When life was at its worst, breath was her companion. Now in recovery, Rev. Sarah Siegel finds the breath is still her path to love and a sense of peace.
Whether I knew it or not, during the years I spent in active addiction to opiates and working as a stripper, my breath was my most loyal and kind companion.
I used to view myself as a victim of circumstances at best—and a complete failure at worst. My first night working at the strip club was dismal. Despite the armful of heroin and handful of Ativan I had downed in the dressing room before my first dance, I was shaking with anxiety and self-loathing as I climbed up the stairs and onto the polished stage. I looked out at the men perched at the edge of the stage and thought they all looked so sad and desperate. Despite the plastic smile, lingerie, and six-inch heels, I too looked sad and desperate, because I was.
Before climbing up those steps, I paused and took a breath. Breathing was the closest thing to self-compassion I could muster. Beyond that, drugs were my only comfort.
I had started smoking pot and binge drinking when I was thirteen. I was a hyper and self-conscious child, uncomfortable in my own skin. From the beginning, I often drank to black out. I put myself in unsafe situations, and experienced traumatic events as a result. The memories of those events, and the emotions that accompanied them, became further fuel for the “using machine,” and so the merciless cycle of addiction began.
I would come to find out, by studying Buddha’s teachings on the four noble truths, that it was clinging to thoughts that was the cause of my suffering—not the thoughts themselves.
The first month of my junior year, I found harder drugs. Strangely enough, it was around then that I first wandered up the steps to a local Buddhist center and joined a meditation and study group. Some of the teachings resonated with me, but I wasn’t ripe for further practice or study. I would have to go through many more years of active addiction and experience a great deal more suffering before finding my way back to the dharma.
Eventually, I revisited meditation practice in one of the many substance abuse treatment centers I attended. I couldn’t do it for longer than a minute before sobbing uncontrollably. A steady stream of thoughts and memories of traumatic events floated to the surface immediately, and I was consumed by gut-wrenching fear and pain.
A part of me realized that my thoughts were like a brutal dictator, and I was a slave to them. I would come to find out, by studying Buddha’s teachings on the four noble truths, that it was clinging to the thoughts that was the cause of my suffering—not the thoughts themselves. I needed to learn how not to take them so seriously and let go of the habit of grasping at them. Meditation helped, but it still wasn’t enough to keep me clean and sober at the time.
When I finally experienced a breakthrough that resulted in lasting recovery, it was from working the Twelve Steps with a sponsor. The theistic model of the program never felt quite right to me, but I was desperate and ready for a solution. I was told by others in the program that if I didn’t believe in a higher power myself, I could simply “believe that they believed,” and that would be enough. I did believe that they believed in a higher power, and it was enough, eventually, for me to let my guard down and surrender. I surrendered myself to unknowing and allowed the moment—and the breath—to move through me. Some part of me was untouched by my painful feelings and thoughts. Some part of me was already, naturally free.
As time has gone on, I have made friends with myself in a more natural and open way.
Now I have returned to meditation and cultivated a deeper and more aware practice of noticing the breath. I have spent many hours sitting on my meditation cushion, focusing on the edge of my nostrils as the breath enters and exits my body. When I find myself mired in thoughts, I have practiced noticing them without judgment. Instead, I label them simply as “thinking,” and bring my awareness back to the breath.
As time has gone on, I have made friends with myself in a more natural and open way. My breath has become my refuge when I find myself spinning out in cyclical thinking, both in my daily life and on the meditation cushion. I have discovered that if I rest on the breath without resisting my thoughts, it will usually bring me to a greater state of peace.
I still get caught up in struggle, plenty of times. This is a practice after all! Usually, it’s due to a conflict between what I am experiencing and what I want to experience. There is resistance, and therefore suffering. In these times, I contemplate Buddha’s teachings on dependent origination and emptiness, and then I can allow whatever is arising, both internally and externally, to simply be. I can breathe and open my heart.
No matter what flavor of pain you may have known—and I have known a lot—or what suffering your past or present contains, healing is attainable. The key is literally under our nose at this very moment. May we each find the courage to notice and use our breath to unlock our potential—for the benefit of ourselves and all sentient beings.