Sitting this morning, I found a succession of short, shallow breaths. The underline panic I have been feeling lately is still there, threatening to take over if I am not careful.
Thirty years ago, standing on the sidewalk right by the Chicago L station, I encountered such breath, and not knowing, I gave in. Pretty soon, it felt as if I could no longer breathe. I was having a heart attack I thought and I called my doctor. He had me count until one hundred, without much success. The iron corset got even tighter, and I ended up in the ER. I got hooked up on the EKG machine. My heart was perfectly fine. I had just had a panic attack.
Since that day, I have had a predisposition to panic. And I have learned ways to be with it. For a long time, I relied on the combined power of positive self-talk, belly breathing, and distraction. It worked. Somewhat.
What has really helped has been mindfulness practice, and particularly a deeper understanding of the role of one's attitude towards the panic itself.
The Buddha himself has been my greatest teacher in that respect:
"Breathing in long he knows ‘I am breathing in long.’
Breathing in short he knows ‘I am breathing in short.’
Breathing out long he knows ‘I am breathing out long.’
Breathing out short he knows ‘I am breathing in short.’
He trains himself ‘breathing in, I experience the whole body.’
‘breathing out, I experience the whole body.’
He trains himself, ‘breathing in, I calm the bodily formation.’
‘breathing out, I calm the bodily formation.’"
~ Anapanasati Sutta ~
Breathing in short, I know 'I am breathing in short' . . . Breathing out short, I know 'I am breathing out short' . . . Breathing in, I experience the tightness around the chest . . . Breathing out, I experience the tightness around the chest . . . Breathing in, I make room for shallow breath, and tightness, and the possibility of maybe relaxing a bit . . . Breathing out, I continue to make room for the whole experience . . . I also include a more neutral experience in the body, such as the sensations in my hands or feet, giving mind a break from the breath. Then returning again to the breath . . . Breathing in short, I know 'I am breathing in short' . . .
From this acceptance, the tight corset starts relaxing, giving breath more space to fill in the lungs, and mind a chance to calm down.
Such a subtle, and important shift.
Not panicking about the panic!