Untying the Knots of Existential Panic


Sometimes a lot of things intersect and make quite a tangle as I’ve illustrated a couple of posts back. It’s not usually possible to think one’s way out of those situations. Everything seems immediate, overwhelming and sharply painful.

When one tends to dig deep into the psyche, sometimes through practice and sometimes because of circumstances, stuff gets unearthed. Sometimes it’s a bit of a surprise rather like what happens if one tries to catch a falling piano. Even if you see it coming that’s not going to change the results.

One can try to step aside, however one has to keep moving pretty fast all the time because that suspended piano with one’s name on it is going to come down sooner or later.

That’s a state I call existential panic.

Existential panic comes when we are confronted with our own delusions, idealism, misunderstanding, frustration and tangled up existential state. It happens when we encounter something that seems beyond reason or our experience or our tolerance or even sanity. It has everything to do with our interface with the world. It has everything to do with dualism and perceptions of separateness. It’s real easy to say “We are One.’ or other such maudlin platitudes. And it’s possible to pretend we know that is true. And even if we do know that’s true in an ultimate way there is still the fact that we have to deal with relative existence, which is all about negotiating those shifting interfaces. Negotiating illusions, both our own and those of others is sometimes a rather harrowing experience when you really get into it.

Existential panic is usually based in fear. It is a reaction to fear which can involve any of anger, disgust, disbelief, rejection, an extreme sense of aloneness, nihilism or other forms of distress.

There’s an awful lot of existential panic going on in the world right now as more and more people feel pushed into a corner from which there doesn’t appear to be any escape. We can watch or hear people like Glenn Beck (and many others) who make money from pandering to these sentiments, and have an utter meltdown, either because we believe the panic mongering (not only fear mongering) or we can’t believe the outrageousness and audacity. There are ex-mayors freaking out about a mosque-that’s-not-a-mosque-in-a-place-that’s-not-the-place-they-say-it-is, employees jumping out of airplanes with beer in hand, parents unable to care for their children so deciding to kill them, protesters and police co-provoking panic behavior, suicides of farmers who can’t pay their debts, nurses suicides because of the conflict between self-care and other-care.

Existential panic is about confronting the contradictions of existence that we face daily. These are not only contradictions between what we believe and reality. They are often contradictions between several competing beliefs we may hold simultaneously or within the realm of relative experience itself that have to be resolved. There are often multiple vectors to be parsed at once.

A major part of the Buddhist endeavor is to continually try to untie these knots of existential panic. To find ways to negotiate the tangles that both hold us in apparently fixed positions and separate us from others who are dealing with their own tangles and panics.

After the initial rush of panic, wherein thinking is fairly far down the list of responses, what I opted to do was to sit down and just let it come. We might find in that case that it has the heft of a real piano or we might discover that it is an origami piano. Hard to know until it hits.

A lot of times we mistake what we are feeling, if it is labeled “negative” as some kind of failure. This is like destructive self-talk “If I’m not feeling happy right now then I’ve failed.” That’s ridiculous. But there are as many happy-zombies who are more than willing to add to one’s current burdens with “You shouldn’t feel like that.” as there are those who proclaim “You should feel worse because the whole world is going to Hell.” Both those extremes are insensitive, unrealistic, denial laden and highly unbalanced.

In general I’m not a very panic prone person. My first reaction to most situations is to ascertain what needs to be done and then proceed to do it. But that doesn’t mean I’m immune to it by any means. No one is.

I’ll tell you the first time I encountered existential panic. It was when I was about 5 years old. Like many, though certainly not all, children I had the secure notion that the world was a completely ideal and safe place. I didn’t know about “really bad things”.

Then someone gave me a record (vinyl) of the story of Bambi. Now I was used to stories. Had encountered the very worst of the brothers Grimm without incident. It was a little scary but also kind of funny.

Then I listened to that record and was shocked. Some person killed Bambi’s mom. I couldn’t believe such a thing would happen. This was different than the story books because I knew that deer were real. I had seen them. I went into an existential panic. I listened to that record a couple of hundred times. I kept expecting that someone would interrupt the story and tell me they had made a mistake.

The thing is, I had the same reaction on Sept. 11, 2001. I was watching TV at my sister’s house, planning to get on my plane the next day to go home. Then I saw the footage of the planes hitting the buildings in New York. I watched it again and again hoping someone would interrupt the story and tell me it was all a mistake.

Not all existential panics involve large scale communal events. They do however involve fairly major internal disruptions to our world views.

There are a lot of techniques for emotional management available from the psychology front. But in the moments of existential panic they are fairly useless because what you are attempting to manage is in the process of being turned upside-down. Sometimes we have to just hold on in that circumstance until we can get our heads above water enough to view how the landscape has shifted.

It is by sitting still that we find what it is that can be held on to at that moment. It’s not always the same thing! There are no permanent hand-rails with which to steady ourselves. But sometimes there is some kind of scaffolding or detour signs or something provided we are willing to look that panic in the eye.

The other night I had a dream about giant owls. They were real owls, about 4 feet high, not mechanical or cartoon owls. 3 or 4 of them were standing before me in some quiet rural place. This was fairly surprising. We all just stood there and looked at each other. They didn’t attempt to fly away and I didn’t attempt to run away. I don’t usually pay much attention to dreams as they are often rehashing stuff encountered in the day.  This was a little different though. It was like a photograph yet was alive. It had a certain David Lynch quality to it actually.

There’s a phrase that’s used locally about owls  उल्लू का बीज Ulluu ka beej,  lit. seed of an owl, fig. son of an owl which means a foolish or stupid person. Owls in the part of India where I live, are thought to be foolish because of the way they sit around, turn their heads and blink incredulously going “Woo, woo” to everything.

This is quite a contrast to the notion of the wise old owl that comes from European cultures.

What I got from this little owlish encounter was an indication to sit down and look around. That there was more depth to things than first appearances or particular encounters provide. That explanations are not always immediately available. That things are not as they appear and are also often exactly as they appear….I could go on. And at the time there was a certain wisdom to all of that.

That’s what I mean by some indication of required action in the midst of panic. From the source of the panic also can come the solution to it. It’s a question of being willing to accept that possibility.

piano Walking in the shadow of the falling origami piano.

Charlotte Joko Beck talks about related matters here:

Musical Interlude

Chaiyya Chaiyya (written by the great A.R. Rahman and based on a Sufi folk song-check the link). From the movie Dil Se-(and later in the American movie Inside Man) This one has the lyrics onscreen in English-and of course the choreography is outstanding as well as the great Shahrukh Khan in the lead role.


jinke sar ho ishq ki chha.nh
He whose head is in the shadow of love…

pao.n ke niiche jannat hogi
will have heaven beneath his feet.

jinke sar ho ishq ki chha.nh
Whose head is in the shadow of love…

chal chhaiyya
Walk in the shadow.

pao.n jannat chale chal chhaiyyan
Walk in heaven, walk in the shadow.

vo yaar hai jo khushbuu kii tarah
There’s a friend who is like a sweet fragrance,

jiskii zabaan Urdu kii tarah
whose words are like poetry (lit. Urdu, the language of poetry),

merii shaam raat merii qainaat
who is my evening, my night, my existence.

vo yaar mera saiyya saiyya
That friend is my beloved!


gulposh kabhii itarae kahii.n
Sometimes (my beloved) flirts like a flower,

mahake to nazar aa jaa’e kahii.n
so fragrantly that you may see her scent.

taawiiz banake pahanuu.n use
Having made it into an charm, I will wear it.

aayat kii tarah mil jaaye kahin
She shall be obtained as a miracle is obtained.

mera nagama vahii.n mera qalama vahii.n
She is my song, my declaration of faith
(kalama: the Muslim confession of faith, as in, “la ilaaha il allaah” – “there is no God but Allah”).

(vo yaar hai jo imaam ki tarah)
(My friend is like a priest to me.)

mera nagama nagama mera qalama qalama
My song… my declaration of faith…

yaar misale.n os chale
She moves like the dew.

paon ke tale phirdaus chale
She walks with the garden of heaven beneath her feet,

kabhii Daal Daal kabhii paat paat
sometimes through the branches, sometimes amidst the leaves.

mai.n hawa pe DHuu.nDHuu.n us ke nishaan
I shall search the wind for her trail!


mai.n uske ruup ka sedaaii
I trade in her beauty.

vo dhuup chhaa.nho.n sa harjaaii
Fickle, she flits shamelessly from sun to shade.

vo shokh ra.ng badalta hai
She changes her bright colors;

mai.n ra.ng ruup ka saudaaii
I negotiate that as well.

jinke sar ho ishq ki chha.nh
He whose head is in the shadow of love…

pao.n ke niiche jannat hogi
will have heaven beneath his feet.

jinke sar ho ishq ki chha.nh
Whose head is in the shadow of love…

chal chhaiyya
Walk in the shadow.

pao.n jannat chale chal chhaiyyan
Walk in heaven, walk in the shadow.

By NellaLou Tagged

3 comments on “Untying the Knots of Existential Panic

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Untying the Knots of Existential Panic « Smiling Buddha Cabaret -- Topsy.com

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