Priscilla Warner, author of best-seller "The Faith Club," had her first panic attack when she was 15 years old. She recounts that vividly in her new book "Learning To Breathe." At the time she was working in Brown University's cafeteria.
Since mindfulness or the meditation practice which focuses the brain in the now has gone mainstream, when the term "breathe" is mentioned many already know the route Warner took to end the anxiety. It was the same one I embraced several months ago at the New Haven Zen Center to deal with my own panic reactions, which had taken me over when I was a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Michigan.
After trying just about everything to prevent those attacks, in middle age she sought out Buddhist monks. The first paragraph of Chapter 4 "My Demons" reads:
James, the brother of novelist Henry who compared American and European cultures, published the now-classic on the psychology of religion "The Varieties of Religious Experience." The book is often embraced by those in another spiritual program - Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). People often enter AA because they have reached some of kind of bottom. If they stay and, as the saying goes "work the program," they can get and stay sober, a mastery few other approaches can achieve for the disease of alcoholism.
Mindfulness is where spirituality and science intersect. Its philosophy and practices embed the wisdom of the East from ancient times. Its ability to change how the brain operates - that is, what's called "neuroplasticity" - is measurable by MRI scans of prefrontal lobes. In the last paragraphs of the book, Warner happily reports that the parts of the brain which tests show light up for monks are beginning to light her for her. "I had taught my old brain some new tricks."
However, she will probably have to continue meditation. Because of the nature of the human mind and that reality keeps changing, maintaining that internal shift requires regular time spent on the cushion in communal settings like the New Haven Center Zen. Every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening, medical and law students, adults approaching middle age with jobs and families, retired members of the Silent Generation, and creatives such as myself come, like Warner, to ensure the wiring of the brain doesn't get too frayed again.
"Learning to Breathe" serves as an excellent introduction to mindfulness, packaged as a compelling narrative of one woman's search for a "cure" of a complex medical problem. Another is the new biography of music genius Leonard Cohen "I'm Your Man," by Sylvia Simmons.