Panic on the Cushion

Several years ago, at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, I attended a five-day Advanced Training in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for Depression. MBCT is an evidence- based intervention designed to prevent recurrence in people who suffer from recurrent depression. The setting was serene, central Massachusetts in late summer. The grounds were lush and alive with the natural sounds of summer; yet it was so very quiet. I could feel my breath slow each time I entered the meditation hall. The two teachers were skillful and ten other students were a congenial.

The training was a combination of mindfulness practice, instruction, and role-playing.

I felt I was in the right place.

On the second day, in the middle of the afternoon, the sun was streaming through the windows of the meditation hall, reflecting off the wood floor, the room was warm as I sat on my zafu, legs crossed in front of me. Breathe in, breathe out. Only this time instead of my breath slowing, my breath quickened. Breathe in, breathe out. Still quickening…heart pounding…sweat beading on my face.

I must be sick. I’ve got to get out of here.

And then it dawned on me.

I’m not sick. This is panic. For some reason I was having a panic attack in this beautiful, calm, serene space.

While I’m not prone to panic attacks, I certainly was able to recognize what this was.

And so I chose to stay and sit through it. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

I found my breath again and again and the panic passed. I have no idea how much time elapsed, but there I was breathing normally, my heart was no longer pounding and the sweat was gone.

The intense difficulty of the panic had moved past…like the clouds in the sky or the sticks in the river. The impermanence of panic. It was a powerful and good lesson.


~Claire Weiner