whole notion of “doing nothing” entered a new realm as I realized that even breathing is doing something. Involuntary, yes, but nevertheless doing. So who am I when I do not even breathe? This stopped me on my tracks of simply being in the self-created luxurious spa setting of breathing peacefully. So, instead of turning to the usual tools of avoidance, distraction and push-away, I actually chose to dive in. I decided to revisit the state of not breathing consciously and alone. Who am I when I am not breathing? What remains when all (or most of) the active existence falls away? Who is still there? This journey is not about finding relief, comfort or happiness. It is not about finding justification of present functioning based on past experiences, it is not about how to tackle fears or how to forge success out of suffering. It is mostly the journey of quiet observation in relative stillness. Whoever is still there in the moments of doing nothing is not the one who struggles with the pain, who fights the agony, who gasps for any amount of air that can squeeze through the failure of breathing. But who is it then?