Panic as a sign of insight & The Four Noble Truths in the Living the Awakened Heart Training

A student writes:

The day after first trying meditating on infinite space I had an experience whilst practicing Formless Meditation – 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 responds:

It is exactly how insight starts to develop. The panic reaction is as deep as samsara 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. 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.


The Living the Awakened Heart Training (LAH) materials feel very profound but I don’t always see the link between the Four Noble Truths and it sometimes feels like I’m going round in circles in riddles…

Lama Shenpen:

It’s spiral learning, different people find different starting points but we all end up spiralling around the same teachings. Four Noble Truths and Eightfold path can be taught in a way that makes it all seem simple and straightforward and for some that is a good way to start.

The Buddha however said these teachings are subtle profound and difficult to understand. They are called Arya (Noble) because to really understand them makes you an Arya  – an enlightened person.  We have touched on them directly a couple of years ago when looking at Insight and there is much more we need to look at in regard to them.

For most people however (unless talking about the initial simplified version) these teachings are indeed very difficult.  I still contemplate them frequently and wonder about them – each turn around the spiral yielding further insights. Translators are still puzzling how each term should most accurately be translated.

You are right that teachings and exercises in the Living the Awakened Heart Training are very profound and if you try to understand them intellectually they are confusing. They need to be used together with the Formless Meditation and with the help of someone to guide you.

They are about our experience and an intuitive sense of what that is rather than a conceptually graspable set of ideas which the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold path can sound as if they are. Actually those teachings are not different from the LAH teachings – they are just expressed in a different language and there’s an emphasis on different aspects in a somewhat different order but still essentially also experiential and connected to intuition and insight arising through meditation.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

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Lama Shenpen’s students are members of the Awakened Heart Sangha and are all engaging in the Living the Awakened Heart Training – the structured, comprehensive, supported, distance learning programme in Buddhist meditation, reflection and insight. The training that begins with Discovering the Heart of Buddhism and is open to all, brings the profound Tibetan Buddhist Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings to a Western audience in an experiential, accessible way, through spiral learning. Find out more and how to join the Awakened Heart Sangha and start your journey to discover the heart of Buddhism and meditation at