Saturday, November 12, 2011

No Need For Panic

Sitting this morning, I found a succession of short, shallow breaths. The underline panic I have been feeling lately is still there, threatening to take over if I am not careful. 

Thirty years ago, standing on the sidewalk right by the Chicago L station, I encountered such breath, and not knowing, I gave in. Pretty soon, it felt as if I could no longer breathe. I was having a heart attack I thought and I called my doctor. He had me count until one hundred, without much success. The iron corset got even tighter, and I ended up in the ER. I got hooked up on the EKG machine. My heart was perfectly fine. I had just had a panic attack. 

Since that day, I have had a predisposition to panic. And I have learned ways to be with it. For a long time, I relied on the combined power of positive self-talk, belly breathing, and distraction. It worked. Somewhat.

What has really helped has been mindfulness practice, and particularly a deeper understanding of the role of one's attitude towards the panic itself. 

The Buddha himself has been my greatest teacher in that respect:

"Breathing in long he knows ‘I am breathing in long.’ 
Breathing in short he knows ‘I am breathing in short.’  
Breathing out long he knows ‘I am breathing out long.’ 
Breathing out short he knows ‘I am breathing in short.’ 

He trains himself ‘breathing in, I experience the whole body.’ 
‘breathing out, I experience the whole body.’ 
He trains himself, ‘breathing in, I calm the bodily formation.’ 
‘breathing out, I calm the bodily formation.’" 

~ Anapanasati Sutta ~

Breathing in short, I know 'I am breathing in short' . . . Breathing out short, I know 'I am breathing out short' . . . Breathing in, I experience the tightness around the chest . . . Breathing out, I experience the tightness around the chest . . . Breathing in, I make room for shallow breath, and tightness, and the possibility of maybe relaxing a bit . . . Breathing out, I continue to make room for the whole experience . . . I also include a more neutral experience in the body, such as the sensations in my hands or feet, giving mind a break from the breath. Then returning again to the breath . . . Breathing in short, I know 'I am breathing in short' . . . 

From this acceptance, the tight corset starts relaxing, giving breath more space to fill in the lungs, and mind a chance to calm down.

Such a subtle, and important shift.

Not panicking about the panic!


  1. It is funny how panic continues to be a part of my life after so many years. At 18 I had my first terrible bouts with panic, thought I was having a heart attack too. Spent a night in the cardiac care unit but everything was fine. A doctor told me I should learn to meditate as back then there weren't the drugs there are now. I took a tm class and it helped. I'm 54 now and I've been on Paxil for many years, and just recently I've been having trouble again. I know meditation helps just can't seem to keep it up consistently. Every time I start feeling those awful feelings I wonder if I can take it this time or if this time I'll decide I'm done with it.

  2. All is interconnected. So you are doing great work for us all. Thanks!

  3. To Anonymous #1,

    I do not believe one can totally rid oneself of an anxious predisposition. Years of dwelling in the hindrance of anxiety cannot be done away that easily. One can learn to live with it however and not become at odds with it. Are you familiar with Mingyur Rinpoche's talk and writings on panic? Very good (and funny):

    I get a bit concerned when I read 'I wonder if I can take it this time or if this time I'll decide I'm done with it.' I hope you are getting professional help.

    May you be at peace, may you be at ease.


  4. How easy we can lean towards panic when things don't appear as we would like. Again look up at these moments, get your vision off of the horizon and the focus on the chaos of life. Look at the sky or even the ceiling, and sigh, and gradually bring your head back to he horizon. I was booking and trying to find someone to store water in, just before the flood hit and found myself in one pointed focus, so absurdly wanted it all done now, so I could feel safe...and laughed...we are never really safe, it is an illusion.

  5. So true! Anxiety and panic, its most extreme form, are just manifestations of deluded mind. Of course, that contemplation alone helps very little. Most powerful is this kind of right view combined with embodied moment to moment practice and investigation.

    As far as not being safe, you out of all people should know . . . Life is a bitch, really, and the only safety is in the deep acceptance of that truth. Nothing to be relied on, only the certainty of death.

  6. what does death mean?

  7. This post was so salient for me as I have suffered off and on with anxiety that has left me feeling very close to death though not in reality but in my mind and fear. Mindfulness, especially sitting meditation, has been the only thing that has helped ease the energy of anxiety from within me... thank you for this beautiful reminder!

  8. 'beginner', not sure what you mean in your question . . .

    I meant death, that's all.

  9. Jyoti, yes, mindfulness practice is the one that encompasses all others and defies even most powerful psychological hindrances such as anxiety or panic. Only other helpful adjunct in some cases is one on one psychotherapy to uproot some deeply held emotions or beliefs from earlier trauma.