Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life

Learning to Breathe: My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life

by Priscilla Warner


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439181089
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 05/01/2012
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 877,214
Product dimensions: 5.58(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

Priscilla Warner grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and spent many years in Boston and New York as an advertising art director, shooting ads for everything from English muffins to diamond earrings. Priscilla co-authored The New York Times bestselling memoir The Faith Club, then toured the country for three years, hyperventilating her way through an extended book tour. Finally, in the skies over Oklahoma, she vowed to find her inner monk, and began meditating her way from panic to peace.

Read an Excerpt


Slumped in my airplane seat, I could barely see enough of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to say goodbye to it in the early morning darkness. The plane took off and I was headed home to New York on the last leg of an intense three-year lecture tour. I opened a magazine . . . and there were the monks—yet again.

Dressed in crimson robes, their heads shaved, serene Tibetan men stared out at me from a photograph. These same men had been inadvertently haunting me for years, because they had found an inner peace that had eluded me for so long. While I’d been experiencing debilitating panic attacks and anxiety for decades, they had been meditating so effectively that their prefrontal brain lobes lit up on MRI scans, plumped up like perfectly ripe peaches.

That’s not precisely the way the monks’ brains were described in the medical studies I’d read about, but that’s how I imagined them—happily pregnant with positive energy. Unlike my brain, which felt battered and bruised, swollen with anxiety, adrenaline, heartache, and hormones.

“I want the brain of a monk!” I decided right then and there.

I also wanted everything that went along with that brain—peace and tranquility, compassion and kindness, wisdom and patience. Was that too much to ask for?

And so my mission was born.

I became determined to get my prefrontal lobe to light up like the monks’ lobes, to develop a brain that would run quietly and smoothly, instead of bouncing around in my skull like a Mexican jumping bean. Some people set up meth labs in their basements, but I wanted a Klonopin lab in my head, producing a natural version of the drug my therapist had prescribed for me several years earlier, to help me cope with chronic anxiety and panic.

I had already been searching for serenity on and off for forty years, during which I’d traveled to Turkey and toured the ancient caves of early Christian mystics, read Rumi’s exquisite Sufi poetry, and learned about the mysteries of Kabbalah. I regularly drank herbal tea and lit incense in my bedroom. And I’d gotten my meridians massaged while my chakras were tended to by soft-spoken attendants at occasional spa splurges.

I would have loved to travel to Nepal to find inner peace, sitting at the feet of a monk on a mountaintop, but I panic at high altitudes. I didn’t want to move to a monastery, but I figured there were dozens of things I could do in my own backyard that could make me positively monk-like. So I decided to try behaving like a monk while still shopping for dinner at my local suburban strip mall. And I decided to chronicle my adventures.

This full-scale brain renovation would take some time, planning, improvisation, and hard work. Still, I hoped, if I exercised my tired gray cells properly, on a sustained, regular basis, and fed my brain all sorts of good things like meditation, guided imagery, yoga, macrobiotic stuff, and Buddhist teachings, maybe it would change physically. I’d heard neuroplasticity thrown around in scientific reports, a term that means that the brain is supposedly able to transform itself at any age. Perhaps mine would be like Silly Putty—bendable and pliable and lots of fun to work with.

What did I have to lose? I shifted in my airplane seat, the monks still gazing up at me from the photograph.

On the outside, I was functioning just fine: I was a happily married mother of two terrific sons. I’d traveled to more than fifty cities around the country to promote a bestselling book I’d coauthored, called The Faith Club. But inside, the anxiety disorder I’d battled all my life had left me exhausted, out of shape, and devouring chocolate to boost my spirits and busted adrenal glands. My body and heart ached for my children, who had left the nest, and my mother, who was in her ninth year of Alzheimer’s disease, confined to the advanced care unit of her nursing home. Twenty years earlier, my father had died from cancer; but he’d been just about my age when the tumor had started its deadly journey through his colon.

Clearly, I was facing my own mortality. Although I wanted to run like hell away from it.

In another rite of passage, a wonderful therapist I had seen for many years had died recently, and I had attended her memorial service. When I’d arrived at the Jewish funeral home, a woman with a shaved head, dressed in a simple dark outfit, had greeted me. Although her smile was kind, her presence initially threw me off. Was she Buddhist? Was she a nun? Did her brain light up on an MRI scan, too?

After greeting people at the entrance to the chapel with a calm that put everyone at ease, she conducted the proceedings with warmth, wit, and sensitivity, urging people to speak about our deceased friend. I took her appearance to be a message from my late shrink.

“Go for it,” I imagined her saying. “Go find your inner monk.”

I didn’t know the difference between my dharma and my karma, but I was willing to learn. Perhaps I’d define other terms for myself, like mindfulness, lovingkindness, and maybe even true happiness. I’d try whatever techniques, treatments, and teachings I thought might move me along the road from panic to peace.

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, believes human beings can change the negative emotions in their brains into positive ones.

And who was I to doubt the Dalai Lama?

Maybe my journey would resemble something like Siddhartha meets Diary of a Mad Jewish Housewife.

Forget “Physician, Heal Thyself,” I decided as my plane landed in New York and my daydreaming turned into a reality.

My new mantra would be “Neurotic, heal thyself (and please stop complaining).”

© 2011 Priscilla Warner

Table of Contents

How to Live

1 Takeoff 3

2 Bowls Are Ringing 7

3 Panicky Pris 13

4 My Demons 20

5 Be Still My Brain 27

6 The Monk Who Knew Panic 30

7 Beginner's Luck 43

8 In Over My Head 47

9 The Big House on the Hill 55

10 Joy Therapy 60

11 Getting Grounded 65

12 Let the Games Begin 72

13 The Art Sanctuary 80

14 The Long Reach of Providence 87

15 Tinkering with My Tool Kit 93

16 Attuning to My Tribe 99

17 Touching a Nerve 102

18 Smiling at Fear 106

19 Hooked on Healing 112

How to Love

20 The Lovingkindness Convention 121

21 Magical Repair 131

22 Reborn 138

23 The Soul Doctor 149

24 Breathing with a Twist 158

25 This Is Your Brain on Love 166

26 A Good Friend 177

27 Finding the Golden Buddha 183

28 Breathing Breakthrough 188

How to Die

29 Learning to Die Happy 197

30 My Religion Is Compassion 206

31 A Lesson in Impermanence 213

32 One More Happy Person on the Planet 218

33 Neurotic, Heal Thyself 222

34 Dawn 228

35 Happy Birthing Day 232

36 Letting Go 239

37 Roshi 246

38 My Safety Net 251

39 Just Breathe 258

40 Proof 264

Acknowledgments 268

Appendix: Priscilla's Plan 270

Bibliography 272

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“I have always considered Priscilla a dear friend. But after reading her book, I realize she is also a great teacher. When I finished reading Priscilla’s book, a smile washed over my face and I let out a sigh. I promise you will do the same.”—Meredith Vieira

“Learning to Breathe is an exquisite, funny, life-changing approach to anxiety and panic. I highly recommend this book.”—Christiane Northrup, M.D., ob/gyn physician and author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom

“From one who has suffered from anxiety (and who hasn’t?), catching one’s breath is imperative. Priscilla Warner opens every holistic door on her journey from panic to peace. Readers will cheer Warner as she finds some semblance of serenity Her recipe for success makes this book prescriptive as well as entertaining—her dharma becoming her karma.”—Joan Anderson, author of A Year by the Sea

“Part mystery story, part comedic hero’s journey, part state-of-the-art psychology, and part public health message, this is a complex, brainy book that goes down in one sitting like some kind of a tasty chick-lit snack. Learning a lot is rarely this enjoyable and teachers rarely this appealing.”—Belleruth Naparstek, author of Invisible Heroes and creator of the Health Journeys guided imagery series

“On a quest to rid herself of almost lifelong panic attacks, self-described ‘neurotic’ Priscilla Warner begins her journey toward liberation. Her humorous, honest, and detailed account provides readers with a rich tapestry of both her inner experience and snapshots of the many approaches and teachers she encounters along the way: This vividly described personal odyssey of her ‘panic-to-peace project’ resonates profoundly with the universal desire for serenity and understanding.”—Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., originator of EMDR therapy and author of Getting Past Your Past: Take control of Your Life with Self Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy

“Wise, searching, fearless, and big-hearted, Priscilla Warner’s search for inner peace will resonate with anyone who has ever been anxious or at sea—in other words, all of us. She is a comforting and stabilizing guide through her own life—and ours. This book is a gift.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion: A Memoir

“The words leap off the page. Priscilla Warner’s courageous story from panic to peace brims with insights that light the path to simply living a better life.—Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., author of The Now Effect

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Learning to Breathe 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Warner's presentation of her yearlong quest was at times verbose, and at other times, too limited. (Example of verbose would be the entire section dealing with her Judaism. Example of limited would be her childhood, which is where her anxiety attacks started.) I wanted to connect with her. I wanted to care about her in the same way that her husband and numerous friends did--but it never happened. She never made me "feel" for her or her struggles. (And don't get me wrong here, I do have empathy for her childhood and completely understand the anxiety attacks.) Instead, I found myself thinking: "must be nice to have money and connections". Seriously, those thoughts shouldn't pop into my mind when reading a memoir. I've read numerous memoirs. Some of the most notable have been The Glass Castle, Loud in the House of Myself, The Memory Palace, to name just a few. Oh, and absolutely loved Eat Pray Love. Those books made me feel (sad, happy, whatever) and left me with insightful tidbits and applicable insights. Warner never accomplished that.
hfineisen More than 1 year ago
I'd become just another unhappy person on the planet...leading a life of quiet desperation." Priscilla Warner and her yearlong quest to bring calm to her life is handbook of heavy hitters in the "peace" genre. Warner wishes to find her "inner monk" and consults Sylvia Boorstein, Pema Chodrom, the Dalai Lama, and Sharon Salzberg among others to learn how to quell her anxiety. This is a great reference for exploring different techniques for anyone interested in meditation or various types of therapy. Warner is straight forward and bare, dealing with her own issues as well as her mother's Alzheimer's. If you want something more in depth, skip straight to those she consults as she lists a great bibliography. But for times when you need a hint, a push or a pick me up, this is a gem. "My mother has Alzheimer's, my dog is dying, and I am happy, I thought to myself. Life is wonderful." May we all find the wonderful.
TheLibraryhag on LibraryThing 7 months ago
I really enjoyed joining Priscilla on her quest. I learned a lot about various therapies and meditaion methods and a bit about myself. Obviously, not everyone can spend the time or money to experience all these different systems and wonder people, but in a way I felt that I was right there with her. I think I have a better handle on my own anxiety issues after reading this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book at a pivotal moment in my struggle with panic disorder, and it was the first time that I felt like I related to someone with a similar ailment.  Reading the book was one of the biggest sighs of relief that I had taken in a long, long time.  I would definitely recommend this one.
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