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What is Mindfulness of Breath when You Can't Breathe?

Warning – I describe in some graphic detail the recuperation from a surgery.

I wake up slowly in the recovery room, blood beginning to drain from my nose.  The next 36 hours will become an intriguing study of mindfulness, compassion, self-pity, and watching mind’s neurotic habits.  First thing I notice – I’m not blind.  They said there was 5% chance of blindness from this operation.  That did not seem like a small and comforting number to me.

It started about six months ago – I noticed that my lower left sinus cavity was beginning to feel blocked.  Three different courses of antibiotics over three months didn’t help.  The CAT scan showed that there was no space left in my left sinuses.  There were many nights where I became completely congested and couldn’t breathe, or could only with very strenuous pulling.  Doing mindfulness of breath meditation when one can’t breathe gives a new appreciation for it. 

I often liken mindfulness of breath meditation to working out with very heavy weights.  If you want to build muscle quickly, you do as many repetitions as you can with the heaviest weight you can.  Mindfulness of breath is like the heavy weight, precisely because it is boring as hell.  The breath is with us so constantly and effortlessly that it is very difficult to maintain attention on it.  This makes it easy to drop, and once dropped, easier to notice that we’ve lost focus.  This is why we don’t call watching television “meditating” – it takes no effort. 

When simple breathing takes effort, however, then meditating on it gets much easier.  It stops being boring when you feel like your lungs will never get the oxygen they need.  It stops being boring when you can’t sleep because you can’t breathe.

The surgery was supposed to fix all this.  Unfortunately, by 5 hours after the operation the packing they had inserted into my sinuses has filled with blood completely closing off all air.  This makes swallowing impossible, as the suction needed to swallow creates tremendous pressure and pain in my sinus cavity.  I stop eating and drinking.  It hurts too much and I seem to be immune to the high-powered pain medicine they gave me.

I arrange the easy chair to try to sleep while allowing draining.  The problem is that although I can breathe a little from one nostril when awake, as soon as I fall asleep and relax the soft palate at the back of the throat, it closes down what little air passage I have and I wake up because I can’t breathe.  This means that I sleep in one-second intervals all night.  I do a lot of meditating on the breath, or lack thereof.

What is more annoying, however, is watching what my mind does.  Rather than simply note what is, it pays attention to every little change that seems worse and makes me worry.  Any time things ease up, it ignores that.  I have been told that I should take my narcotics before getting the packing removed the next day because the process is so painful.  Thinking of that keeps me awake.  I keep changing the blood-soaked bandages under my nose, not being particularly grateful that one side is clearly getting better.  By 4 am I am draining so little that I believe I can transfer from the chair to a bed.  I’ve never been able to sleep sitting up, so I am hopeful that I will finally get some of the sleep I desperately need.  Unfortunately, I still can’t breathe at all once I relax control over my throat.  I am not good at mouth breathing, and that seems especially unpleasant given that I had a tube stuck down my throat for the three-hour surgery.  So I continue to drift between daydreaming, resting, and focusing on every tiny change, generously remembering to wake myself up with regular thoughts of not only how much the packing hurts now, but how much it will hurt to remove.  Doing tonglen does little to settle me.  Feeling grateful that I am privileged to have medical care of this quality helps more.

By the afternoon of the next day, I am getting seriously dehydrated because I still can’t swallow.  The pain is reduced but I’m pretty shaky.  Having the packing removed hurts less than I expect.  Nonetheless, the nurse kindly wipes the tears off of my cheek with gauze.  After all the cleaning out is complete, I can feel so much air going through my sinuses that it almost hurts.  I haven’t breathed like this in months.

Unfortunately, within minutes (really, only minutes!) I am already ignoring the breath.  Once it has become easy again, it disappeared.  No more am I aware that I am breathing in long, or short, or laboriously.  Mind is a fickle a**hole.  It is already off wondering whether the lab tests will come back next week showing cancer.


Image sources: HERE and HERE

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