A Prescription for Breathing

What meditation does

A Prescription for Breathing

A few years ago, I broke some bones in a cycling accident. That sounds cooler than what happened. I was on vacation, pulling two of my kids on a beach bike when I clipped the side of a building that was not moving, causing me to go over the handlebars into some scaffolding.

A few weeks later, an x-ray confirmed I had two broken ribs, and so I was prescribed 20 minutes of deep breathing a day for four weeks to reduce the chance of pneumonia. I then paid $300 for the x-ray and left with a piece of paper that said to breathe.

A prescription to breathe is an odd thing; they don't honor it at most pharmacies. Breathing itself is a strange thing, both conscious and subconscious, both voluntary and involuntary. Like many important things, we think of it within our control but know that it is not. I had serious childhood asthma, the type where I dreamed of drowning then woke up in the backseat of a car being taken to the ER in the middle of the night for an adrenaline shot. Cycling as an adult has helped; I rarely even think of asthma now.

After the accident, I diligently did 20 minutes of deep, focused breathing a day and immediately became 10 pounds thinner, a day trading wizard, with a silky-smooth mid-range jump shot, and a green thumb.

No, none of this happened, but by reading current literature on meditation you'd think that meditation was the key to unlocking everything.

What I found instead is that it gave me 20 minutes everyday in which I was completely in control. It calmed me down, and through accidental practice, allowed me to know where the center of me was and that I could get there quickly if I just slowed down a bit.

I've kept up meditating off and on long after my ribs have healed and have the following takeaways:

  • Box breathing is a great simple technique to learn. Inhale 4 seconds, hold 4, exhale 4 seconds, hold 4. 4 sides to the box, 4 seconds each. Do this for 4 minutes, and you'll be on the other side of what you were worried about.
  • Having expectations about what will happen when you meditate is not a great idea. Have no expectations, just sit there, and hope that nothing happens. Afterward you can do things with expectations.
  • It is impossible to clear your mind completely of thought. Your mind is throwing things around all the time, and you are to notice it and gently not notice it. In meditation circles, they call this "accepting every thought", "pushing worries kindly away", "riding the river of thought". But it's simple: just notice. If you can establish a half-second after anger or sadness comes when you notice them before you react to them, you will conquer your stress. Like breathing, what thoughts cross your mind is both within and outside of your control.

Although running a bike into a building was embarrassing, it made me breathe, a useful skill to develop in 2019 in preparation for 2020.