I Had My First Panic Attack in a Zen Temple — Here’s Why I Went Back

I was certain that I was dying. I tried to focus on my breath but each inhale felt more strained than the last. I could hear a deafening ring and I could see spots of light dancing across my eyelids. I wasn’t in danger — I was safe and curled up in the lotus position at a Zen temple. How had a practice prescribed for achieving equanimity leave me shaking in terror?

I had seen the word mindfulness plastered across health magazines and praised by thought leaders everywhere. It sounded like a seasoning you could sprinkle on top of every moment to make it a little more appetizing — and I was hungry for it.

After graduating from college, quitting my job, moving to a new city, and leaving a toxic relationship, anything that promised me peace had my attention.

The only problem was, I had no idea how to get it. I turned to the search bar and stumbled upon a Zen Temple in my city that offered one day-long introductory retreats. In a cocktail of apprehension and desperation, I signed up.

The temple was an old heritage home located in a Toronto neighbourhood. The house was surrounded by ancient looking trees and fragrant incense welcomed me as I stepped through the doorway. I received a name tag and was told to help myself to tea before taking a seat for the first portion of the workshop.

my first panic attack temple

The day started with an introduction to Zen Buddhism and a brief recounting of the story of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. After we asked the Rōshi (teacher) any remaining questions, he gestured to a room for our first 20-minute sitting meditation.

He showed us how to sit comfortably and offered tips about maintaining a comfortable posture. Then, with the sound of the singing bowl, we sat.

I was facing a wall surrounded by thirty other people, my eyes cast downward and my hands delicately resting on my lap. All I had to do was sit and yet, within the first minute, a feeling of deep panic began to creep over me.

“What if I need to go to the bathroom?”

“What if I have a coughing fit?”

“What if I have a panic attack?”

Each thought that arose sent me spiralling further into my panic. I told myself to focus on each breath with awareness and tried to ground myself. I had learned coping mechanisms a few years back in counselling but it felt like everything I tried slipped through my fingers like I was trying to hold a stream of water in my fist.

The panic lasted around 10 minutes. This was the first time in a long time that I’d taken a moment to be with my thoughts. Now here I was, forced to sit in them all like I was soaking in dirty bath water and never bothered to look down.

After 10 minutes the thoughts settled from turbulence to a stillness and the anxiety melted away. The following walking meditation and sitting meditation were easier. I learned to listen to my thoughts without believing them. I was okay.

Despite years of counselling and applying tools to manage my anxiety, my experience at the Zen Temple was the first time I released control over my panic and surfed through it. I was no longer drowning, just floating above the surface of my thoughts and emotions.

Now that I knew my mind was capable of conjuring up panic, I was terrified it would happen again. Instead of avoiding meditation at all costs, I signed up for a five-week beginner’s meditation course.

I started prioritizing a daily sitting for 10 minutes and worked my way up to 20 minutes every morning (give or take a few lazy mornings). Mindfulness can mean different things in various meditation traditions and applications. In my experience with anxiety, mindfulness means fully accepting the presence of anxious thoughts or feelings without trying to stuff them away or numb their intensity with food, alcohol, or other artificial resolution.

The first panic attack I had was not my last, but it was a transformative awakening to the power of being present with my anxiety. Now I can surf the waves of fear and feel comfortable knowing the tide will always come back to shore. This is where the observer sits with pure loving awareness.