Is it normal to need to back off from meditating if fear or anxiety arises?

A student writes:

After joining the sangha and starting the Living the Awakened Heart Training, I began meditating twice daily, 15-20 minutes each time. I noticed considerable improvement in my mind’s clarity. However, I seemed to have gotten to the point where I was becoming too clear and continuing to mediate felt dangerous to my peace of mind, even frightening, so I backed off.

Is feeling the need to back off from meditation due to anxiety/fear sometimes natural and normal?

Lama Shenpen responds:

It is actually a very natural response to feel frightened and to back off. What can happen is that we connect directly to our experience and we find ourselves facing things that we’ve been avoiding looking at because we didn’t know how to handle them and now here they are.

This can sometimes be at a relatively superficial level such as not wanting to face our self-hatred or lack of self-confidence, but it can be at a very deep level where we get a sudden flash of Emptiness or Not-Self that threatens our whole existence, and that is very scary.

It’s scary because it’s only a partial experience. We get the flash of insight but immediately our habit to grasp kicks in and tries to escape it. This can affect us both physically and mentally.  In fact, it can affect us physically without our even noticing that we are affected mentally – in other words we are noticing the fear reaction in our body and that is scary enough – we haven’t noticed what it was that the body was reacting to because we somehow blanked it out.

Our fundamental ignorance (avidya) or turning away from reality is always there with us and causes us to blank out reality even before we are aware that it might shine through. This is what makes Awakening so difficult.

Anyway, whatever kind of fear reaction it is, whether it is relatively superficial or as deep as our fundamental avidya, the answer is always the same: You need to learn to be confident in the fundamental nature of your being. There is no need for fear. nor for fear of fear itself.

Fear arises in the expanse of the spaciousness of your being and if you can trust that nature of your being, the fear is simply a movement that doesn’t disturb you. You can even rest in fear.

In the meantime, the question is whether to meditate or not to meditate when strong fear arises. Actually, simply to be aware of the fear is to meditate. So even if you do not do any formal sitting or if you just sit for very short periods, still you can turn towards the fear.

You may have to sit for a bit in order for the fear to arise and then when it does, turn towards it with curiosity and sit with it for as long as you reasonably can. It would be unreasonable if you were getting increasingly tense and worked up.

If you just get a bit tense but can then stick with it and let that go until it comes up again – well that is meditation. There is nothing else to it. You just stay with it and gradually you find it fine to do that – that you actually find that liberating. You don’t need to jump up and run away. Anyway, there is nowhere to run to. Reality is actually pretty shocking!

Nonetheless, that is only because we have taken against it. If we could really turn towards it fully, Reality is pretty good! It is Enlightenment – it’s endless delight.

Although you are right that it is not good to force things, there is a lot of middle ground between forcing things and backing off. There is simply staying with the experience for a very short time but often, and there is talking to a mentor or teacher about it so that they can suggest a way forward that suits you. Taking Refuge in the Buddha, Dharma Sangha can also help with this.

Lama Shenpen Hookham

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