Learning to Breathe

When I was 23 years old, just graduated from my B.A at Trent University, I hitchhiked out to a small town just outside of Calgary and participated in a ten day silent retreat in Vipassana meditation. I decided to do this because: a) I had friends going and they asked if I wanted to join, b) I had no clue what I was going to do after graduation so this was a good distraction from that big looming question, c) it was completely free, and d) I focused my Philosophy major on East Asian Philosophy and while I read lots of books and wrote essays on meditation, I hadn’t spent one single minute of my life meditating. So, with my ‘go large or go home’ attitude, I jumped with two feet and no fear into ten days of silence.

Every minute and every hour was intense, and I had no one to reflect with about the intensity. There were no books, no distractions, no eye contact, just pure meditation from 5:30am to 7:30pm. The days felt endlessly long. The only sound was the sound of nature (rustling of leaves in the wind) and the gong of a bell for mealtime (which was deafening against the quiet). I spent the first three days fighting with myself, feeling every pain in my muscle from sitting for 10 days straight, feeling incredibly lonely and sorry for myself, and then starting to plot how I would escape in the dark of the night. The only reprieve from the silence was a short video of S.N. Goenka speaking (the founder of Vipassana meditation – https://www.dhamma.org/en/about/goenka), and his joking in that funny buddhist way was so welcome that my heart was full of joy for his video presence. One evening (day three or four), on the video, S.N. Goenka joked that he knew we were all plotting our escape and he asked us to accept that we are here and there is a reason for it. I remember tears streaming down my face with the recognition of how I was feeling (and probably how most others were feeling as well, although I couldn’t ask). And I remember changing my attitude after that evening, and deciding that there is a reason I was here in this place doing this strange breathing activity for never-ending hours on end. And without judgement, I sat and watched my breath.

The meditating technique in Vipassana meditation is very simple (and yet very hard). You watch your breath, in and out, in and out. When you have a thought, you let it go and go back to watching your breath. Once you have watched your breath for, say 4 days (40 hours), you then move onto the next step, which is to pay attention to your body. Specifically, you start with paying attention to your upper lip area (right under your nose). As you breathe, this area is tickled by your breath, so it is the easiest place to start to pay attention to, and if you really concentrate, there is a tingling feeling there when you breathe out through your nose. Eventually my whole body felt completely alive every time I sat down to breathe. I remember walking outside after meditating and everything felt alive, the colours so vibrant, the sounds so intense, my heart so open. I remember one night lying in my cot and waiting to go to sleep, and every cell of my being was alive. I felt this physically. Someone turned off the light in our room and it sent shudders through my entire being.

When the ten days ended, a bell rang out and I ran and hugged my friends, starred in their eyes and we shared stories of how intense we felt. I felt deep appreciation for their presence and friendship. I never formally meditated at all after that. I had grand plans, but we were hitchhiking around and I am not really a very disciplined person. Occasionally, I would spontaneously close my eyes and breathe, and I would instantly feel the intensity and body awareness that I had experienced at the 10 day silent retreat. It was as if my brain had been reworked through this ten day experience, and I had a new secret trick that I could do. But life got busy and complicated, and over the years, I connected less and less to this secret trick.

But fast forward 17 years. I am now a crazed mom of two boys (aged 2 ½ and 8), juggling work, home life, and parenting. I love it all but the balancing act is overwhelming. My boys are super amazing and wonderful, but very intense. My 8 year old is the most intense person I know and experiences extreme emotional highs and lows on a very regular basis. My 2 ½ year is, well, 2 ½. Enough said – 2 ½ year olds are generally highly emotional and very irrational beings prone to intense outbursts of rage. Mine went into a serious fit this morning because of a hole in his sock. Sometimes, when I finally get to work at 9am after dropping the kids off at their respective places, I feel like I’ve run a marathon.

And 17 years later, I have realized why I ended up being there (and sticking with it) at that 10 day silent retreat. I need what I learned then, right now. I now use that skill of breathing every day, as my number one critical parenting tool. To be honest, it feels essential to my survival right now. When I feel overwhelmed, when the kids are freaking out or we’re running late or the house is a giant mess, I breathe. It is simple and it works. It gives me a chance to take a step back, center myself, be present in the moment, and then decide on my next move.

Let me be clear about this – I am not some relaxed Buddha. I have good days and bad days like everyone else, and there are days when I yell at my kids and scream in my car and snap at my wife. But, I have decided to approach each day as a meditation practice, as an opportunity to breathe as I face my tasks and challenges. I feel gratitude for those 10 days that I spent 17 years ago, learning to be present.