Nights of Terror

Seven Days of One Long Moment

The question—which I’ve asked on this website before—is: what is the nameless dread that I feel before sesshin begins, the fear that periodically grips me in the pit of my stomach?  What am I afraid of?

I seemed to have less of it this year.  I had uneasy moments, but didn’t have the three weeks of heavy dread I usually do.  I had a lot of responsibility in this sesshin—I was the Director and the Ino—but had plenty of time and was well-organized.  I didn’t have a difficult sitting in the first three days, even in the late afternoon, my usual difficult time.  But on that third night—Monday night, after starting on Friday—I woke up at 2:00 in the morning with a terrific panic attack, my heart pounding, breathing shallow and ragged—the more I tried to deepen it, the worse things got—my body rigid with tension.

There was no particular thought content—I wasn’t thinking about how hard sesshin was—but seemed to be having a medical emergency, kept thinking, Oh my God, what are they going to do without me?  The list of doans was skimpy as it was.  I got up to walk into the bathroom and see how I looked (dreadful, in a word, my face a mask of fear) and by the time I returned my wife was awake.  She took my hand—“Your hand’s clammy,” she said—and I started to shake.  It was uncontrollable, like the worst chills of my life.  “You’re discharging,” she said.  “This is good.  This is great.  You need to get rid of this tension.”  She continued to hold my hand, gave it a little squeeze.  “Isn’t it fun?”

Her lighthearted attitude was helpful, and she was completely right in what she was saying.  But no, fun was not the word I would have used.

I shook uncontrollably for five minutes.

Perhaps I’d somehow suppressed my fear for weeks—I certainly didn’t mean to—and now it was coming back with a vengeance.  Or perhaps I’d been holding things together on sesshin when what I needed to do was let go.

(I might mention that I’m not the only person ever to have such an experience.  And while you’re reading that article, you should check out this one, one of my all-time favorites.)

I was ten years old when I had my first taste of this terror.  That was when my spiritual journey began (I was a precocious lad).  I had a period of time at that age when I couldn’t sleep, began to ask myself the unanswerable questions that I’m still asking today: what is life?  what is death? What happens when we die?  I’d been taught that I would go to heaven when I died, and always pictured myself hanging out with my family, mostly my grandmother, my favorite family member.  I imagined us sitting around talking in some sylvan setting.  But one night I suddenly asked myself: what the hell would we talk about, after the first twenty minutes or so?  What would we say?  We’d be there for eternity?  What would we do?

I pictured myself as a disembodied spirit (though I would have looked exactly the way I did as a fat little ten year old.  Actually, come to think of it, let’s take about fifteen pounds of unsightly flab off that spiritual body) who could take off and sail through the cosmos, but that didn’t seem so great either.  The universe was infinite; there was no end to it.  You just kept going and kept going?  How did you get back?  Where was back?  Where was home?  How did you find your way around, when there was no limit to anything?  Infinite time, infinite space, it all suddenly seemed horrifying.  Heaven wasn’t looking too good.

A few years later, when I read Pascal and his most famous quotation—“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me”—I thought, Hey man, I know what you mean.

It was actually quite helpful to know someone else felt that way.  (He was also the man who said, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”)

I think that’s what we’re facing when we sit zazen, especially in sesshin.  That vast, eternal, infinite moment, all day long.  There’s a three hour stretch at the end of the afternoon, as the day is waning, that is especially intense for me.  I dread that part of the day the most.

Yet I continue to sit sesshin because it makes my daily difficulties much lighter.  The fears I feel about other things seem much diminished after I’ve faced these larger questions.  Sesshin makes my life better, I have no doubt.  And there’s no avoiding the unanswerable questions.  That vast eternal moment is where we live.  We fill our days with mindless busyness, but sooner or later we stop and notice.

I had a sudden realization this year—not long before sesshin began—that all those means of avoidance, sex, drugs, and rock and roll (whatever combination of those things you like) were not really what I wanted.  What I wanted was whatever practice focuses on, unity with what is, with my deepest self, unity with God.  I could see clearly that, when I’d thought I wanted to connect with a woman, the thing I really wanted was much larger.  I used to think of meditation as something I did to moderate my bad habits, keep me from running amok.  Now I see it wasn’t a cure for anything.  It was the thing I actually wanted.  Even if I am sometimes afraid of it.

It is in this sense, I think, that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.