I first “met” Priscilla Warner when she friended me on Facebook in the fall of 2011 with the following message: “Hi Priscilla – Since your name comes up every time I start to type mine, and your book looks fascinating, I thought we should connect! Sound good?” I wrote her back: “Wonderful! and I just read about your new book, and ordered it- I am so excited- I’m a big meditator, and I love the sound of your book. So happy you reached out to me.” Thus a cyber friendship and a mutual admiration society were born. We met in person for the first time when Priscilla came to see me speak at a Child Care Council of Westchester event- we couldn’t stop hugging each other!-, and last March we hung out at the Books for a Better Life Awards where our books were both nominated. Priscilla is one of the warmest, most down-to-earth, unpretentiously smart, life-giving people I’ve ever met, and I was delighted when she agreed to answer questions for this blog. You’ll find a wealth of insight and practical tips in the answers she gave me. Thanks to Priscilla for gracing this blog with her spirit!
Priscilla Warner is a co-author of the New York Times bestselling memoir The Faith Club and the author of a new memoir, Learning To Breathe, which was nominated for a Books for a Better Life Award. Inspired by the impressive meditation practices of Tibetan monks, Priscilla set out to heal from a panic disorder that had plagued her for decades. On this winding path from panic to peace, with its hairpin emotional curves and breathtaking drops, she also delves into a wide range of spiritual and alternative health practices. Written with lively wit and humor, Learning to Breathe is a serious attempt to heal from a painful condition. It’s also a life raft of compassion and hope for people similarly adrift or secretly fearful, and an entertaining, inspiring guidebook for anyone facing daily challenges large and small, longing for a sense of peace, self-acceptance, and understanding.
1) Tell us about your yearlong quest to bring calm to your life: what inspired it, what it taught you, and how it concluded.
For years, I’d been reading stories about Tibetan monks who meditated so effectively that neuroscientists were studying their brains. I’d also been suffering from panic attacks so debilitating that they left me unable to breathe. My experience with a previous book I co-authored, The Faith Club, had left me exhausted but also exhilarated by what I’d learned from people of all religions. I was open to learning how to meditate, and eager to study with Buddhist teachers. One in particular – a young Tibetan monk who’d suffered panic attacks as a child and healed through meditation – became my first teacher. He taught me how to meditate in an open-minded way – eyes open or shut, sitting, lying down and walking, listening to music. My last communal meditation experience was at a zen center where I stared at a white wall for 30 minutes at a time. In between, I meditated every day for 20 minutes, and discovered effective therapies that grounded me and lessened my anxiety significantly. I achieved a kind of inner peace I could never have imagined.
2) What are some of the biggest roadblocks or obstacles that prevent us from achieving calm and truly breathing?
We think too much! Meditation allows us to let go of thoughts.
We over-react to things! Meditation changes our brains so that we can digest incoming information with less judgment.
We judge ourselves too harshly! As Tara Brach, one of my teachers, taught me, we all have a golden Buddha deep inside of us that we can learn how to access, a basic goodness that can guide and comfort us.
We want things to be different from they way they are! And that’s the definition of suffering, according to Buddhist teachings. Once we accept that we are all suffering humans, we can have compassion for each other and ourselves.
3) What are some of the best strategies you found for calming yourself and reducing your anxiety?
Meditating daily for 20 minutes has altered the way I react to stress. And I don’t always have to do it in a solitary way. I can listen to guided imagery and music in order to calm my mind.
Somatic Experiencing and EMDR Therapy, two very powerful therapies, helped me ground myself and release disturbing physical sensations brought on by trauma and buried emotions.
4) What would you say to people who dismiss meditation as fluffy, new-agey, or ineffective?
It’s not new agey in my mind, since it’s existed for thousands of years, as an important component of many different religions and cultures!
It’s not fluffy or ineffective, because it allows us to access a place deep inside of us that is strong, secure, safe and powerful.
5) How would you define resilience? What do you think are some good strategies for becoming more resilient in the face of life’s inevitable challenges, difficulties, and hurdles?
I define resilience as the ability to adapt to circumstances beyond our control. In order to do that, I think we need to be humble enough to seek help from others, and to be curious and dedicated enough to acquire skills that allow us to heal.
6) How were your marriage and your parenting affected by your intense anxiety and panic attacks? How did your husband and your children react to your quest for calm?
My husband was always patient and understanding when it came to my anxiety. He loved me because I was vulnerable, and valued the idea of being vulnerable along with me. Displaying that vulnerability is freeing, and it connects us to others powerfully.
As a parent, my biggest challenge was to appear calm to my children. For years I sought help from a therapist in order to do that. She taught me how to manage my own anxiety so that it wouldn’t cloud my judgment or spill over into the way I parented, increasing my children’s anxiety. That’s not to say that I was a serene Madonna. I wasn’t. But I tried my best to heal from my own anxiety so that I could help them face theirs. Although my fantasy was that they could lead lives free of suffering, that’s just not the case. Learning that my children need to face painful experiences on their own sometimes, to suffer disappointment and anxiety, then move forward on their own, was a very difficult thing for me to accept. Although they are young adults, they still come to me occasionally during stressful situations, and it’s always a challenge for me to stay grounded so that I can be helpful to them.
My husband and children have told me how proud they are of what I accomplished by writing this book, and they’re happy to see me happy!
7) What advice do you have for anxious parents? How can they learn to breathe and let go?
We can’t raise healthy, happy children if we aren’t doing our best to be happy, healthy people. We need to feel safe and secure so that we can provide safety and security to our children.
What I love about establishing a meditation practice (which I urge even the busiest parents to do – starting with just five minutes a day) is that it provides a safe haven, a port in a storm, a room of one’s own.
Parenting can be lonely, hectic, depressing, exciting, rewarding, confusing and disturbing. Meditation teaches us that all of those emotions come and go, along with the moments that trigger them. Once I developed a meditation practice, I became less reactive to events. I was able to step back and observe myself, my family, and my friends without jumping to conclusions or donning a superhero cape to try and fix everything heroically. Parents want to be superheroes, but we need to have our feet planted firmly on the ground, and meditation helps us do that.
8) What are some of your favorite books and authors?
I was deeply moved and inspired by Lucy Greely’s extraordinary, courageous book, Autobiography of a Face, as well as Alison Smith’s Name All the Animals and Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. Those raw, honest memoirs gave me the courage to write Learning to Breathe. I love fiction that grips me immediately with characters I care about deeply. A Fine Balance is the gold standard for me in that regard. I love anything Tom Wolfe writes. The last book I finished and really enjoyed was Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder.
9) Who inspires you (public figures, writers, people in your personal life)?
People who share their stories about the painful experiences they’ve encountered in life – like you, Priscilla – inspire me. For so long, I thought I was the only person with a panic disorder, and I’ve received the most beautiful emails from readers who’ve shared their lives with me. Their courage, honesty and insights sustain me. And of course I am still inspired by Tibetan monks! And all of the teachers and healers I met in my book. I’m amazed at how many people there are in the world who want to help and heal others.
10) What quotation would you use to summarize you and/or your approach to Life?
I love this quote from Joseph Goldstein, a Buddhist teacher: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” Life can be difficult and we can’t predict the ways in which we’ll be challenged. But my meditation practice has taught me how to surf the waves of sadness, fear and sorrow that we all encounter. I still get knocked over occasionally, but everything I learned through this experience has given me the strength and confidence to get up again and keep swimming.
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.