Updated: Jul 28, 2020
When I was 13 years old, I was severely depressed. Life at home and school was particularly challenging, and the onslaught of adolescent hormones didn’t help. I remember being horribly insecure and deeply uncomfortable. The outside world felt harsh and provocative; home was only a periodic refuge. I do not think I was cognizant of the word depression at that time; I just knew, everything felt painful. Clear recognition of this arrived one sacrosanct morning.
I woke up to get ready to go to school and looked out the screen door of our ground-floor condominium. The air was fragrant with the smell of hibiscus and a morning rain shower. At that moment, I distinctly remember having a strong aversion to the smell of the air—despising it, actually. It wasn't refreshing or nourishing or life-giving, as it should have been. This visceral realization was a confirmation that my internal landscape had become deeply disturbed. My sadness was now reflected all around me, and there was no place to run. This recognition was significant, and it catalyzed a desire to seek out new information and new ways of being.
One day not too long after this realization, while I was home alone, I was perusing my parent’s bookshelf and came upon a book introducing various methods of meditation. I took the book to my bedroom and sat cross-legged on my daybed. I remember it being mid-afternoon and a sunny day. I flipped to a page detailing instructions for a breathing meditation and decided that I’d give this one a try. (Neither of my parents had a formal meditation practice nor did anyone I know.) I read the passage and began to breathe calmly, following each inhale and exhalation intently. What happened next is impossible to explain accurately. As many have stated for thousands of years, words cannot adequately describe "mystical" experiences, where ordinary sense perception breaks down along with conventional contours of selfhood. However, knowing I will fail to articulate this experience, I’ll give it a try.
Just a few minutes into breathing calming, I started to become aware of two breaths: the embodied breath, centered within my body, and another breath embedded in all the forms around me and within me. I intuitively knew this pulsing breath is always here but not available to my ordinary waking consciousness. Since I had adjusted my perception through meditation, I suddenly became aware of this subtle breath. This was a most gracious, peaceful arising, akin to lifting my eyelids after a long night's sleep or suddenly hearing birdsong at sunrise. And yet, it was simultaneously extraordinary: the source of perception and what was being perceived lie outside the five basic senses. My kid self was quietly delighted about this very non-kid awareness I had just accessed. So I kept breathing—watching and feeling these two breaths, these two pulses.
It soon occurred to me that these two breaths were not synchronized but asynchronous. So, I decided to adjust my embodied breath to correlate with the other subtle breath—both inhales and exhales flowing together. When I did this, everything changed. As soon as I synchronized the breaths, I lost all individuated awareness—there was no ego-based self. It is tricky to describe an experience of perception that has no locatable self that is witnessing or seeing, but nevertheless, there was just pure seeing and pure being. The only thing I can remember from this moment onward was that “I” was grass—all grass on earth. While “I” was the pulsing force of all life forms, this moment was focused on the grass. This shift, while it sounds spectacular, occurred very gently. After this moment, I can only assume my memory dissolved—I have no recollection of what happened thereafter. After what I assume was some passage of time, I returned, conscious, breathing, and sitting on my daybed. I kept the experience a secret for many years.
My memory conjures a picture of a presence that has no form and yet animates the cosmos. Some Asian religio-philosophical traditions describe this as emptiness and fullness or the absolute and relative realms. What is clear is that it felt at once wholly genuine, graceful, and hyper-real. I knew "it," or "I" (again, tough to discuss something that transcends conventional modes of being) can never be harmed, shaped, or altered. This "I" is paradoxical because it is simultaneously transcendent, yet ever-abiding.
What I often call my “one breath” experience served as a catalyst for several developments in my life: (1) it awoke in me a keen interest in spirituality and religious traditions that have a language for such experiences, (2) it nurtured my ability to understand the often paradoxical and abstract descriptions of non-normative states of consciousness articulated in many religious and philosophical traditions, (3) it readied me for other mystical experiences later in life, and finally, (4) it has remained a valuable place of internal validation, providing solace, a knowingness that I am ultimately not this little embodied being but exquisitely grander, in a way language will always be woefully inadequate to express.
It's worthwhile to affirm what this experience didn't do: this experience did not provide me with a sustained experience. Once I became re-embodied and configured within an ego, the experience was imprinted only as a memory—and that is a monumental difference. My one breath experience was a glimpse, and as such, the portal closed just as it had opened. This means I have continued living through the many inflections of adolescence, young adulthood, and middle age. I have wrestled with my weaknesses, insecurities, fears, and failings. But this holy peek into what undergirds this realm of ‘being’ and ‘doing’ has become a song in my life, one that sings of majesty; a brilliant grace that transcends all conventional categories of word, thought, and perception. A place that we can all synchronize with—in one breath.
By Shannon "Sati" Chmelar