Jeff Breece - On losing my shirt and meditationJeff Breece is a heart attack survivor turned runner who blogs at JeffBreece.com. He is also a volunteer moderator on the Support Network and champion of My Research Legacy, a project of the American Heart Association designed to gather health data (stripped of personal information) from volunteers to help identify patterns in heart disease.
There’s a difference between chemically peaceful and having inner peace. I found this out over the course of an unusual year. This is my story of how I realized part of the puzzle of fighting heart disease includes meditation, prayer for some, and how I threw my late 40's etiquette, and my shirt, to the wind.
I found myself chemically peaceful, with the help of a valium drip, as they wheeled me out of heart surgery on April 2 2015. Oddly enough it was the same day I was supposed to run my first 5k since I was a teen. My parents, spouse and best friend were all nervous but patiently waiting for me in the post op room. It was dad who said something that still rings in my head today. “Everything before today is now behind you. Today is the first day of a new start.”
Cardiac rehab introduced all sorts of ideas including stress management. This of course lead to research into the subject where I discovered meditation is one of the prescribed treatments for cardiac anxiety/depression. Right around the same time, I was challenging myself to take the chance I was given, by surviving, to get back to my running goals. It was while running where I found my first moments of peace. A handful of times on the trails drenched in sweat, listening to music, at times crying, wearing just my split shorts shades and shoes. Breathing steady and alive… it felt like what my dad said. A new start with no history to hold me back.
As the months went on, I accomplished more than my original set of goal races. I started doing half marathons and training for a full after a 20 mile race in October 2016. Yet even with all these good feelings and the great physical shape I ended up achieving, my head kept pulling me back. I had two initial panic attacks that brought me to the ER between 2015 and 2016. That’s a small number compared to some folks but it was enough to put anxiety as a problem on my radar.
So I decided to give meditation a chance... again. It reminded me of the sense of peace I felt while running which prompted me to redouble my efforts of looking within. I’m not a spiritual person by nature and only recently more open with my feelings. So my bias against sitting on a floor pillow and listening to my breath rubbed me the wrong way to say the least. I started reading some meditation books along with downloading a couple mobile apps to help me through some guided meditations. It was halting and very frustrating at first. But as time went on I began to get the hang of it and was eventually able to manage daily meditations totaling 10 minutes at a pop.
Today I am able to use the same breathing techniques on the go during a busy day when I need to stop from going to my normal Five Alarm emotional reaction when my head points me in a negative direction. I’m not always successful… but I am more calm these days as a result.
Eventually I started going to some local meditation classes, some of them Buddhist groups which work well for me because it is more of a philosophy than religion. It was during these sessions where I learned more about other people who were looking for the same thing I was. Inner peace.
My heart attack introduced unfamiliar fears to me. Cardiac anxiety and depression. While these were new to me I believe heart disease also showed me that I have had an anxiety issue all my life. It propelled me through the first, second and third parts of my career. Always on the go, making lists, facing every problem with the wild conviction that I could solve it no matter what it cost emotionally. Relocating to Texas, which was both good and bad, for a company I enjoyed but was not true to my values. You know… life and the choices we think we make because we have to and such.
As a volunteer moderator on the AHA Support Network I’ve spoken with so many other men and women of various ages who are facing the same problem I am. While I’m not a doctor, I understand that anxiety and depression are separate risk factors which can make you more statistically likely for a second heart attack. With as hard as I’ve worked on my diet, my body and my medication routines, I knew that I had to follow what Dr Ornish and my cardiac rehab team told me about initially.
I’ve been practicing meditation for around half a year now and as I said before my skills are getting better. There was this moment when I was being guided through a session and the narrator told me that “it’s OK to have 1000 thoughts per minute, simply see them and refocus your attention on your breath.” What she told me then was that this is the actual process of meditation. It’s not sitting, breathing and reaching a state of stillness… it’s allowing yourself to acknowledge and then dismiss your thoughts and have just a few peaceful moments. Free from anxiety. Free from depression. Free from, as my dad said, everything that came before. Free like I feel while running in a warm summer rain storm at a hard pace with my shirt off, happy to be alive on a wooded path in Central Ohio.
I read about “the elevator mediation for kids” last year which walks you through an easy way to do a body scan. This is one of my first lines of defense when I have a severe bout of cardiac anxiety. I ask my body if it’s experiencing symptoms. But most of the time I use it to learn how it feels to simply be in my body... what it feels like in that moment. Then to let those feelings go. You get better at it over time.
With the assistance of Stephen Levine and the guided meditations in his book “Guided meditations, explorations and healings” I worked through some of the basic themes I’ve heard so far. I found his writing particularly comforting because he dealt with death and acceptance all his life professionally. And as part of being a survivor, we are pressed to ask the question of “how long?” The thing these basic meditations taught me is that this is the wrong question. We can turn heart disease back on itself by learning to experience and accept the moments we have today. Just like a cancer or MS patient is forced to do. We are all of us facing the same challenges. In the end life is like a meditation. It just is. All we have to do is acknowledge it and be present while it's happening.
Again, after I accepted the idea that meditation would actually teach me something I gave myself up to using a great mobile app called Calm. There are others out there of course but this one had a free version and I loved the feature it offered of nature sounds. I’m particularly fond of listening to rain sounds because it reminds me of camping in the woods as a late teen one summer by myself. It just seems to relax me. There are other background tracks offered like ocean, wind and forest sounds among others, this just happens to be my favorite. The guided mediations are really great though. Slow, easy to follow and makes you feel like you have a coach with you.
What about prayer? Research suggests that this practice activates the same mechanisms that meditation does. So whatever flavor you practice, prayer can help you to physiologically combat heart disease.
We know that physical exercise makes our hearts stronger. New research is pointing to the effects of stress having the ability to cancel out the benefits of my healthy diet changes. With what we know about heart disease and how unrelenting it is, arming ourselves with the tools we need only strengthens our fight… and in the case of mediation or prayer, enriches our experience while we are living.
Meditation has a lot in common with running. You get better at it the more you practice. And, like running, it’s actually enjoyable once you let down your guard and open your heart and mind to yourself… and then let both go, like a shirt, on a hot August afternoon while running across the Statehouse lawn.