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Touching the Void

It was the middle of the night. I was  lying in the back of my fiancé’s car feeling the uncomfortable sting of winter air clawing at my cheeks, nose and ears.  I was trying without success to bury my head under the bath towel I was currently using as a makeshift pillow while still desperately attempting to breathe.

My guess was it was about midnight. We had already been stuck in the car for about 6 hours not including nature breaks.  We had at least 7 hours to go until first light arrived. Around us was pitch  darkness surrounding the snowy prison that had shackled Heather’s tires to the obscure icy frontage road we had mistakenly taken hours before.

Heather, my fiancé, was feigning sleep to distract herself from the overwhelming panic and terror she had experienced during our initial frigid captivity. She had since calmed and like me was fighting the enemy off, fighting off the frightening and sometimes unreasonable stories that were creeping in and out of our minds as the night went on.

I had not felt terror like this since I was tossed around on a 30 story building in a large earthquake I experienced in Tokyo, Japan a few years back.

My current experience, just like the Japan experience, brought me to thinking about how 15 years before (when I was nineteen years old) I had a psychological meltdown and formed a severe debilitating panic disorder that took me over 5 years to recover from.  The most effective tools I learned to assist in my healing were the ones I gained from practicing yoga and martial arts.  Pranayama (breath) was most effective, combined with mindfulness practice (za-zen meditation mostly) and mantra (chanting a significant phrase repeatedly).

It took me years to dig out of that anxiety trap. As I practiced my tools I got better and better at recognizing and defusing the panic before my limbic system (fight or flight) could completely take over my rational ability to think and reason out of it. It was a long uphill battle but as I practiced I got more effective at these skills and more efficient at stopping the anxiety before it started.

The difference between the earthquake in Japan when I was 31 and when I fell apart when I was 19 years old?  In Japan I already had cultivated the tools I needed to keep my anxiety chatter at a minimum.  Tools of clarity, tools of comfort, tools that bring the irrational mind back to moments of rationality in extremely stressful situations.

So on the evening of Sunday February 12th when Heather and I decided to take a leisurely drive away from Eugene to find Breitenbush Hotsprings and got completely lost on an untraveled, snow covered road with no way to communicate with the outside world I had to bring out my toolbox once again.

There I was, in the car, wishing we would have paid more attention. I was worried sick about the health and welfare of Heather and myself.  Longing for the daylight.  Not even sunlight… just that sheet that lays over the sky during the daytime hours that brings enough light to see the world a few feet in front of you. Waiting as the seconds ticked along minute after minute, hour after hour.

This is why we practice.  This is why meditation is important.  It’s easy to let our mindful practice disappear when things are going well, when life has no adversity, when we are in the flow.  However, when we are strong is when we need to cultivate these skills.  Flexing our mindful muscles on a regular basis.

To wait to start cultivating these skills when the enemy is at the door is a strategic error.  The beauty of mindful practice is it can be practiced all day.  Cultivating the skills of observation in the birth, life, and death cycle of our daily life can be observed all day long from the macro to the micro.

Examples:

Macro- I observe stillness as I awake into the world.  I then observe moment to moment: how I get out of bed, brush my teeth, put on my clothes- each moment noticing the thoughts that try to push themselves in from planning for the future and thinking about the past. I notice my minds proclivity to judge and notice how many of those judgements are negative and how many are positive.  I do this throughout the day as I go to work, interact with people, eat my meals, etc.  I go home at night I observe the death cycle of the end of a day, the process of going to bed, and the stillness again of mindfully watching until I ultimately fall asleep.

Micro- I watch the birth of an inhale, the rise of the inhale, and the death of an inhale as it turns into an exhale. I watch the birth of an exhale, the exhale as it exits, and the death of the exhale as it becomes an inhale.

I encourage you to find a mindful practice that brings you into presence and observation.  As I mentioned before the three tools that have worked best for me are mindful meditation, pranayama, and mantra.

You can actually practice these by themselves or all three of these practices at once.

As I watched the seconds pass I observed pernicious thoughts of  blizzards, freezing to death, wild animals, serial killers, ufo’s and what ever else my brain could conjure up from it’s many file folders of stored garbage… a cacophony of stories that made me want to take Heather’s hand and walk straight into the woods, out into the cold darkness to find some form of civilization rather than stay in the car another moment. Instead, I looked inward and listened… I focused on slowing my breath, and I began to chant a simple chant taught to me by a teacher I met when I was just a teenager. I breathed, watched my thoughts and chanted… over …and over… and over…

As light began to trickle in through our frost covered windows over the towering walls of the forest, birds began chirping, and strong emotions of triumph washed over me…

A comforting realization came to me in that moment.

You cannot permanently block out the light.

Ultimately the light will shine through again and again and with that light comes illumination, and with illumination comes liberation, rejuvenation, relief.

Darkness is only temporary.

This is the thought that comforted me as we put on more dry clothes, packed our water and what was left of our food, and started our 13 mile journey back to the nearest town…

and we walked in gratitude.

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