Thursday, August 23, 2012

Annual Mano a Mano with the Breath

The day I left for Spirit Rock was a Monday, and Deborah doesn’t work on Mondays, but fortunately, fate has brought me two mental health professionals and Monica happened to have a free hour at 11 a.m., so I rushed down there in a cab.

I had to try to explain my entire relationship with C. in 25 minutes or so, and after that, I told Monica that the idea of leaving for a week or so without speaking to him seemed unbearable. She asked, “What would happen if you called him?” I said, “I can’t! All my friends said not to.” She pointed out that I did still have that choice, regardless of anyone else’s opinion—Deborah has observed that our friends mostly hear the bad things that happen in our relationships, not the good parts, which is true—and, for that matter, Monica said, I could even decide that it wasn’t a good time to go on a retreat.

Thus permitted, I rushed home and called C. and, fortunately, he called me back half an hour before I was due to leave, and we had a very nice conversation.

I was thus able to drive off to Spirit Rock relieved in mind, though Tom (giving me a ride in a City CarShare car) hit me with his hat when he found out I’d caved in. (I was incredulous: “Did you hit me?”) I also felt extremely terrible due to lack of sleep, and still somewhat anxious in a way that rarely happens in the daytime, and that afternoon I was thinking that if I was going to have to struggle with anxiety all the time, life was just not even worth it. (What a short hop it is from “This is happening for practically the first time ever” to “This is going to happen all the time.”)

I brought along a printout of an article I found online about dealing with anxiety, and it proved to be very helpful. I was also glad to find I had a roommate, a young woman who is a therapist-to-be. (About 80 percent of the time, you get a private dorm room at Spirit Rock.) She said she was relieved to have a roommate who’d been on the concentration retreat before, and I said I was relieved to have one who’s a therapist.

On this retreat, the oft-repeated instruction is to focus on the breath and I assume most people do that, but once I start to focus on the breath in this single-minded way, a headache tends to arise and there is some sense of struggle, and this retreat was no exception. However, there was also plenty of general calm, which I appreciated.

The first night, Monday, I had a bad fear attack at night, followed the new advice, and didn’t have to get up. There was also no fear of fear, or what the website calls “second fear.” On Tuesday, after a more reasonable amount of sleep, I felt much better, and had no anxiety to speak of—life was worth living again, though I understand that you have to come to accept that you might be anxious all day every day. The following several evenings, there was anxiety or there wasn’t; in one episode, a bit of second fear crept in, but basically it was fine.

As always, the retreat teachers had many wonderful things to say. The thing that struck me most was Phillip Moffitt’s talk one evening in which he pointed out that it’s easy to concentrate on something if it’s actually interesting, but that what we were doing was improving our ability to concentrate on a fairly neutral object of our choosing (the breath), practicing intention and making it more possible to choose consciously in the rest of our lives. That inspired me: At least in theory, I can choose where to aim my attention, what actions to take, what attitudes to cultivate.

(At the Marin Sangha link to the right, you can find and download some of Phillip’s talks. He is such an excellent teacher.)

There was also a lot of talk about cultivating relaxation and contentment, which encourage the deepening of concentration (and if that doesn’t happen, at least you have relaxation and contentment). Sally Armstrong said not to think of the breath as a life preserver we cling to for dear life, but more as if it’s water and we’re fish swimming through it. Andrea Fella said to think of the attention as a float sitting on top of gentle waves—the float doesn’t impinge upon the water, but nor does it lose contact with it. (Not to leave out Tempel Smith, who gave a very dear talk about aligning ourselves with reality, pointing out that when we fall down, we don't say, "Damn you, gravity!")

I interviewed twice with Phillip and once with Sally, and in my second interview with Phillip, I told him about my frustration with breathing (how does it happen so effortlessly the rest of the year?) and he asked how I would describe my breath. I said it’s very, very small; far away; wispy. He attempted to duplicate my experience and said it would give him a headache, too, to breathe that way. He said to aim for an energetic experience of my breath as porous, soft, spongy, fuller, wider—to imagine it being that way.

After trying that out and thinking it over, I saw Phillip outside the Council House as I was walking to lunch and asked him if he was trying to say there is nothing inherent about the breath and that we create it with our minds. He explained that we experience the breath based on our habits and conditioning—that you can measure the volume of breath, but that our felt sense of breath is co-created. I reckon we could say the same about every aspect of our lives.

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