When I was 25, my husband booked tickets for us to fly to Paris for a winter vacation. As the day of the flight approached, I began to get nervous. Something was off. I felt like I couldn’t get on the plane. Even thinking about getting on that plane gave me a panic attack, a feeling of being crushed and unable to breathe, a sensation that I had never before experienced. My boarding that plane – and this was coming from someone who had reached premier airline status before the end of high school – was simply not possible. We ended up missing our flight because I couldn’t bring myself to get on the plane, let alone pack up, get on the subway, and get to the gate. I didn’t need a vacation; I needed help.
My mental health situation deteriorated rapidly. Within days, the panic attacks were happening with greater frequency and I was literally having trouble leaving my house. I couldn’t go to work. I couldn’t go anywhere. I felt like every building, every subway, was about to crush me.
During those difficult months, I met a friend of a friend whom I knew had suffered from depression, and had found much relief in both Jewish prayer and Buddhist teachings and meditation. He described discovering Jewish prayer akin to finding a piece of driftwood, and discovering meditation akin to finding a life raft. He recommended that I read Pema Chodron’s book Start Where You Are, as well as Mindfulness in Plain English, a primer for mindfulness meditation.
That winter, in addition to seeing a therapist, doing behavioral therapy, and going on medication for a short while – all of which contributed to my healing – I began a practice of sitting for 20 minutes a day. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t filling up those 20 minutes with talking, or moving around, or distractions, or doing anything. I was sitting with myself and my crazy brain. (That’s basically what mindfulness meditation, also known as Vipassana mediation, is: sitting quietly. I don’t use mantras or anything fancy. I just sit.)
What did Buddhism offer me that, up to that point, my own rich tradition of Judaism hadn’t? For starters, silence and non-action were valued. In my family and community, many important things were valued, but I must say that silence and non-action were not two of them.
I had also never heard such gentle, loving explanations for how to behave. A few years later, I attended a silent retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, where he told us that when we get angry to drop everything and cradle our anger like a crying baby. This made me cry then and makes my cry now thinking about it. There was an exercise in which we all lay on our backs and focused attention on each part of our body, thanking it for its service to us. “Thank you liver for processing our blood. Even though I sometimes abuse you by drinking too much, I want to thank you for keeping me healthy and strong… Thank you lungs for enabling me to breathe…” I had never been exposed to radical gratitude like that before.
And presence. My life had been about success, achievement, the next thing. Many years later, I walked into a therapist’s office. Her practice was full, but I wasn’t about to let her send me away. She kept sending me to different people, but I kept coming back to her. There was something that drew me so deeply to her. Here’s what it was: When I was with her, she was completely present. I had never experienced that level of presence, and it made me feel seen and understood and appreciated.
And, finally, the Buddhist teachers that I admire speak in simple terms about core themes of being alive, such as ego, suffering, oneness with all beings, and impermanence. These ideas opened my eyes and changed the course of my life. I think about them daily, but I don’t remember hearing much about them in my own tradition. Are they there? Absolutely. The teachings of the mystics and the Hasidic masters overlap on many of these themes. I haven’t yet put in the consistent effort to familiarize myself with their works, but I have some knowledge of them
So, my song This Heart is rooted in teachings I have learned over the years. Teachings that exist in my own Jewish tradition, but would take some excavating for me to find. This Heart is about impermanence, and about being in the moment, and about how heartbreaking life is if we allow ourselves to feel it. In the words of Pema Chodron, “Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it…To stay with that shakiness, to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge, that is the path of true awakening.”
Julie Geller is a Denver-based singer/songwriter who writes and performs original music in English and Hebrew that inspires people to become their best versions of themselves. Hear more at www.juliegeller.com.