Priscilla Warner has had a great life: a supportive husband, a flourishing marriage, two loving sons, and a bestselling book, The Faith Club. Despite all her good fortune and success, she suffers from anxiety and panic attacks so debilitating that they leave her unable to breathe.
She’s tried self-medicating – in high school, with a hidden flask of vodka – and later, with prescription medications – daily doses of Klonopin with a dark-chocolate chaser. After forty years of hyperventilating, and an overwhelming panic attack that’s the ultimate wake-up call, Warner’s mantra becomes “Neurotic, Heal Thyself.”
A spirited New Yorker, she sets out to find her inner Tibetan monk by meditating every day, aiming to rewire her brain and her body and mend her frayed nerves. On this winding path from panic to peace, with its hairpin emotional curves and breathtaking drops, she also delves into a wide range of spiritual and alternative health practices, some serious and some . . . not so much.
Warner tries spiritual chanting, meditative painting, immersion in a Jewish ritual bath, and quasi-hallucinogenic Ayurvedic oil treatments. She encounters mystical rabbis who teach her Kabbalistic lessons, attends silent retreats with compassionate Buddhist mentors, and gains insights from the spiritual leaders, healers, and therapists she meets. Meditating in malls instead of monasteries, Warner becomes a monk in a minivan and calms down long enough to examine her colorful, sometimes frightening family history in a new light, ultimately making peace with her past. And she receives corroboration that she’s healing from a neuroscientist who scans her brain for signs of progress and change.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
Written with lively wit and humor, Learning to Breathe is a serious attempt to heal from a painful condition. It’s also a life raft of compassion and hope for people similarly adrift or secretly fearful, as well as an entertaining and inspiring guidebook for anyone facing daily challenges large and small, anyone who is also longing for a sense of peace, self-acceptance, and understanding.
Read It Forward asked Priscilla if she had any advice for RIFers who wanted to begin their own journey toward peace. She said, “absolutely!” and sent us these helpful tips.
1. Start off slow. His Holiness The Dalai Lama advises people to start a practice by meditating 5-10 minutes a day. I found that 20 minutes a day was a manageable, realistic goal. Attending a retreat is a wonderful experience, but there are many ways to create mini-retreats in our daily lives, moments of calm in all kinds of circumstances.
2. Find a way in. Belleruth Naparstek’s guided imagery took me a safe place I never dreamed I could access on my own. I learned what it feels like to be still and at peace, if only for a moment. Then I knew where I wanted to go, again and again.
There are many ways to become immersed in an experience that doesn’t require or encourage thought. Doing this will ease you into a meditative state. The stillness of nature always nudges me in the right direction. Taking pictures and videos makes me focus intensely on tall grass swaying and rain falling; everything else seems to fall away.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche taught me to meditate with my eyes open. Try that, resting your attention on anything from a vase full of flowers to the floor of a bus you’re stuck on. Don’t be hard on yourself when your grocery list or angry boss pops into your head. As Sharon Salzberg teaches, “We can always begin again.” And if you really want to gaze at something far out, check out Robert Sachs‘ Mandala dvd. (google and buy wherever you like)
3. Cue the music. I started off my adventure in meditation by listening to Dustin O’Halloran’s rich, meditative piano solos. Whenever I popped his CD in my car, traffic flowed, and horns were silenced. At least in my mind. And then, of course, there’s Krishna Das, my joy therapist.
4. Find a teacher. Surf the web and check out meditation cds or downloads that can guide you through a practice when you need a helping hand. For my study with Dr. Newberg, I listened to the lovingkindess meditation from Sharon Salzberg’s Guided Meditations for Love and Wisdom – 14 Essential Practices. Having someone whisper in your ear is a very intimate experience. Choose your partner with care.
5. Listen to dharma talks. My favorite free website is DharmaSeed.org, which features many different teachers, with many different styles of teaching. And please make a donation. The teachers I studied with all have websites, books and videos.
6. Slow down and be quiet. Find a space and time somewhere in your life where you can retreat, recharge and rejoice. I meditate all over the place, whenever I can find the time. Some people find it helpful to stick to a certain routine. Build a shrine if you like. But if you keep your eyes and heart open, you’ll be amazed at the holy places and moments that will suddenly appear in everyday life.
7. Try to be kind. To yourself first, and then to others.
These are just a few suggestions. Please visit my website at PriscillaWarnerBooks.com and my Facebook author page to share your favorite tools for meditation and healing. I’m easy to chat with on Twitter @PrisWarner, too. Note: Trager therapy, Somatic Experience therapy and EMDR were all essential tools for me as my practice deepened.
PRISCILLA WARNER grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and spent many years in Boston and New York as an advertising art director, shooting ads for everything from English muffins to diamond earrings. Priscilla co-authored The New York Times bestselling memoir The Faith Club, then toured the country for three years, hyperventilating her way through an extended book tour. Finally, in the skies over Oklahoma, she vowed to find her inner monk, and began meditating her way from panic to peace.
RIFers! Don’t miss Priscilla Warner’s Breathtaking Moment videos. They’re just a minute or so long – watching them will help you bring quiet to your busy day. Do you – or anyone you know – live with anxiety? Have you tried meditation or yoga or any of the techniques Priscilla mentions in her plan? We’d love to hear your thoughts.