I got forced into participating in our university’s open house this weekend. I really and seriously hate doing this. Ours is not a big university, so the event happens in a gym we have on campus, yet into this enclosed space come thousands of young people and their parents checking out all the programs we offer. I have no problem speaking in front of crowds of any size and am not seriously shy by nature at all, yet this event terrifies me. You see, I am in a wheelchair and in a crowd like that I feel like I am in a moving canyon of people because everyone towers over me. I feel no sense of space in that situation because there is no horizon in a closed in crowd, nowhere to go, no escape. Unfortunately, my job is to sit there in this terrifying canyon and market our program to these concerned moms and dads and confused high school kids. Needless to say, I suck at it.
I had to do this open house once before and was so terrified of doing it again – honestly, I am just short of a full blown panic attack in this situation – that I was physically sick today beforehand. My strategy was two-fold: I did zazen last night while freaking out about today and again while freaking out again this morning, but I also very deliberately decided to have a glass of wine before the event and then bring a flask with another glass to sip during the it just to calm me down. I want to emphasize that his was moderation and not in any being drunk at all. Anyway, during this artificially induced calm, I told myself to just try and observe the event rather than just freak out over it, as I had been the whole day before, so trying to approach it as an “off the cushion” opportunity seemed prime.
The short story is that I survived it, which seems dramatic to say, but my fear is/was very real, so I don’t say survive all that lightly. Moving on from basic survival, reflecting on it now I see some good lessons beyond living through the terror. I think the first lesson I learned from this dreadful situation is that I need a clearer purpose, more of a direction and goal than just to sit there in the fright of a moving canyon, and the second lesson is that I need to gain some control by creating a direction and purpose for myself in this situation. A big part of the problem was that I felt so adrift, so empty (in the worst way), and so I’ve decided to formalize my participation in that event should I ever have to do it again, which I still dread. But now I see there are options to move beyond the dukkha that is open house. My plan is to create scripts, structures, for participating in that event, and in this way I will be able to DO and BE something in that time and space as opposed to feeling like some helpless piece of dukkha driftwood.
Finally, and most importantly, I am sure there are sangha members that feel much greater panic attacks in much less stressful situations than I have described here, so I invite them to share that, and maybe, just maybe, what I did today might reveal a path to them so that they might lessen that horrible anxiety for them. For me, what I found out was that if I have a clear reason and plan I can have a clearer path away from that anxiety and that path was revealed to me via zazen.