A Five-Step Antidote for Panic

The five-step program Moses and God proposed together at the edge of the Red Sea is not just an exercise in theology. At its base it is a very practical program for meeting those times in life when we know we have to do something but have no idea what to do, those moments of panic when we feel life pressing in on us without presenting us with either a safe escape route or a reasonable alternative. Time and time again, I have urged this program on people who find themselves in such circumstances, and I have found that it works. It works in both macro- and microcosm. We can use this to come to terms with the various impossibilities in our lives over a long period of time, but it also works for short-term emergencies.

We find ourselves in a terrible dilemma and we are appropriately frightened. We know something must be done, but we have no idea what to do and this terrifies us. So (1) al tira-u —we stop running away from our fear, we stop letting our fear push us around. We say to ourselves, I feel frightened now, but I have faith that there is nothing to be frightened of, that the calamities I imagine might happen are just that—just products of my overly fertile imagination.

Then (2) hityatzvu —we make a stand, we stand still, we reconstruct ourselves, we collect our awareness, we bring it in from the many corners of mind where it has scattered in its terror; we let go of our terror and we allow the world to reconstitute itself. We can do this in meditation, bringing our awareness out of the peripheral corners of mind and into the center with the momentum of the in-breath, or we can do it wherever we happen to be, whenever this kind of panic arises, simply closing our eyes for a moment and reconstituting ourselves, drawing our awareness into the center as we breath in.

Then (3) uru —we see our experience for what it really is. Collected and free of panic, the mind perceives our experience with clarity. It sees what is, the moment that has just come into being and not some fearful product of our panic and our imagination. 

Then (4) tacharishun —we come to the point of stillness. When we are flush with our experience, a wonderful stillness ensues. It is a reflection of our stillness of mind, a stillness that comes when the mind is no longer being pulled back and forth between what is and what we imagine.

So we have stopped panicking, we have gathered ourselves together, we have brought our awareness in from all the corners where it has scattered itself out of fear, and we have allowed the new moment to construct itself. As a consequence, we have seen it precisely for what it is. A deep stillness has ensued from this open-eyed inhabiting of the present moment, this sense of being flush with our experience.

Finally, the next action—the necessary action, the inevitable action—arises out of this stillness of its own accord, and (5) v’yisau —we move forward, not really acting of ourselves, but giving ourselves to the action the moment requires.

We can practice these steps over time, addressing a larger question in our life that has us stumped—What should I do about this relationship? Should I quit this job and look for another?—or we can practice them in moments of panic as they arise. We can practice them in meditation, or we can practice them in the midst of our lives, as we go along the way.

Expanding Our Boundaries
Fear that is not the product of an imagined phantom is often caused by the sense that we are suddenly in possession of more energy than we are used to, than we know how to handle. We don’t feel large enough, strong enough to hold it. This energy is a new strength announcing itself, and if we shy away from it out of fear, we will never grow into the people we need to be, we will never become who we truly are. One way to work with this fear is to expand our sense of mental and spiritual boundaries. Often we are afraid of a new strength because we feel we are too small for it, that we don’t have room to hold it. We feel as if we might explode from it. But the truth is, we literally have all the room in the world. The soul knows no boundaries.

Sitting in meditation, we can experience this boundlessness. Turning our attention from the breath and the body to the mind, we see that we are sitting in a boundless field, a sea without limit. Thoughts, feelings, impulses rise up on this sea like waves, but the sea itself has no boundaries except those we have imposed on it. Even as we imagine ourselves to be in a limitless field, nevertheless, there is a vague sense of edge to this field. Breathing out, we let go of this boundary. Breathing in, we find ourselves inhabiting an expanded field of mind. Breathing out again, we let go again, and the boundary expands still further. This is a very good exercise for dealing with norah, that chilling fear that comes over us when we begin to glimpse our real strength. And it is an exercise we can do in formal meditation or in the midst of our lives whenever we are overcome by this kind of fear. Letting go of the edges of our consciousness as we breathe out, we make the mind larger and more comfortable in holding our full strength.