Breathing deep

img_0262I have, in my lifetime, experienced both panic attacks and anxiety attacks.  I’m not talking about nerves, the rumbly stomach before stepping on stage or into the pulpit, but the real thing: an impending sense of doom that is completely out of control.  A fear of nothing and everything.  A heart pounding so hard I think it might explode.  A sense that I might die.  It is excruciating.

The first happened while I was in seminary during a guided meditation, which you would think would be a pretty safe place to be. Not that day. Another happened a few months later while driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, something I’d done dozens of times before. Bridges have been hard ever since.  The attacks are a rare occurrence nowadays, partly because of age and partly because of work I’ve done to manage them.

I find myself using those anxiety-managing techniques again these days.  I don’t experience that impending sense of doom from nowhere, but I do experience a high level of worry about many things.  I worry about funding for programs for people on the margins.  I worry about war.  I worry about economic collapse.  I worry about people never speaking to each other again.  I worry about the state of the world.

As a person of faith, I am well aware of the many, many things Jesus said about not worrying and right now I find them – and him – annoying.  I also know that constant worry is not good for me or the people around me.  I’m keeping an eye on my eating and my sleeping.  I’ve started coloring postcards, an activity I find relaxing.  I cut myself off after one too many articles from the New York Times, Washington Post, or the Atlantic.

I pray that God will lift my sagging spirit.  I pray more regularly.  I practice deep breathing.  I read daily things from Father Richard Rohr (you can sign up for them here – today’s was particularly helpful.)  I turn off the tv and computer. I look for the good, and hold fast to it.

raftEvery night before we go to sleep, my husband, our daughter, our dog, and I all sit on our bed reading (except the dog).  I tell them it feels like we’re on a life raft, this big bed of ours, all together, safe, for the time being amidst the chaotic currents of the day’s events.  They laugh at me, in the good way.  Still, they are my life raft. And that helps me to worry a little less.

Until the next day comes.

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Gratitude and poop, an Ash Wednesday meditation

ashesI recently began seeing a spiritual director, something I’d been thinking about and finally committed to after a colleague who reads my blog sent me the kindest message which read something like, “Honey, I just love reading your blog and I’m wondering if you would like a spiritual director.”   I could just hear that silent prayer “Bless her heart.”  One of our ordination vows is to be a friend to our colleagues in ministry and I’m grateful to this friend in particular.

So in our first meeting my spiritual director and I started talking about meditation.  I confess that I spend about as much time meditating as I do working on my core and learning Italian, which is to say, no time.  I think my spiritual director got my number pretty quickly and she suggested working meditation into something I do everyday, to be mindful as I go about that task, to breathe in gratitude and breathe out beauty or hope or something as I go about this daily thing.  Really, it’s multi-tasking, which I love.  I don’t know if it’s good for my spirit, but we’ll see.

Every morning I take our dog Max out for his morning constitutional.  Rain or shine or wind, light or dark, out we go.  We’re like the U.S. Postal Service.  Except for ice.  I always make an exception for ice.  Anyway, every morning I take Max out so that he can pee on every bush that all the other dogs have peed on and so that he can sniff All Things.  We make it over to school and he chews on some grass, and growls at the other dogs who have the temerity to pee on his bush.  We keep walking until he poops.  Then I pick it up, and we head home with less peeing and sniffing.

So I have incorporated mindful breathing and meditativeness into my morning walk.  I breathe in gratitude – gratitude for the abundance of sun we’ve had this winter (and as soon as that negative thought about ‘this means a dry summer’ pops into my  head I send it scurrying off); there’s gratitude for my sweet dog whom I love, for the crocuses and daffodils that are blooming so early, for my neighbors and neighborhood, for the gentleman down the street whose morning fire always smells so good, for the kid who was sent out to pick up the trash that didn’t stay in the garbage can, for the school full of amazing, crazy kids, for so much.  I am just bursting with all that gratitude I’ve breathed in, and pray that I’m breathing out all that hope and love and grace or whatever it is I’m supposed to be breathing out.

And then, the dog poops.

The whole point of the morning walk is to get the dog to poop so that he does not do that inside while we’re at work.  It is the culmination of the walk, the finale, the big finish.  It should be greeted with confetti and kazoos and huzzahs and treats.  But I greet it with a sigh and the compostable green plastic dog poop bag.  And we head home, the denouement of our time together.

But I must admit that picking up the poop grounds me – really – in the way that saying “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” grounds me.   There is an earthiness to life that we cannot avoid, and everybody and everything living thing poops, and everybody and every living thing will die.  To dust we will return.  And hopefully no one will pick up the dust that once was us into a little compostable plastic bag, a sad denouement of a life well-lived.

Obviously, I have some work to do with my spiritual director, but I think some how with all that breath going on, and little groundedness will help.  A good Ash Wednesday to you.

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p.s.  I will not be giving this meditation at our Ash Wednesday service, but if you’d like to see the liturgy I wrote, go to my Liturgy page and the sub page of “Random Liturgy.”