By Bob Palais
I injured myself in a fall while climbing El Capitan in Yosemite a few years ago. It took months for the extent of the injuries to manifest themselves, and even longer for me to awaken to what my body and mind as well as my friends and healers were trying to teach me. Before this incident, I had an intellectual understanding of my system's health, but I had to "sprain my balance" to reach a point where I could look deeply enough to see the true roots of my problem and how mindfulness was necessary for its solution.
I began having three-hour long neuro-muscular spasms that started in my back and spread to my chest, abdominal areas, neck, and legs. The spasms resisted the efforts of osteopaths, chiropractors, neurologists, acupuncturists, bodyworkers, and physical therapists. The strongest painkillers and muscle relaxants had no effect either.
A physical therapist finally penetrated the problem when he said, "You're breathing all wrong." What he taught me about breathing and body position finally registered. A chiropractor had also noted, "You've never taken a deep breath in you life." After years of warnings from climbing gurus, friends, and family about my breathing and posture, I began to understand. The therapist perceptively suggested that my unanchored diaphragm might be related to an unanchored life.
I had just completed my first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and was fortunate to have his framework for conscious breathing. I used his simple words to help maintain awareness: in, out, deep, slow, calm, ease, smile, release, present moment, wonderful moment. Thay's observation that a smile relaxes hundreds of muscles in your face worked equally well when I smiled with my back. Deep, calm breathing also helped to ease the physical and emotional stresses in my life. Awareness in my daily life now helps in being attentive enough to prevent falls from happening in the first place. I feel very different now then I did on my El Cap climb. Among other things, I try to exercise my balance more gently.
My newly found health is dependent on my motivation to be mindful and compassionate, embodied in the Five Wonderful Precepts. I remember the precept to not intoxicate your body as "mindfulness of health, family, and environment." The other precepts also have a strong component of dynamic balance which suggests that health is inseparable from mindfulness. I find that forgetfulness often engenders physical pain which is a bell for me to return to mindfulness. Conscious breathing has become a starting point for expanding my consciousness and interconnection with all things.
Bob Palais is a mathematics professor and Sangha member in Salt Lake City, Utah.