Last winter after I resigned from my job and decided to head overseas for an adventure, I volunteered at a 10-day silent meditation retreat as a transitional activity to ease my mind and to get comfortable with the complete change in my normal routine that would be coming soon. I had sat at a 10-day silent meditation retreat before as a student and I had volunteered half-time at another one, but I had never volunteered a full course. I expected the usual hard work in the kitchen where about six to seven of us would start the day at 4:30 in the morning to cook three meals per day for 70-plus students. While the work could be strenuous, it was fun to chat with my colleagues in the kitchen and have friendly banter. We also had three different times during the day where we were able to sit for a full hour and meditate with the students.
Soon enough my work-in-the-kitchen and meditate-on-the-side routine became very comfortable five days into the retreat, but on the sixth day that all came crashing down. The manager of all 40 of the female students took a nasty fall on some ice and all eyes (literally and figuratively) were on me to step in as the female manager as she ended up having to leave the retreat early. I had no experience at any point ever in my life of being the manager of anything. The stress of the situation felt very dense as it was the sixth day in and I could tell that many of the students’ mental states were being tested. The main female meditation teacher sent me on three different errands within the first hour of being the manager, mostly to help check in on girls that were having sickness or intense emotional trauma.
Just as with most big changes in my life, even ones that from an outsider’s perspective might seem small, my egoic mind started racing. Not only were the thoughts in my mind racing, but they were crashing into each other like children playing bumper cars for the first time. Here I thought that I was such a good meditator, but I figured out that this was a real-life situation where I was being tested on how skillful I had become with my mind. On the second day of being female manager, I almost had a sheer panic attack as I had to stand in front of 70 pairs of eyes peering at me as I counted to make sure that every female meditator was in the meditation hall and if they weren’t there I’d have to discuss with the teacher and go to find them.
I mentioned to the meditation teacher that second night of being female manager that I have an extreme fear of being in any spotlight, even at a silent meditation retreat. I told her about how I was on the verge of a panic attack a multitude of times that day. She had great advice which to this day still sticks with me. Her advice was that as soon as I felt that panicky feeling come on, to notice my extremities. She told me to feel where my fingers and toes were at the moment of panic or anxiety; for an example, right now I can sense my fingers tapping against this shiny keyboard and my feet…they are resting on top of each other on this cool pavement below me. It instantly brought me back into my body and out of my head.
I have brought this tool with me throughout all the hustle and bustle of daily life. I often get anxiety attacks in grocery stores. Most recently I was at a grocery store on a weeknight around 6:00 and I was standing in line with crowds of people around me. I had that familiar panicky feeling come on, where I felt as if the floor below me was just about to collapse and the walls were going to come down, but before that full on anxiety attack could hit me, I brought awareness to the extremities and was instantly calmed. As soon as I sensed my fingers placed on the handle of my shopping cart and my toes were resting in my shoes that were flat on the shiny white floor, I felt soothed. I am so thankful for learning this technique and highly recommend it if you struggle with anxiety or panic attacks.
Peace out! 🙂