When It’s Hard to Take a Deep Breath

On asthma, meditation, and cutting yourself some slack during a global pandemic.

[Content warning: brief discussion of suicide and suicidal ideation.]

One of my earliest childhood memories is being unable to breathe. I am about five years of age, sitting upright on the bunk bed in a room I share with my sister in our family’s Chicago home. There are sheep on the bed sheets, or maybe pine trees; this part is a little fuzzy. The part that is not fuzzy is the panicked bewilderment I felt as a five-year old who’d just discovered his lungs no longer worked. 

My parents rushed me to the emergency room, where the nurses informed us that I was having an asthma attack. I had never heard the word “asthma” before, but “attack” certainly didn’t sound good. My fears were not soothed when the nurses placed a mask over my face and flicked the switch on a machine that rumbled like a small diesel generator. The machine was called a nebulizer, the nurses said, and the soap-scented mist it emitted would make my lungs work again—provided I kept the mask on for 10-15 minutes or so. So I sat there beneath the bright fluorescent lights, trying to gulp down mouthfuls of air, accompanied by my mother and the unsettling notion that this previously unknown problem was going to shape my life in ways I could not yet imagine. 

The memory of my first asthma attack resurfaced when the COVID-19 lockdown began almost two months ago, and since then I haven’t gone more than a few hours each day without thinking about it. There’s something about the idea of depending on a loud, ominous mechanical box to deliver oxygen to your lungs that’s both familiar and triggering—although there’s a huge difference between the discomfort of a nebulizer’s face mask and a ventilator’s two-foot tube jammed down your throat.

Like many people, I’m not really sure how worried I should be about catching the virus (or, to be precise, catching it bad enough to require a hospital visit, which does not sound fun). On one hand, I’m a relatively fit person in his early 30s who hasn’t had to see a doctor in years. On the other hand, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) state that “people with moderate to severe asthma may be at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19.” I have to take my inhaler twice a day to keep from wheezing; does that count as moderate? On the other other hand, a recent study from the University of Wisconsin found that some people with allergic asthma—the kind that I have—actually seem to be protected from the “more severe and life-threatening manifestations” of the spikey boi. Earlier reports out of China and New York suggested the same thing, despite the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) has had asthma on its list of risk factors since the pandemic began.

As you can see, the situation vis-à-vis asthma and coronavirus is a deeply confusing clusterfuck that seems to grow more byzantine and contradictory by the day. You could say the same thing about the pandemic in general. At the time of writing, there have been over 3.4 million infections and 240,000 fatalities around the world due to COVID-19, according to the most reliable data tracker. Mass graves are being dug in New York City and 30 million Americans have lost their jobs. At the same time, the head of the CDC recently said the models used to estimate the pandemic’s spread might be wildly inaccurate—though this could change at any moment if people let their guard down and stop social distancing. 

The incessant torrent of urgent and conflicting information is enough to make you hyperventilate, even if you’ve never had a single symptom of asthma (or any other respiratory illness, for that matter). It doesn’t matter how savvy of a news consumer you are. You can “listen to the experts” like the CDC or WHO all you want, but what they say on Monday is often quite different from what they say on Friday. The wonderfully talented musician Danny Bradley put words to our collective vibe of terrified confusion in his satirical coronavirus PSA song:

Don’t go outside
But maybe it’s fine to go outside
Don’t wear a mask

But you should probably wear a mask
Go to work, don’t go to work
You shouldn’t not never not go to work

How is anyone supposed to breathe in conditions like these? Forget the ominous predictions of a looming Second Great Depression or (at least in the United States) the prospect of being financially crippled by ‘rona-related medical bills. Forget the fact that poor communities of color are being decimated by the pandemic while Congress shovels literal trillions of dollars at mega-corporations and the wealthy without the slightest bit of oversight. Forget that the president of the United States told people to inject themselves with bleach and the country’s “opposition” party kneecapped the only candidate who understands the urgency of the moment in favor of a barely-coherent pathological liar with a lengthy history of corruption, racist views, and creepy behavior toward women and who is currently facing serious allegations he sexually assaulted a former staffer. Pay no attention to the United Nations’ warning that we could be soon facing “multiple famines of biblical proportions,” or medical experts’ grave proclamations that a second round of the virus is “inevitable” in a few months, or—I swear I’m not making this up—the potential imminent arrival of enormous “murder hornets.” Ignore… wait, what the hell were we talking about?

Oh yes, breathing. The world is collapsing because of a disease that makes it impossible to breathe, but perhaps breathing could help get us out of this mess, or at least make it more bearable in the meantime. Many people, both smart and otherwise, are telling us that breathing—mindfully, with intention—can help keep the terror at bay. Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California-Berkeley, released a series of YouTube videos aimed at helping people use mindful breathing techniques to overcome their COVID-related panic. The Mayo Clinic has their own tips to “calm the body and mind” by paying attention to your breath. You’d be hard-pressed to find a yoga studio or wellness brand that hasn’t released a similar how-to guide for mindful breathing. It’s free, it doesn’t require a lot of space, and it’s something you can do right now, right this very second.

It’s also, in my opinion, mostly horseshit.

I feel a bit odd saying this because I start every day by doing 30 minutes of the same type of breath work taught in most mindfulness courses. It’s called vipassana meditation, and it’s both remarkably simple and insanely difficult (at least most of the time). The object is to sit as still as a stone and pay attention to nothing but your breath. In or out, fast or slow, ragged or smooth—your mind is supposed to focus only on the flow of air through your nostrils. Buddhists of the Theravada tradition have been practicing vipassana for well over 2,000 years, and during all that time, I believe almost every single person who’s tried it has initially been driven to the brink of rage and/or tears by the frustration of being unable to do it right. It’s just really, really hard to keep your attention from wandering off. Chinese Buddhists coined the term “monkey mind” in the early 5th century C.E. to describe this phenomenon, and it hasn’t lost any of its relevance in the centuries since.

Vipassana meditation provides the basic framework for most mindfulness practices, whose providers tend to be very adamant that you don’t need to be a Buddhist to meditate in this way. Much like yoga, mindfulness is almost always pitched as a benign, secular tool for wellness. There’s some debate over just how effective this type of practice is for relieving anxiety or improving concentration, compared to other interventions like medication. But I don’t want to get into a debate over whether mainstream mindfulness is a scam (for what it’s worth, I think that’s a bit harsh). Instead, I want to suggest that breath meditation sans Buddhist philosophy won’t do fuck-all to relieve your existential quarantine angst because it’s missing the one key ingredient that would help—the concept of anatta, or non-self. If you want to soothe your mind by paying attention to your breath, you have to embrace the idea that “you” don’t exist at all.

This sounds nihilistic to most people, though any decent Buddhist teacher can explain why it’s a somewhat misleading oversimplification. However, sometimes oversimplifying is necessary! I don’t know about you, but my brain is operating at about 45 percent of its normal capacity right now. Some mornings it’s a struggle to remember my Gmail password. There’s not much mental computing power available to decipher nuanced epistemological arguments. And in any case, maybe a bit of nihilism is exactly what we need to get through these trying-ass times in which we now find ourselves. 

For me, there’s a degree of…well, “comfort” isn’t exactly the right word, but something like “calmness,” when I consider the possibility that there is no me. Lately this has become much more feasible after I’ve quieted my mind on the meditation cushion (i.e., a pillow/makeshift cat bed) for a while. Then, it becomes a relief to embrace the idea that there’s not a solid entity named Nick Slater, whose bank account is not as full as he’d like and whose future employment prospects are uncertain. There’s no guy living alone in a cramped apartment with a shitty water heater, no affection-starved loser who hasn’t felt the touch of another human being in almost two months. There’s no there there, and it feels about as close to good as one could hope for, considering the circumstances. 

This skill, if you can call it that, is one I first developed to cope with the asthma attacks of my childhood. Sometimes they would hit during inopportune times when I wasn’t carrying my inhaler, the tiny canister of aerosolized medicine that was as vital to me as an insulin syringe is to a person with diabetes. I would be in the middle of my day when, quietly and without warning, I would find myself unable to take a deep breath. The harder I tried, the shallower my breath would get. As you may know from personal experience, being unable to breathe is a panic-inducing sensation, which increases the urge to breathe, which then creates a vicious feedback loop in which you’re essentially tightening the noose around your own neck. 

At times like these, when I was certain that I was about to die (most of the time this probably wasn’t accurate, I was just a melodramatic little shit), I often entered a defensive dissociative state of consciousness. What is happening?, a voice inside my head would say. Nick is unable to breathe, came the reply. This begged the question: Who is Nick? And at this point the voice inside my head would posit that perhaps “Nick” was the entity whose eyes were observing the baseball field or the science classroom, which raised a whole new set of questions, such as what are eyes? and why is this conversation happening behind those eyes? and so on. “Nick” might have been suffering, but that wasn’t “my” problem, because the link had been snapped between “me” and the consciousness having that conversation with itself. Breathing didn’t really matter, living didn’t really matter—and because the voice inside my head gave these things such little importance, “I” stopped getting in the way and they just sort of happened on their own. At least, they’d happen well enough to buy enough time for my mom to arrive with the inhaler. 

Disassociation is a well-studied phenomenon in the field of psychology. It doesn’t always happen in response to a traumatic experience—sometimes you just forget why you’re standing in front of the fridge, for example—but it’s one of the human mind’s most powerful defenses when confronted with unbearable situations. Like, say, a global pandemic responsible for a months-long quarantine and economic crisis. You can’t hide out in that state of non-being forever, of course, but sometimes it can provide an invaluable temporary refuge, like a panic room for the mind. And just as you occasionally need to disassociate from the problems of the self, sometimes you need to disassociate from the problems of the world.

The urge to disassociate from the world and the urge to slip off this mortal coil have some striking similarities, but they’re not the same thing. In Anna Borges’ gorgeous and powerful essay “I am not always very attached to being alive,” she compares her desire to live with floating on the ocean. Some days are easy, with “clear skies and smooth waters,” while others are “tumultuous storms you don’t know you’ll survive.” Our drive to disassociate is subject to the same conditions: maybe on Monday your sense of self feels solid and comfortable, but by Tuesday it’s a straitjacket you’re desperate to escape. Technically, taking your own life is one way to accomplish that, but if there were a less drastic (and less painful, and less permanent) way to accomplish the same objective, wouldn’t it be worth a try?

Here is where I’m supposed to provide a list of qualifications regarding the merits of disassociation. It’s easier for some people to disassociate and embrace a sort of momentary nihilism than others, after all. If you’re a single parent trying to balance homeschooling your three kids while also working a full-time job, you’re less able to dissolve into nothingness than the wealthy overlords who hold their household staffs captive so they don’t have to cook their own meals or scrub their own shit stains off the toilet. If you’re a cleaner or a nurse or a supermarket cashier who has to risk their life every day to go to work, it’s tougher to find the time for the negation of the self than if you’re a middle-class person who can work from home (or a rich one who can escape to their luxury bunker or private island). 

It’s essential to “consider privilege” (a phrase that, to be honest, makes my skin crawl, though that says more about my mental roadblocks than the phrase itself) when advocating for the benefits of meditation and self-negation. And let me be perfectly clear: fuck—with the fury of 10,000 suns—each and every one of the bloodthirsty monsters who thinks the permanent negation of a few million non-rich people is a fair sacrifice in exchange for a bump in the value of their stocks or a minuscule decrease in the national deficit (which is a nonsense concept anyway). None of them “earned” the massive fortunes they currently hold, and none of them deserve to keep those ill-gotten gains, either. It’s my fervent hope that they’ll soon be relieved of their wealth, among other things, and there’s a strong argument they deserve to burn in hell for eternity as well.

Having said that, I think that the vast majority of people can cut themselves a bit more slack. We’re all struggling to breathe right now. We’re all drowning to some extent, and the fact that others are drowning in deeper and murkier waters doesn’t negate our own suffering. It means we should be doing as much as we can to help—like joining a mutual aid group or demanding the release of incarcerated people—and that we should be cognizant of our relative comfort, whatever that might be. A good general rule is: look at what Ellen DeGeneres is doing, then do the exact opposite. 

But if you’re feeling like it’s hard to take a deep breath right now, it’s not because you’re coddled or whiny. You’re living through an unprecedented era of spectacularly fucked-up bullshit, and none of us know what’s going to happen next. Immense and complex forces are at work, and while you’re not powerless to influence them—if, and only if, you band together with your fellow workers—you’re also not going to make things go back to normal solely with the power of your cleverness or positivity. The world that existed before the pandemic is gone, and so is the you who existed in it. This is an unsettling thought. It’s okay to feel frightened. It’s also okay to just be numb. It’s okay to embrace nothingness for a minute when you need to.

Right now, nothing matters except the next inhalation. After that, there will be an exhalation. What comes next is a mystery to all of us. While you’re waiting, don’t worry if you don’t feel like yourself. 

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