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Buddhadharma : Fall 2015
88 buDDhaDharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2 0 1 5 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 run- ning 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 becom- ing 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 prac- tice and speak from there? I looked to the ancestors of our tradition for guidance and inspiration and remem- bered a poem by the seventeenth-century monk Yinyuan Longqi: MEgan runDEL is the resident teacher at the Crimson gate Meditation Community in Oakland, California. journeys in a panic by megan rundel 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 sensa- tion 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 peo- ple, 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, ten- der 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 cere- mony, 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 com- munity embraced me.