Priscilla Warner is a graduate from the University of Pennsylvania and is The New York Times best-selling author of Learning to Breathe and co-author of The Faith Club. Despite her loving family, good fortune, and successful books, she experienced 40 years of anxiety and debilitating panic attacks that left her unable to breathe. While on book tour, Warner became committed to channeling her “panic into peace.” Learning to Breathe details this journey, and Warner chronicles breathtaking moments on her website to help others find a place of calm. Literary Mama Social Media Editor Rudri Bhatt Patel corresponded via email with Warner on her thoughts about meditation, writing, and motherhood.
Rudri Bhatt Patel: In Learning to Breathe, you speak about anxiety and the meditative process. Writing can be therapeutic but also create fear. What advice do you have for writers who are too anxious to write?
Priscilla Warner: Meditate. Seriously. Start a meditation practice. I often recommend guided imagery or guided meditations. Let someone show you the way into a serene spot inside yourself that you may not believe is there. Trust that it is. Even for a minute. Or one breath. Then add a second breath. And a third…
I used to worry that without fear and anxiety, I wouldn’t be motivated to create words on a page. In fact, fear and anxiety did drive me to write Learning to Breathe. But now I am working on a book about eternal abiding love, and I am able to go deeper into writing than I ever was before I began meditating.
Don’t be afraid of losing your creative mojo, but learn to use your anxiety and fear as a catalyst for writing, as well. A dancer friend told me he thinks every creative person needs to feel a bit of fear going into a project, and I understand that. Fear can mean something is important—important enough to put down in words. I can finally meditate on my own fear now. Occasionally. And that’s helpful in terms of accepting that life contains fearful moments but that no moment lasts.
RBP: Do you meditate before you write? If so, for how long? How does it help your writing practice?
PW: Lately, I’ve found it essential to meditate before I write. I’m working on a book about my marriage, which is extremely personal. I’m trying to access a place deep inside of myself in order to write it. I’m no longer in therapy consistently. I haven’t gone on a meditation retreat in years. So it’s up to me to find a sacred space inside of myself, a space where reflection comes naturally, and the only way I know how to do that is through meditation. It’s like truth serum for me when I’m writing. Meditation allows me to let go of preconceptions and self-criticism that stand in the way of good writing.
RBP: You begin Learning to Breathe with the following epigraph:
May all travelers find happiness
Everywhere they go,
And without any effort may they accomplish
Whatever they set out to do. –Shantideva
Why this particular epigraph? How did you discover Shantideva?
PW: I discovered this passage while attending a teaching session with His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the Beacon Theatre in New York, which I wrote about in Learning to Breathe. The passage comes from A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, which was handed out at the event so that we could study it. I love the phrase “without any effort,” because I put so much effort into my search for inner peace in Learning to Breathe. Now I look back on my frantic quest for an unfrantic life and smile. It’s ironic that I was anxious to find peace.
At the Dalai Lama event, he spoke mostly in Tibetan, and a translator was present. I almost fell asleep numerous times in his presence, which I hear is not unusual. I understood very little of his cerebral, esoteric, complex teachings, and then these lines jumped out at me.
I was trying too hard.
That’s what I do.
That’s what we all do.
RBP: Motherhood is fraught with anxiety, especially when we confront time’s passage and how mothers navigate between holding on and letting go of their children. What insights can you offer anxious mothers?
PW: That is such a good way to describe motherhood. Even though my sons are now young men (one just got married!), I still find myself having to learn how to let go. We’re always learning how to let go in life—of expectations, yearning for “more,” and narratives we cling to even though they’re mostly inventions created by us or others. But as a mother, I thought my job was to not let go. I thought that my job was to worry.
Meditation, however, allowed me to let go of worrying, which is essentially repetitive thinking.
I think mothers need to take care of themselves, first and foremost. That was a concept that was hard for me to grasp initially—that self-care is vital if you want to take care of your loved ones effectively. Lovingkindness meditation is a gentle way to take care of yourself.
Sylvia Boorstein says that if you only practiced lovingkindness toward yourself, that would be a perfect practice. I used to try and hide my anxiety from my kids. But, of course, that’s hard to do. Nearly impossible. And maybe not even the right thing to do, as kids need to know that they’re not the only ones who struggle with anxiety. I tried to walk the fine line between acknowledging my own anxiety and trying to give my children the confidence that anxiety is manageable.
“Happy wife, happy life!” My husband sometimes says, chuckling. So what’s the corollary for mothers? “Happy mother… grounded-and-more-able-to-find-a-path-to-their-own-happiness-children!”
RBP: Those who are sandwiched between caregiving for our parents, mothering our children, and developing our writing careers are asked to take on several roles simultaneously. What advice do you have for those who are in this particular nexus in their life?
PW: I know that nexus very well. My mother had Alzheimer’s for 13 years, and I was her primary caretaker, while raising two sons and flying around the country speaking to thousands of people on a my never-ending book tour for The Faith Club and writing my next book.
How did I manage? I had no choice. Actually, I did have choices that I didn’t realize I had at the time. I was so wrapped up in trying to be a perfect caregiver that I forgot to take care of myself. Which is the most important thing to remember. We can always choose self-care, as I’ve mentioned. Even if it means locking yourself in a bathroom for a few minutes to sit quietly and breathe. Find whatever works for you.
Tea with friends.
Crying. (It can be an oddly comforting release.)
Yoga and stretches.
Trying to eat right.
Talking to a therapist.
Listening to music.
Working in a garden.
Reading writers you respect.
Escaping into some junk TV.
It all works. And sometimes it doesn’t. But knowing that we all go through difficult times is comforting. The older I get, the more I appreciate the cliché that we’re all doing the best that we can. Sometimes we feel that’s not enough. I wish I could wrap everyone in my arms and tell them to stop being so hard on themselves. So I try to do that to myself.
RBP: The Faith Club is a collaborative work with two other authors, Ranya Idliby and Suzanne Oliver, while Learning to Breathe is written solely by you. What differences did you notice in your creative process between writing collaboratively and individually?
PW: Collaboration is hard. It’s really a test of how well you can let go of your own ego and ideas. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to collaborate with my wonderful co-authors, but I’ve loved the freedom of writing whatever I want lately. I just approached a friend to help me collaborate on a children’s book, because I am feeling a bit isolated after writing in a solitary way for the last few years. It’s great to work with others because that imposes deadlines and an honest, sober review of your own writing. You also learn skills that help with the rest of your relationships—how to be critical of others in a respectful, constructive way and how to take criticism yourself. An idea that you thought was worked out in your head sometimes sounds half-baked when you say it out loud to collaborators. It’s a humbling, important process.
RBP: On page 147 of The Faith Club, you pose two questions: “Was worrying a form of gratefulness? Or was it simply self-centered and neurotic?” Can you elaborate on what you mean by these two questions, especially since motherhood and the writing life are laden with an abundance of worrying?
PW: As a Jewish mother, I thought worrying was my job. And because of the anxiety I had lived with all my life, worrying came easily. I was great at it. I thought that my worrying confirmed the fact that I loved my children, and it does in the sense that I wanted to keep them safe. But worrying can turn into a loop of self-centeredness. When I tell the same story to myself, over and over again, I ultimately bore myself.
I used to think it was self-indulgent to seek happiness through therapy. I believed the cliché that neurotic people are self-indulgent. But I now feel that healing yourself—so that you can be a whole, active participant in your own life and the lives of others—is the best thing you can do for the planet.
And gratitude is the very best feeling in the world. I love when I’m in a good enough place so that it bursts out of me “without any effort,” as that epigraph says. The last time that happened to me was inside a gorgeous chapel in Paris on a vacation we recently took. But it happens to me all over the place now—in my car, on an airplane looking out at the clouds and earth beneath me, in my garden, at a dinner table with my sons, while I’m petting my dog, when I get good news from anyone….
Collecting moments of gratitude, over and over, seems like a perfect practice to me and a life goal worth pursuing over and over again.