Monday, 23 February 2009

The Worst Sit Ever

No exaggeration. Well, barely. My wife and I joined our sitting group yesterday morning for our usual Sunday hour-long sit, and I had what has to count as my worst sit ever--and I've been doing this for fifteen years! Perhaps some of my meditating friends out there could help me with their insights.

Here's how it went: I noticed something "wrong" from the start. It usually takes me no more than a few breaths to get settled in, to slow down to meditation speed. Yesterday, though--and for no discernible reason--my heart was pounding at an unusual rate and my breath was jerky and uneven. I tried the usual tactics. Keep breathing, watch the breath. I moved on into metta, the goodwill practice, first for myself, then for family and close friends--I went through all the usual faces--then those I don't know and have no judgment about one way or the other, those I dislike or distrust, those in power, those without it, who are suffering from hunger, disease, or violence. My mind kept wandering, nowhere in particular, and my body was inordinately restless. Legs, arms, neck... I did my best to bring some rest to them with the breath. No luck.

Undeterred, I moved on to my body scan, starting at the centerpoint and working through the abdomen, the flanks, chest and heart, neck, head... and down the back to the legs and down from the shoulders to the fingertips. I could NOT get settled. Neither mind nor body. I ached, literally, to be out of there. Several times, I nearly got up and left. I resorted to measuring the passing minutes against the breath, and every minute seemed like a half-hour. It wasn't as though there was anything particular on my mind--not that I could identify, though I resisted trying to identify it.

Then came the panic. This was perhaps forty minutes into the sit. It manifested first in the form of body heat. I felt my body begin to burn, a kind of fever which intensified into a sweating anxiety. My head kept saying, gotta get out of here. NOW. Fighting the panic, of course, results only in more panic. I had to MOVE. I found small ways to release the tension, a shift in the position of the legs, a slight stretch of the neck. Small comfort. My head began to go into black-out mode... Fearing that I would quite literally and imminently pass out, I leaned forward, placing my head between my knees.

Then it was over. For perhaps no more than the last five minutes of that long, long hour, I managed to find a place of serenity. I began to breathe easy. I managed to let go of everything that had gone before. My mind was content to accept stillness and peace. Then the bell rang. I was never so happy to hear that mellow sound...

I wonder, then, if any of my fellow meditators have had similar experiences? I have, in truth, had minor episodes of this kind in the past--particularly the body heat and, of course, the struggle with the mind and the breath. But never this intense, or this prolonged. I wonder to what extent it might have to do with our current global malaise, about which I'll be posting more tomorrow on my blog, The Buddha Diaries. Have you been losing sleep?


  1. yes, I have been losing sleep.
    I have an experience to share, but it is different.
    I was in panic (I have attacks) and began to meditate to relieve it. I wanted to escape my current place, which was as safe as any, but I wanted to leave so bad. I didn't, and I stuck it out. it was very, very intense and I thought it would never end - but all at once, like a little pop, it was gone.

  2. I have had this happen a few times also. (I also had panic attacks when much younger but not for over 10 years now)It's an indefinable restlessness. And even when I moved it didn't help. In fact the more I moved when this happened the worse it got.
    What it came down to for me was my physical state attempting to emulate my mental state. To relieve some of the anxiety even if I couldn't have said at that moment what that anxiety was about.
    Within a few days something would surface that was apparently, subconciously, "a big deal" and once that manifested then the whole thing stopped.
    Metaphorically I think of it like an underground guyser. And now when I notice such things I set myself into a sort of preparation mode and drop any barriers that are preventing this "big deal" from emerging. Whatever comes then is not inhibited by my fear of it. It's much more gentle that way now. And some of it had to do with fear of what I didn't know about myself. It was a construction of imaginary fear pushing down on fear in memory and something, environmentally, was agitating that memory fear.
    If I have long bouts of insomnia, such as from jet lag, it is hard to set up the conditions to receive and process fearful things either from within or without.
    One has to then be compassionate with one's self and remove a lot of overstimulating things from the environment. And one may have to ask others just to back off a little as well. Structured exercise (like Tai Chi or Yoga) can help a little too.
    That's how I deal with it and such things have become rare.
    I hope some of this is of assistance.

  3. Ah yes, I think most people have been in this territory.

    Here is my completely uninvited advice. Don't try to change what comes up, don't judge what comes up or more accurately, when you judge it just see the judgment as judging thoughts and don't get caught up in believing it as reality or as you. Just see it clearly without getting involved. Don't try to run away.

    Anxiety is anxiety, peace is peace. Just see them clearly don't chase anything.

  4. Run away. Sit. Judge. Be okay with... any one of those is just a position. So, you had a "bad sit." And that means something more (or even different) than when you have a "good" one?

  5. Panic attacks can happen as you genuinely relax.

    Panic attacks can also happen when the self feels like it is not in control or it feels that it's grip is slipping.

    Panic attacks can happen if subconsciously you are afraid to relax.

    It happens. It doesn't mean anything good or bad.

    But whilst you want your Zazen to be a certain way I think you are entirely missing the point.

  6. I had panic attacks years ago too, and one about a year back. Never while meditating though.

    There are two routes to addressing this if it seems to be a broader problem: internally and externally. Externally, look to see if there is undue chaos in your life now that can be eliminated. Yes, there is planetary malaise, but see what you can do about it and focus on that (worry not about what you cannot change, says Shantideva).

    Internally, a panic can signify the mind/ego losing control and fighting this letting go. Ask why, in your case, this is happening? Is there something unresolved psychologically that the ego feels stuck to? In my case last year it was trying to make a failing relationship work: the deep knowledge that it wouldn't and the ego's clinging manifested in a horrible 3+ hour panic attack.

    It took me a while to be able to look back and see that this is what caused it, though.

  7. As a new meditator, it gives me some comfort to know that this can happen to a long-time meditator - takes the pressure off, somehow. I'm glad you were able to get the 5 minutes of respite at the end :)