Priscilla Warner was a successful author, devoted wife and loving mother on the outside, but could not find a core of stability and peace within herself. Determined to attain a state of inner tranquility, Warner began a yearlong quest to transform herself from within. "Learning to Breathe" is her account of that transformation. Here's an excerpt.
Slumped in my airplane seat, I could barely see enough of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to say goodbye to it in the early morning darkness. The plane took off and I was headed home to New York on the last leg of an intense three-year lecture tour. I opened a magazine . . . and there were the monks—yet again.
Dressed in crimson robes, their heads shaved, serene Tibetan men stared out at me from a photograph. These same men had been inadvertently haunting me for years, because they had found an inner peace that had eluded me for so long. While I’d been experiencing debilitating panic attacks and anxiety for decades, they had been meditating so effectively that their prefrontal brain lobes lit up on MRI scans, plumped up like perfectly ripe peaches.
That’s not precisely the way the monks’ brains were described in the medical studies I’d read about, but that’s how I imagined them—happily pregnant with positive energy. Unlike my brain, which felt battered and bruised, swollen with anxiety, adrenaline, heartache, and hormones.
“I want the brain of a monk!” I decided right then and there.
I also wanted everything that went along with that brain—peace and tranquility, compassion and kindness, wisdom and patience. Was that too much to ask for?
And so my mission was born.
I became determined to get my prefrontal lobe to light up like the monks’ lobes, to develop a brain that would run quietly and smoothly, instead of bouncing around in my skull like a Mexican jumping bean. Some people set up meth labs in their basements, but I wanted a Klonopin lab in my head, producing a natural version of the drug my therapist had prescribed for me several years earlier, to help me cope with chronic anxiety and panic.
I had already been searching for serenity on and off for forty years, during which I’d traveled to Turkey and toured the ancient caves of early Christian mystics, read Rumi’s exquisite Sufi poetry, and learned about the mysteries of Kabbalah. I regularly drank herbal tea and lit incense in my bedroom. And I’d gotten my meridians massaged while my chakras were tended to by soft-spoken attendants at occasional spa splurges.
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I would have loved to travel to Nepal to find inner peace, sitting at the feet of a monk on a mountaintop, but I panic at high altitudes. I didn’t want to move to a monastery, but I figured there were dozens of things I could do in my own backyard that could make me positively monk-like. So I decided to try behaving like a monk while still shopping for dinner at my local suburban strip mall. And I decided to chronicle my adventures.
This full-scale brain renovation would take some time, planning, improvisation, and hard work. Still, I hoped, if I exercised my tired gray cells properly, on a sustained, regular basis, and fed my brain all sorts of good things like meditation, guided imagery, yoga, macrobiotic stuff, and Buddhist teachings, maybe it would change physically. I’d heard neuroplasticity thrown around in scientific reports, a term that means that the brain is supposedly able to transform itself at any age. Perhaps mine would be like Silly Putty—bendable and pliable and lots of fun to work with.
What did I have to lose? I shifted in my airplane seat, the monks still gazing up at me from the photograph.
On the outside, I was functioning just fine: I was a happily married mother of two terrific sons. I’d traveled to more than fifty cities around the country to promote a bestselling book I’d coauthored, called "The Faith Club." But inside, the anxiety disorder I’d battled all my life had left me exhausted, out of shape, and devouring chocolate to boost my spirits and busted adrenal glands. My body and heart ached for my children, who had left the nest, and my mother, who was in her ninth year of Alzheimer’s disease, confined to the advanced care unit of her nursing home. Twenty years earlier, my father had died from cancer; but he’d been just about my age when the tumor had started its deadly journey through his colon.
Clearly, I was facing my own mortality. Although I wanted to run like hell away from it.
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In another rite of passage, a wonderful therapist I had seen for many years had died recently, and I had attended her memorial service. When I’d arrived at the Jewish funeral home, a woman with a shaved head, dressed in a simple dark outfit, had greeted me. Although her smile was kind, her presence initially threw me off. Was she Buddhist? Was she a nun? Did her brain light up on an MRI scan, too?
After greeting people at the entrance to the chapel with a calm that put everyone at ease, she conducted the proceedings with warmth, wit, and sensitivity, urging people to speak about our deceased friend. I took her appearance to be a message from my late shrink.
“Go for it,” I imagined her saying. “Go find your inner monk.”
I didn’t know the difference between my dharma and my karma, but I was willing to learn. Perhaps I’d define other terms for myself, like mindfulness, lovingkindness, and maybe even true happiness. I’d try whatever techniques, treatments, and teachings I thought might move me along the road from panic to peace.
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, believes human beings can change the negative emotions in their brains into positive ones.
And who was I to doubt the Dalai Lama?
Maybe my journey would resemble something like "Siddhartha" meets "Diary of a Mad Jewish Housewife."
Forget “Physician, Heal Thyself,” I decided as my plane landed in New York and my daydreaming turned into a reality.
My new mantra would be “Neurotic, heal thyself (and please stop complaining).”
Excerpted from “Learning to Breathe” by Priscilla Warner. Copyright © 2011 by Priscilla Warner . Excerpted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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