Recently, for the first time in my life, I had a full-blown panic attack. I woke up in the middle of the night with my heart thumping, and with electric jolts running through my body. Luckily, from my work as a clinical psychologist, I knew what was happening. But I can understand why many people who have panic attacks feel as though they are having a heart attack and dying. I spent the predawn hour jogging through my neighborhood, trying to work through the anxiety coursing through my body. And then I spent the next four days practicing with panic.
Not coincidentally, I had a blessing ceremony and celebration event scheduled for the following week to mark the occasion of becoming a teacher in the Koan Zen tradition. I hadn’t been aware of being anything more than mildly anxious about this transition, but my panic showed me that I had been minimizing the largeness of the undertaking of becoming a teacher in this ancient lineage. To step into the role of teaching the dharma is to step into a vast field, which can feel both beautiful and daunting.
As part of the event, I was to deliver a dharma talk to my community. So, I faced a choice. Was I going to pretend the panic wasn’t happening and give a talk on some fine dharma point? Or was I going to allow myself to be intimate with panic, and practice and speak from there?
I looked to the ancestors of our tradition for guidance and inspiration and remembered a poem by the seventeenth-century monk Yinyuan Longqi:
You can’t light a lamp.
There’s no oil in the house.
It’s a shame to want a light.
I have a way to bless this poverty:
Just feel your way along the wall.
And so, for the next four days, I felt my way along the dark wall of anxiety and panic. I practiced in the midst of a pounding heart, with crazy energy running through my body and a strong aversion to these feelings. In the midst of panic, I could feel that it was fundamentally a physical sensation of hyper-arousal and that if I allowed that energy to course, with attention and a minimum of aversion, something interesting happened.
Gradually, I realized that the anxiety was actually tenderizing my heart, making it feel soft and responsive. For a while, it felt like koi fish were swimming and flipping in my heart. I could feel my heart opening in a strong way. I felt connected to other people, seen and unseen, in the experience of anxiety, something we all share. From that place, love and compassion for others just felt natural, like pressing my pounding, tender heart up against the heart of the world. This is the experience of basic vulnerability, from which the vows of the bodhisattva arise spontaneously.
That weekend, I had my blessing ceremony, and I talked to my community about panic dharma, aware that people might be asking themselves, “What kind of Zen teacher has panic attacks?” It’s not easy to feel so exposed; that vulnerability turned me inside out. The ground beneath me felt uncertain as I walked through and with the panic dharma. And—of course—the community embraced me.
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