If you’ve ever experienced a panic or anxiety attack,* you know how terrifying one can be. The worst one I’ve ever had occurred in graduate school – in the middle of an in-class research presentation! – where I actually fainted and was taken to the hospital.
For those who haven’t had them, it sort of feels like all my nerve endings are buzzing with (too much) energy – I often feel tingling in my extremities, light-headed or a fuzzy-brain feeling, rapid heart rate and breathing, a cold sweat with energy emanating from my chest… The worst part – especially the first few times they occur – is that it can feel like I’m having a seizure or a heart attack. Of course, that thought doesn’t really help with calming down!
Dealing with anxiety has been a long process of learning how to better take care of myself, and contemplative prayer and meditation are a major pillar of the practices I’ve learned in order to support my mental, spiritual, and physical health. (Other essential pillars have included getting help – intentionally investing in healthy relationships [and in some cases, letting go of unhealthy ones], therapy, some medication, a supportive recovery group, among other things.)
By the grace of God, it’s been several years since I’ve had any anxiety attacks. But things built up again recently, between pressures at work, buying a house and moving (probably not getting enough sleep), and just generally driving myself too hard (my Enneagram typology is One). A couple of weeks ago I began to have attacks again. This time around I knew it wasn’t a seizure, and I knew I could get through it. So I canceled my appointments for that day, scheduled an appointment with my primary care doc, and headed to the YMCA hot tub to relax.
As I sat in the hot tub, I felt these waves of energy that were pouring through me, emanating from this tight, fearful energy in my chest out toward my fingers, toes, and head. My first reaction was to clamp down, to try to make it stop – to resist (because it’s painful). But that actually just increases the internal pressure that contributes to the stress of anxiety. At one point the following notion just clicked into my mind – “OK, this is the time to practice. What would happen if I just brought some basic mindfulness to this experience? Or what if I practice the Welcoming Prayer right now?” This shifted my focus from panic to curiosity. Interestingly, the sensations in my body did not change, but the way that I engaged and experienced them did.
The Welcoming Prayer is often used as a companion to Centering Prayer, though it could be done by anyone. It’s a way to bring our “intention to consent to the presence and action of God” into daily life – into all those moments outside of a formal practice. (You can stream or download my guided Welcoming Prayer meditation for free below, or in the Insight Timer app.) It follows three basic movements:
- Feel and sink into what you are experiencing this moment in your body.
- Welcome what you are experiencing this moment in your body as an opportunity to consent to the Divine Indwelling.
- Let go by saying “I let go of my desire for security, affection, control, and embrace this moment as it is.”
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I won’t claim that doing this was a magic bullet. There were real issues and challenges in my professional and personal life that I needed to face in order to address the root causes of my anxiety and fear. And more importantly, the purpose of contemplative prayer or meditation is not primarily about health; the purpose is to seek communion with God, with all Reality, in all things and all experiences. Rather, health (and all the other well-documented benefits of meditation), are secondary effects of opening to the healing power of God’s grace (or of enlightenment, liberation, salvation, etc.). If we lose that focus, there’s a danger of trying to make our contemplative practice into something that serves the ego’s selfish desires, rather than a practice that liberates us from the illusion that our desires are the most important thing in the world.
Laurence Freeman, OSB, Director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, captures the way in which meditation is not a magic bullet, not a way of avoiding reality, but rather a new way of entering into reality as it is:
The purpose of meditation is not primarily to get rid of all your distractions. You may have moments free of distractions which might bring you to some pure prayer. But that isn’t the way you judge your meditation. If you’re busy and running around all day and you’ve got your problems to deal with, you will have distractions, some times more than others. So don’t judge your meditation by your distractions.
– Fr. Laurence Freeman, OSB, Map of the Journey
So bringing some mindfulness – aided by the Welcoming Prayer – into and through an anxiety attack changed the way I engaged in that painful experience. It opened some space where I didn’t need to clamp down into that “small self” that resists reality and increases suffering. This didn’t immediately stop the attack (although it may have lessened its intensity and length?), and it’s no guarantee that I won’t have them again in the future. But it did show me one small way in which a regular contemplative practice changes the way I engage in the “distractions” that come up in daily life.
This letting go, this making room for grace amid every moment and every experience, is a life-long habit. That’s why we speak about contemplative “practice.” It’s a daily discipline – ideally a discipline of getting your butt onto the cushion, chair, or mat a couple of times a day, but even if that means just taking two minutes in your office or when you get into your car. Grace is always working on us, transforming us, and often it’s in unexpected moments – even in the middle of a panic attack – that we just might get a glimpse how deeply we’re being transformed.
*Some make a distinction between anxiety and panic attacks, but for this post I’m using the terms interchangeably.