Why can an insight arising in meditation cause panic?

A student asks:

The day after first trying meditating on infinite spaciousness I had an experience whilst practicing Formless Meditation. A thought came up about a certain day and I realized how empty of inherent meaning the days of the week are; there is only this present moment linked to all other moments. I drifted again and then I intuited a kind of interconnected web and quickly a rushing sense of vastness and a sudden panic that I was falling into it and then the panic snapped me out of it. Was this just my imagination or is this how insight might start to develop?

Lama Shenpen replies:

It is exactly how insight starts to develop. The panic reaction is as deep as samsara [the endless cycle of birth and death] itself. There would be no samsara if there were no panic. Sometimes we let things get so close to the edge that the panic manifests as raw panic and we have to start working with the reality of that – not running away or trying to avoid it. It is the First Noble Truth of Dukkha [suffering, dissatisfaction].

However, often we close off well before we panic – we don’t even notice it is panic. We let ourselves be distracted or start intellectualising things so that we don’t feel the raw panic that we would feel if all our ego games were completely exposed and we had nowhere to hide or escape to, if all we had was reality and relating to it directly. It would be, as you say, like falling through endless space – the bottom falling out of our world.

For this reason, it is essential to deepen the confidence aspect of our practice, which is sometimes called faith. Going for refuge in and strengthening our connections to reality, which you could call the Awakened World, or the true nature of our being, become progressively important.


Lama Shenpen’s students are all studying the Living the Awakened Heart Training – a structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight. The training, which is open to all, brings the profound Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a Western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join at www.ahs.org.uk/training