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Thread: Struggling with anxiety during zazen

  1. #1

    Struggling with anxiety during zazen

    Hi all,

    I recently submitted my PhD thesis (hurrah!) after almost 6 years of hard work. The final year was an increasingly desperate slog to the finish line, with my normal life (university teaching job, young family) continuing in the background. I was aware throughout of a gathering amount of anxiety (I'm quite stress-prone at the best of times), but my strategy was simply to ignore it and deal with it when I got finished with study. My zazen suffered too - my thirty minutes slipped to ten and then five minutes.

    Now that I have more time, I'm back up to 30 minutes of zazen, but finding it really challenging. That raft of pent-up stress has been released; I find it manageable when I'm distracted and doing other things; but the intense focus of zazen brings it sharply into focus, to the point where I find it almost overwhelming. Zazen feels like holding my finger in the flame.

    I know that this will pass, but has anyone else experienced something like this? And is there any way to make zazen feel less intense?!

    With kindness,




  2. #2
    Hi Peter,

    Sounds like your Zazen is perfect. I would not want it any other way.

    Gasho, Jishin, _/st\_

  3. #3
    Hi Peter,

    To work off what Jishin said. Zazen is to sit with your current situation no matter what it is. We all know this however we still have a model in our head of how zazen should feel. It should be effortless, open, painless...etc..

    By doing this we cause ourselves suffering when it is not that. Your life is busy and stressful at the moment, why would zazen be any different? You are sitting in your current situation.

    That being said, I know this but I have felt that same unease you have in the past. I have sat through it or took a break for a few days. Either way the feeling of holding a finger to the flame passed. However, the times I sat through it were more beneficial.

    James F

    Sent from my SM-G920V using Tapatalk

  4. #4
    Hi Peter,

    I guess we all have moments like that. Sometimes they fade away, sometimes they are overwhelming. Sometimes an itch or a worry feel gigantic, but they always drift away.

    I may be wrong but zazen shouldn't give you intense focus of anything. Is a thought arises, we just notice it and witness how it fades. Another thought or feeling arises, we just watch it go.

    If 30 minutes feels like a lot, try to lower the time to 20. When 20 minutes are confortable, go for only 3 or 5 more minutes.

    Hope that helps.


    Hondō Kyōnin
    奔道 協忍

  5. #5
    I'm so familiar with this, sometimes for my entire Zazen period I am aware of my heart thumping and what I call the "adrenal squeeze" of anxiety chemicals pulsing through my body, and I just let it be what it is. It takes on a life of its own sometimes even when not being fed with conscious thought. I have seen some folks here mention that they exercise prior to Zazen and that reduces the anxiety some, but while that may be a good idea outside Zazen, it probably missing the point to want Zazen to be different than what it is. But yes when feeling like that, to sit instead of seeking a distraction is difficult, so even five or ten minutes of Zazen is a victory IMO! Good job!

    清 道 寂田
    I am a novice priest. Any resemblance my posts may have to actual teachings about the Dharma, living or dead, is purely coincidental (and just my attempt to be helpful).

  6. #6
    "The best way to relieve your mental suffering is to sit in zazen, even in such a confused state mind an bad posture...You should be grateful for the weeds you have in your mind because they will eventually enrich your practice." - Shunryu Suzuki

    What? You think the rest of us around here don't go through this too"? - Me

    Gassho, STLAH

  7. #7
    Member Koki's Avatar
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    Apr 2017
    Parma Ohio (just outside Cleveland)
    Hi Peter,

    I think we all may have all felt this way, at one or another.

    One word stood out to me...intense.

    For me, I'm the kind of person who is the calm in the middle of the storm.

    Imagining the intense winds of a tornado whirling around you, as your life (PHD, work, family, etc). And your mind being the calm in the center of that storm.

    It works for me, and my sitting helps me to find that calm center, so that I can see clearly, and act appropriately, to those things, whirling about.

    Embrace being in that moment.

    Hope that might help

    Frank (Kunzang)

    Sent from my VS995 using Tapatalk
    Last edited by Koki; 01-04-2019 at 05:23 PM.

  8. #8
    Hi Peter,

    lots of very excellent advice already given here. Yes, let your zazen be what it is.

    I wonder too if another way to be with this intensity and anxiety, to "sit with it as it is", might be to approach it with compassion, rather than a resisting mind or a mind of judgement. It might be true that in some ways, at some times, this anxiety and stress may have been not only appropriate, but even helpful in some ways. Maybe there is some gratitude to be found for this stress, even though it's an uncomfortable feeling? Letting go of the "striving" work of finishing your thesis, and moving forward into the next thing, is a real change. Why not bring all the compassion you have to the transition? Give yourself a break, go easy while you shed the old skin, be gentle with yourself, and with your habitual ways of being and coping. It has all brought you to where you are today... which sounds pretty awesome really. If you quit wrestling with your anxiety and trying to push it out of the zendo, and instead bow to it and let it sit with you, your relationship with it may transform into something new.

    Big congratulations on finishing your thesis!

    sat + lah
    Last edited by Byokan; 01-05-2019 at 09:27 AM.
    Please take my words with a big grain of salt. I know nothing. Wisdom is only found in our whole-hearted practice together.

  9. #9
    I like how zazen has been described here. Anxiety is an all-too frequent companion of mine.

    My version is -- I am the calm in others' storms. When I sit, I am the storm and zazen is the calm.

    I'll just let that be as it is, it is my experience. :

    St lh

    Sent from my SM-G930U using Tapatalk
    no destination, no goal

  10. #10
    Hi Peter,

    I like to add that anxiety is necessary. It is what motivates us to plan for the future and has played a very important role in providing you the vision and energy to complete your advanced studies. The flip side of an anxious person may be someone who stays home on the couch, does not work or go to school, has a loved one who pay the bills, orders delivery pizzas for nourishment, smokes marijuana all day long and is perfectly happy with their life style. They may feel that their Zazen is perfect because nothing comes up as there are no struggles. Given the choice I rather be the anxious type but not to say there is anything wrong with the low anxiety type either. Different people are just different.

    Gasho, Jishin, _/st\_

  11. #11
    Hi Peter,

    congratulations on finishing your thesis!

    It feels to me that you maybe need a transition period before building up your Zazen to 30 minutes. If anxiety is uppermost for you maybe that needs
    addressing first?

    Personally I don't think there's any harm in preparing the body/mind for Zazen and gentle stretches and some element of home liturgy seems to set the focus for me.




  12. #12
    Hi Peter,

    Such wise folks and advice above! Nothing really to add by me.

    As folks above have noted, all kinds of things can come bubbling to the surface in the quiet and lack of distraction of Zazen.

    If it is not too overwhelming or debilitating (something that truly would risk health and well-being), then just let them. Shikantaza is a strange animal, and is unlike most kinds of meditation. Strange as it sounds, the point of Shikantaza is not to make us feel less anxious or better ... and by its not resisting anxiety and other life circumstances, or trying to make us feel better, that non-resistance and "going with the flow" makes us feel better!

    Let anxiety be anxiety, despair be despair, boredom just boredom, poimtless frustration just be pointless frustration, allowing each and all to just be so like a spectator in a theatre observing each without judgment. Perhaps then some Light will shine beyond and through all that. Anxious Zazen is good Zazen, and peaceful Zazen is good Zazen. Finding that which transcends both anxiety and peace is the Real Peace ... being At Peace even with the fact of feeling anxious sometimes (At Peace with Anxiety!).

    If there are anxiety issues, it is also fine to talk to a doctor or other mental health professional about why that is. Zazen can go hand and hand with that and, if the doctor recommends (and I bet that many will these days) keep sitting!

    Also, if the anxiety gets to be too much sometimes ... okay to break off Zazen and try again another time. However sitting through the attack, and just observing like a spectator, is a marvelous power.

    Gassho, J

    Last edited by Jundo; 01-10-2019 at 01:42 AM.

  13. #13
    Such helpful and considerate comments above - many thanks to all for your help!


    Sat today (still anxious but letting it be)


    Sent from my LM-Q725K using Tapatalk

  14. #14
    Hello !

    I've been through this as well.

    I started sitting zazen during the writing of my thesis, during the last year if i remember correctly. The 6 months AFTER i finished it (congratulations to you, btw, ) were really anxiety ridden, more so than during the thesis itself. When you achieve such a work, there is a kind of release that you could not let happen before, and it can be a bit overwhelming.

    My zazen at those times really felt like letting this energy dissipate by itself, 30 mins by 30 mins. It's not a pleasant process, but it's better than the alternative that would be to block it out.

    This idea, that what i felt during zazen was just anxious energy running its course through me and leaving me, helped me a bit during those times.

    Another tip : instead of wishing it was less intense, try the contrary : wish it was MORE intense. Anxiety is only difficult because we block it and don't want to feel it. If you adopt the opposite attitude, things can paradoxically get easier.

    Also this experience tremedously increased my endurance and my tolerance for anxiety.

    Sit through it, you'll be ok anyway !


    Sat Today
    Last edited by Ugrok; 01-07-2019 at 02:42 PM.

  15. #15
    Hi Peter,

    Congratulations on submitting your thesis, and also, congratulations on slowly increasing your practice now that the intensity of the final weeks is past. I had a similar experience some years ago, and found it took quite a while to settle back into old healthy rhythms. The end of such an intense period of study is often an anti-climax - sometimes it feels finished, but still waiting on examiners, so uncertain whether it is really finished or not. Even after its all done an dusted, it can feel like an unfixed/ambivalent anti-climax kind of energy for a while, so anxiety and even some disorientation after submission are quite common (though its not in the PhD brochure). Rationale mind has been in overdrive in a particular mode for a prolonged period. This may be why Zazen naturally reduced back to an absolute minimum in your final thesis stages. If you are like most candidates just prior to submission, you have been stewing in cortisol for months. Your body may be depleted, your sleep patterns returning to normal, your natural physiological rhythms have been disrupted, and mind is conditioned to running in overdrive. For months if you weren’t working on your thesis, you felt like you should be – its a kind of anxiety that keeps you working. Now that feeling is without a tangible focus. Mind and anxiety are ‘not two’. It will take time for different modes of mind to come back into natural balance, but they will. At the moment, Zazen probably opens up a space for mind to spin its wheels, so the undefined anxiety is a natural post-submission phenomenon.

    It is as it is, and it will pass. In a strange way, the more we want anxiety to pass the more we hold it in place. Zazen is a good place to watch anxiety do what it does, allowing it to come, build, wash over you, peak and then ebb naturally. Congratulations again on submitting, and be gentle with yourself for a while.


  16. #16
    Hi, Peter Yup, me, too. Last sit was all regrets filling my head, pretty much every one I could possibly have in my life. I'm "working" on letting it all go and not categorizing my practice as good or bad. They each have their own merit, I've found, and in the end, it just is what it is, know what I mean?


    sat today

  17. #17
    The 'school game' can indeed ratchet up anxiety and all sorts of thoughts and emotions we often want to judge as 'bad.' Especially in grad school, researching and writing doctoral dissertations, there is always more work to do. Either I'm working or I should be working. Moving on even with all this going on - sounds like a worthwhile practice to me.
    sat, lah

  18. #18
    Sean and Lauren;

    More power to both of you practice, practice, practice.
    Sit for ten years and then another ten years.

    gassho, Shokai
    仁道 生開 - Jindo Shokai "Open to life in a benevolent way"
    May we all grow together in our knowledge of the Dharma

  19. #19
    My advice, for what it's worth, is to be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with your practice.


  20. #20
    Loved to read all this great advice.

    Im also getting anxiety but its like it comes in cycles.
    In a few days it will go away and equanimity settles in again.
    Still pretty hard though.

    sat today.

  21. #21
    Zazen feels like holding my finger in the flame.

    I know that this will pass, but has anyone else experienced something like this? And is there any way to make zazen feel less intense?!
    I have been reading this thread with interest for the past few days. As a candidate entering what I hope is my last year of this process, I do from time to time have some degree of anxiety (usually stemming from my attention to other things). Something that came out of this just-past Ango for me was that when feelings of anxiety are bubbling--not quite to the point of panic--regular periods of Zazen are a solution. It is as though my feelings and many-direction thoughts are ping-pong balls being tossed around on a boiling ocean, and when I sit they sort themselves out and fall into their places, and the ocean calms.

    Something I have noted is that often the fallout from Zazen is subsequently more focus on a particular thought or feeling that may have been, oh, subdued or repressed. Dulled or blunted maybe. Your point about feeling like you are holding your finger in a flame made sense, in this regard. It does not last, for me. I wonder about whether your intense, dissertation-related stress was such a dominant feature that this feeling is a product of your emotional healthfulness coming back into balance. I hope it is getting better, or at least not getting worse. Do let us know how it is going!

    然芸 Nengei

    You deserve to be happy.
    You deserve to be loved.

  22. #22
    Thanks again to all for the replies about this topic, and empathy to those who are also living with anxiety.

    My zazen has been interesting! The intense, unsettling anxiety I initially wrote about has become more subtle: I experience a wider range of emotions now as I sit, and sometimes the anxiety never raises its head. Other times when I begin to sit I feel calm and relaxed, but some minutes in, that tight knot of anxiety returns.

    So my observation: anxiety appears to have its own agenda - it is not me, although I'm host to it. So yes, as some have suggested, it's good practice.




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  23. #23
    In my humble opinion and with all due respect to Jundo's Videos, anyone needing or wishing to attain a natural and comfortable posture of Zazen should read Uchiyama-Roshi's "Opening the Hand of Thought."
    (And, I receive no royalties or commissions for this recommendation. )

    gassho, Shokai
    仁道 生開 - Jindo Shokai "Open to life in a benevolent way"
    May we all grow together in our knowledge of the Dharma

  24. #24
    Hi pt

    Congratulations on completing your project, I admire your dedication, and hope that you enjoyed the journey. It seems to me that all the zazen guidance you could need is already here, and it is good to be in such good supportive company. I shall not usurp the guidance of others but will just offer a brief opinion of my own that has helped me to sustain my practice over the years.

    At times when I have felt unhappy, sad, stressed, anxious in my zazen I have sat with it, sometimes for (honestly) miserable week after miserable week, but I sat with it, came out the other side without a prescription. One observation I would offer that helped me though is that when I felt like I couldn't see past the wall, stuck in a dualistic-rut, trying to sit with the 'one-ness' of all things, but feeling separate or isolated, I would do the following. I got up off the zafu and did a walking or sitting meditation in the woods. There is something about woodland, and its boundless interconnectedness, and the chatter of the wind in the trees, that cuts through my dualistic self-pitying like a katana through a watermelon . It might be the beach or an art gallery, but it's that place where you tend to forget the self (in a transformative rather than sleepy way!) I'd then go back to the zafu.

    That would be my zen experience, but my mental health experience tells me that mental wellness and mental resilence come from a generally balanced lifestyle. I would imagine that a PhD would challenge that balance, and so it will take some time and care (being kind and gentle with yourself) to let that imbalance dissipate of it's own accord. Despite zazen not being a mental health therapy (even if meditation is), for me, it undoubtedly does help with my mental balance, acceptance, and resilience. I note your second post where you say "anxiety appears to have its own agenda - it is not me, although I'm host to it", and that is very interesting as anxiety states often have a basis in known events or triggers, but can take on a life of it's own over time, becoming disabling for the sufferer. Blown out of all proportion with reality (measured against others views of your life I might add) due to a repetitive ruminating fantasy where the anxiety state is indulged (and consequently expands). Skillfully used, I believe zazen can interrupt this cycle, but the individual has to have insight into their state of mind, and needs the support of a skilled teacher of zazen - of which we are most blessed at treeleaf.

    Gassho and metta to you!

    Tokan - sattoday

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