On his blog The Buddha Diaries peteratlarge wrote a post called The Worst Sit Ever about a difficulty he experienced during mediation. You can read the full description of his predicament there but briefly it was something akin to a panic attack. He felt his heart racing, difficulty breathing and a strong urge to escape from the situation.
I left a comment there that I want to reproduce here and amplify a bit.
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 started as an indefinable restlessness. And a sense that movement was necessary. This sensation became increasingly urgent. But 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. The body and mind are not two different things. To relieve some of the anxiety within, to escape from it seemed very important 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, subconsciously, “a big deal” and once that manifested then the whole thing would slow down and stop.
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.
When this situation continues for some time it gets into a basic fight or flight response. The animal part of the brain. There is some perceived threat from which one wants to escape. Even in peaceful surroundings this sense of threat can appear.
When we do mediation, after some years of clearing away superficial clutter, some of the deeper things make themselves known. Because we have not been aware of them they seem very ominous and as if they are coming out of “nowhere”. But they are coming out of imagination and memory mixed with whatever current life situation one is experiencing. Even so they can be scary and we can feel fearful if we don’t understand their origins. And even understanding that, such events can be unpleasant.
This is where a well-trained, experienced and skillful teacher can give some guidance. And if there are issues emerging that are extremely troubling some counseling to help come to terms with them on a psychological level beyond the spiritual level can be helpful.
This kind of thing happens frequently to people with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and many do not have the benefit of meditaiton. As I said in a comment on this blog a while back I was in a relationship for 14 years (9 of those married) with someone with serious PTSD so have some understanding of this kind of issue from that perspective.
But one doesn’t necessarily have PTSD just because a meditation “event” occurs. It just means your practice is moving to the next level. And sometimes outside events can cause these shifts as well.
For example, if I have long bouts of insomnia, such as from jet lag, I notice a certain amount of agitation starting up and it is harder 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.
Everyone’s got to find their own way to deal with this kind of thing but it is a common experience so it doesn’t mean you’re going crazy or something. As I said though if it becomes so troublesome that it affects your everyday activity or becomes debilitating take some counselling to transition through it.