Get Me Outta Here: Panic as a Spiritual Practice

Going Buddhist: Panic and Emptiness, the Buddha and Me by Peter J Conradi.  Short Books.  183 pp.

I had high hopes for this book, which I found when I was farting around on the Internet after reading a review of Iris Murdoch’s letters.  The author was a friend of Murdoch’s and became her official biographer.  The book opens with a conversation with Murdoch, who apparently had an interest in Buddhism and meditation, though she never pursued it.  Conradi, on the other hand, became a full-fledged Shambhala Buddhist, has done a number of one-month retreats, and is widely read in the literature of Buddhism.  He writes well, if a little offhandedly.  And he begins winningly, talking about the panic attacks he began having early in life, when he faced a kind of existential crisis.  He read his first Buddhist book—Chogyam Trungpa’s Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism—“in one tearful sitting.”  I don’t know whether they were tears of panic or relief.

He picked well in that first book; no one has written about fear better than Trungpa.  And I sympathize, as someone who experienced panic attacks in my early adulthood, and who has dealt with fear throughout my life of practice.  Unfortunately, Conradi moved almost immediately to an intellectual defense of Buddhism instead of saying more about his panic.  He seemed to anticipate an intellectual attack.  Toward the end of the book, in a chapter on conversations with Murdoch, and one about his retreats, he gets back to his own experience.  Elsewhere—weirdly, for a Buddhist—he seems way up in his head, talking about Buddhist theory.  Buddhism centers on experience.  The Buddha emphasized experience in the Kalama Sutta (where he said that we aren’t to accept any teaching until we know it by our own experience), and the great Zen Masters—by whacking people in the head and overfilling their teacups—kept trying to get people into their experience, and away from concepts.

I have written elsewhere about what I see as the source of our anxiety and panic.  I’ve written at some length about my efforts to deal with it.  Along with compulsive eating and compulsive sexuality, it’s the problem that has come up for me most often on retreat.  And both of those specific problems have their source in anxiety itself.  As Pascal said—puzzlingly when I first heard it, but it’s made more sense the longer I’ve practiced—most human problems result from the fact that we cannot sit alone in a room.  When we’re on a silent retreat, though we’re surrounded by others, we’re essentially alone, which is the genius of retreat.  There are people around to help if you flip out.  But you’re essentially alone.

You have a golden opportunity to face the essential human problem.

The time I most vividly remember facing it was at my first sesshin at the Chapel Hill Zen Center, in 1995.  That is the place—along with the Insight Meditation Society—where I have most faced this climbing-the-walls feeling of please get me out of here or I’ll go out of my mind.  I was doing walking meditation around that small zendo, felt the room shrink all around me.  Right then, the bell rang for the teacher to see me.

Otherwise I might have bolted.

Larry Rosenberg told me that, on one retreat, he ran outside during a break and fell to the earth, clutching the ground, just wanting to get in touch with the solid world, away from his spinning mind.  And Mel Weitsman said that, during one early sesshin, perhaps his first, he walked out of the San Francisco Zen Center.  He couldn’t stand any more zazen, walked the streets of San Francisco for a while.  He came to the realization, he said, that there was nothing to do but zazen.  He went back and sat down.  Nobody said anything to him about it.

That’s essentially what my teacher, Josho Pat Phelan,  told me.  She told me first that our greatest problem, our besetting problem, the thing that drives us the most nuts when we sit, is actually our greatest gift.  That’s the thing that will enable us to awaken.  In Soto Zen, the emphasis is finding the fear in your body.  Where is that in your body? is the question she has most often asked me through the years.  The problem seems to be in the mind, where the panic is happening.  The real problem—when we’re longing to get out of the zendo—is that we can’t get out of our mind.  To switch our attention to the body is disarming, and rather startling.  But if you’re experiencing fear, something is happening in the body too.

We eventually find that any mind state, any strong emotion, is composed of two things: feelings in the body and proliferating thoughts in the mind.  My thoughts were incredibly rapid, noisy, and centered on one theme—get me out of here or I’ll lose my mind!—and the physical sensations were some variation of the fight or flight response, heart pounding, hands sweating, stomach clenched.  There wasn’t much I could do with the thoughts.  The physical sensations were uncomfortable, and all I could do was endure them.  As I did that they changed, got more painful, less painful, got numb.  They were constantly changing.

The thing that Zen practice does—though I hate the word, having spent too much time around English departments—is to deconstruct your experience.  You find that this thing you’ve been calling FEAR is made up of proliferating thoughts and uncomfortable physical feelings.  The practice is to let go of the thoughts—you don’t ignore them, exactly, but you don’t feature them—and come back to the feelings.  That builds up space around the thoughts.  Maybe it’s not a shrinking phone booth you’re in; maybe it’s a room.  Maybe it’s a big room.  Maybe it’s an auditorium.  Maybe it’s a football stadium.  If you’re not chasing the thoughts around in a hamster cage, if you’re not focused on them, they’re not such a problem.  And you begin to see that, however uncomfortable the physical feelings, you can sit with them.  You can do that.

If you can let the thoughts be (eventually you’ve seen them so many times that they’re garbage) and sit with the feelings (you know you can sit with them, because you’ve done it for hours, days, weeks) then you’re free of fear.  Maybe it’s not perfect freedom, but it’s getting there.  What you wanted is not to feel fear.  What you’ve learned is to feel it and not be bothered by it.  That’s what real freedom is.

It’s the same with any emotion, anger, sadness, loneliness, you name it.  If you can sit with it, you’re free of it.  That’s what I was hoping Conradi would say, and he does get to it a little, at the end.  Most of the time he gets stuck in that intellectual defense of Buddhism.  Who needs that?

I think that the duo of Shunryu Suzuki and Chogyam Trungpa, who were great friends in life while they knew each other, form a complete teaching, especially if you include the people that surrounded them, like Kobun Chino, Dainin Katagiri, Pema Chodron, Reginald Ray.  Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior is the best description of lay Buddhist life, the life of a householder, that I’ve ever read.  It’s a complete teaching in itself, perfect for a Zen practitioner.  And though Soto Zen focuses on the body, the best explanation of doing that is in Reginald Ray’s book of Tibetan teachings Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body.

I often reflect on how lucky I am to live at a time when these teachings are available, and when, somehow, I was able to find them.  It’s been the best luck of my life.