“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky.
Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh
Life-threatening asthma was my first dharma teacher.
My asthma gave me direct experiences with impermanence, vulnerability, working with fear, and finding the present.
My childhood journey through needles, doctors and emergency room visits was a kind of training that now—in good health and many years into formal practice—I am coming to appreciate.
I've read that monks would sometimes meditate in graveyards to make the truth of impermanence very, very vivid.
I remember nights as a small child with an unrelenting weight on my chest—catching me the way hawks catch prey—so much power the prey stills. Breath slows to a raspy whisper. My parents brave, but their faces betraying their vulnerability—the fear of young monks in a graveyard. I was too young to be fully afraid. This was a gift.
Then came the shot in my thin, young arm followed very quickly by a whoosh of freedom, hang gliding through my bedroom at 2 AM, exhilarated. Alive and with new understanding of the space between barely living and thriving.
One summer I was prescribed a new medicine that took a couple months to level in the blood. This powerful medicine came with a price: the summer of nightmares. Each night was filled with grotesque monsters, storms, dark magic, a terror ride through my imagination. Each morning that summer, I woke with questions about extinction, death, the afterlife, the loss of loved ones, the loss of self.
Dropping Into the Present
It turns out, when the hawk's talons are clamped on your chest, calm is your best defense. Get very still, and re-connect with your lungs and body. If you tighten, get scared, or treat your breath like a begrudging servant, it will become your enemy.
Over time, I learned that my best choice was to drop into the present, center myself, and separate the lack of oxygen from my fear of death. In this calm, I found my way back to full breath sometimes or, many times, walked slowly and calmly to the help of a caregiver.
Throughout my youth, over and over, I had the chance to experience the vice-gripping tightness and the rising fear. And I learned that I had to make peace with my asthma, to make friends with it. In this way, I went through a multi-year training in attuning to my body and my breath, though I did not understand the process I was going through at the time. This saved my life, and it was full of teachings.
As a child, I saw the care and concern in my parents' faces, the complete commitment to do anything to alleviate my suffering. I saw in their faces my future face as a parent and caregiver. I have since drawn upon those faces many times as a parent. I didn't have any youthful illusions of invulnerability or immortality. I needed others, desperately. This taught me early what many of us learn too late: we need others. We rely on others.
We are all co-created, or as Thich Nhat Hanh says, the flower is made of all non-flower elements. Any notions of a lone individual carving her own path through the world are quickly proven to be thin illusions when you can't breathe.
Leaving the Graveyard
I was fortunate to eventually mostly free myself of the grip of asthma, heading off to college with a management plan and good health. It would be many years until I found a formal mindfulness practice, and many additional years before I integrated these early learnings.
As a coach and a leader, I treasure powerful questions. And this simple invitation, “tell me about the history of your mindfulness practice,” has been a powerful question for me, revealing many gifts. I immediately thought of my childhood journey with asthma and its teachings.
Now when I sit, and become aware of my breath, I say, “Hello old friend. Good to be with you. We've been through a lot together.”
Craig Fischer is an executive and leadership coach, facilitator, and teacher of leadership and reflective practice. He has had the opportunity to teach, consult, coach, and lead teams for over 15 years. He has a passionate interest in mindfulness in leadership, and mindfulness in teams. Craig loves working with leaders to explore values, meaning, and personal, lifelong growth.
His current practice is daily sitting and attempting as much mindfulness-in-the-moment as possible during his day. Always a work in progress.