Recently I received an email from a British woman saying, “I just wanted to say thank you. I found your loving-kindness metta meditation on iTunes and when I have a panic attack, its one of the only things that brings me back from the brink of all the negative emotions I experience. Thank you so much for posting this, it has really helped me!”
When I read it, I was truly surprised because metta is not usually the first meditation practice I teach patients who seek help for panic disorders and severe anxiety. I loved her phrase, “back from the brink of all the negative emotions.” It is so expressive of the actual experience of panic, which can feel like desperately trying to stave off a complete loss of control of fearfulness. And this person really pegged the actual phenomena of panic in the mind: an emotional storm that grips the ego into complete fixation upon a mental fantasy of imminent annihilation that is not actually occurring in reality.
Normally like many of my colleagues, I begin by improving a patient’s mental skill of presence in the here and now. Orienting them away from the habitual false, negative, anxious mental narration of experience and toward direct perception of the actual here and now body and environment reality perceived through the five sense doors. Being able to discern what is and what is not and whether emotional responses are generated by associative memories arising in response to phenomena or by the actual phenomena themselves, is a key part of healing panic disorder.
Those of you who are Buddhist practitioners will recognize this skill as mindfulness. Eventually, one can direct this mindful awareness to the actual mental and emotional contents of mind as they arise and pass away, seeing the habit mind in action; proliferating negative, fearful narrative thoughts about experience that overwhelm the here and now accurate perceptive capacity of mind. This clear-seeing of panic-laden and anxiety-producing habit thoughts reveals them to be nothing more than thoughts, much the way the Wizard of Oz was ultimately revealed to be no more than a small man with very little power. When we know distressing thoughts and emotions as they are, we are liberated from their awful grip.
Mingyur Rinpoche retells his personal journey of healing childhood panic disorder in the book, The Joy of Living. “And ultimately, I realize, this is exactly what happened when I sat alone in my retreat room trying to overcome the anxiety that had made me so uncomfortable throughout my childhood. Simply looking at what was going on in my mind actually changed what was going on there.”Metta practice is different from mindfulness and adds something so powerful to healing anxiety. It opens the way for greater connection with our basic kindness: something most people who suffer with anxiety do not feel very often, especially toward themselves. When we see ourselves as human beings deserving of care, and actively send wishes for increased goodness, health, happiness, and ease, we naturally become more caring toward ourselves. The virtues of patience, kindness, generosity and openness are not fertile ground for anxiety to grow. So I can see how metta would absolutely bring one back from the brink of negative emotions and I thank this wonderful woman for opening my eyes to this beautiful use of the healing power of loving-kindness.
You can download my metta meditations from the free mindfulness meditations link.