Slumped in my airplane seat, I could barely see enough of Tulsa, Oklahoma to
say goodbye to it in the early morning darkness, as my plane took off, headed home to New York. I turned on my overhead light, opened up a magazine, and there they were yet again!
Serene Tibetan monks stared out at me from a photograph. The same monks who'd been haunting and taunting me for years. Because they seem to have found an inner peace that has eluded me for so long.
While I've been experiencing hundreds of panic attacks, these men have been meditating so effectively that their pre-frontal brain lobes light up on CAT 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, adrenalin, heartache and hormones.
"I want the brain of a monk!" I decided right then and there.
And everything that goes along with that brain! Like peace and tranquility, compassion and kindness, wisdom and patience, happiness and love.
And so my mission was born.
I remain determined to get my pre-frontal lobe lit up like the monks' lobes. To develop a brain that will 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; I'm hoping I can set up a Klonopin lab in my brain, producing a natural version of the drug my therapist prescribed for me six years ago, to help me cope with panic.
I don't want to move to a monastery, but I'm going to try dozens of things right in my own back yard, which I hope will make me positively monk-like.
If I exercise my tired grey organ properly, on a sustained, regular basis, and feed it all sorts of good things like meditation, somatic experience, guided imagery and Buddhist teachings, might I actually get it to change physically? I've seen the term "neuroplasticity" thrown around a lot lately. I'm hoping my brain is like Silly Putty - bendable and pliable and lots of fun to work with.
Hopefully I'll be able to accomplish concrete things like lowering my blood pressure. My day-to-day life already feels different. Will my family and friends still recognize me a year from now? Will I recognize myself?
Could a neurotic Jew turn into a serene Buddhist monk? Or should I say nun?
I've traveled to Turkey and toured the ancient caves of early Christian mystics. I've listened to lectures on the mysteries of Kabbalah and read Rumi's exquisite Sufi poetry. I like to drink herbal tea, light incense in my bedroom, get my meridiens massaged while my chakras are identified by soft-spoken attendants at occasional spa splurges...
"Slow down," I tell myself.
This will take some time. And planning. And improvisation. And hard work.
I'd love to travel to Nepal to find inner peace, but I panic at high altitudes. So I'm trying to behave like a monk on a mountaintop while still shopping for dinner at my local suburban strip mall. I'll try detox fasts and maybe even a colonic or two. (Well, maybe just one.) I'll enlist the help of brain-scanning neuroscientists, try meditative painting, chanting and things like ayervedic treatments.
What do I have to lose?
I can always go back to what I've been for fifty-five years, but why would I ever want to do that?
The anxiety disorder I've battled all my life has wreaked havoc on my body. I'm out of shape, exhausted, and devouring chocolate to boost my spirits and busted adrenal glands. My body is aching, my children have flown away from my nest, my mother, who has Alzheimer's, is locked in the advanced care unit of her nursing home, the cancerous tumor that killed my father twenty years ago started its deadly journey through his colon when he was just about my age...clearly, I am facing my own mortality.
I don't know the difference between dharma and karma, but I'm willing to learn. Perhaps on this journey I can define other terms for myself, like mindfulness, loving kindness, and maybe even true happiness.
His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, believes human beings can change the negative emotions in their brains into positive ones.
And who am I to doubt the Dalai Lama?
Priscilla Warner is the co-author of The Faith Club. Her new book, about her journey from panic to peace, will be published by The Free Press in 2011. Follow her progress on her blog. And meet her mother at www.rivaleviten.com