Become a Student of Panic
Who wouldn’t be angry and rejecting toward something that produces such chaos in your life? Seeing panic as the enemy is a natural response. I assume that up to now that you have had plenty of practice viewing panic as the villain. Now try something new — consider panic your teacher.
The martial arts, developed in Asia, teach self-discipline, physical combat technique and a philosophy, or attitude, about life. All but one are ancient schools. Aikido, a twentieth-century martial art based on love and dedicated to peace, puts a different spin on the art of self-defense. And “spin” is an appropriate expression. In the western world, we use boxing as the prototype for fighting. If someone punches, you punch back. You meet force with opposing force. On the other hand, the traditional martial arts axiom is “push when pulled and pull when pushed.”
As the attacker approaches you to push or punch, you learn to grab the forward moving hand and pull it. You don’t oppose the challenger with equal force. You take the attacker’s movement and energy and use it against him. As he pushes, you pull him past you and onto the ground, for instance.
In Aikido the axiom “push when pulled and pull when pushed” becomes “turn when pushed and enter when pulled.” You accept, join and move with the challenger’s energy flow in the direction it is going. You offer nothing for the challenger to resist. You turn and spin with the attacker instead of moving past him.
Imagine teaching an American the art of Aikido. It requires sincerely welcoming the attack and struggle, truly understanding the attacker’s intentions, loving the attacker. The moment the challenger begins to approach with an attack, the Aikido student shifts her position. She stands with open arms and open palms, “welcoming” the challenger. (If you try it for a moment — holding your arms out by your side with your palms open in front — you can notice how vulnerable you feel.)
I will leave the details of other Aikido moves to the masters. It is the basic attitude that I want to address. The attitudinal stance in Aikido is that each challenge is an opportunity to learn and practice, not something dangerous or frightening. The student views the challenge as a gift of energy, a creative system of joining rather than one of conflict. This view eliminates the notion of “enemy.”
Let’s apply this to your relationship with panic. First of all, please know that I realize how frightening a panic attack is. You can’t simply “relax” in the face of panic, because your body is flowing with adrenaline-produced anxiety. This is a given: you begin with the normal human reaction of fear. What we are doing with this attitude shift is taking that state of fear and changing it. We are moving from an automatic reaction toward a designed reaction, one that brings you freedom and personal choice. The way we will change fear is by adding something to it, not by taking your fear away.
As you enter that restaurant, drive across that bridge, sit down in the middle aisle at the movies, or walk up to that group at the party, be curious about your anxiety. How is it expressing itself right now? What is it inviting you to be afraid of? What skills is it encouraging you to practice at this moment?
If you suffer from panic attacks, your best stance will be, “Panic, anxiety, you have something to teach me. What is it? Help me understand myself.”
Perhaps, over time, panic will teach you to stand up for yourself and be more assertive. Maybe it will lead you to be more self-revealing and vulnerable around those who love you. Or it might help you express your deeper desires for what is important in life, to take you out of the trap of playing the role of good mother, wife, employee. While I don’t know what you, in particular, will learn, I do know that every student learns once she focuses on her desire to learn.
I am not saying that panic always comes into people’s lives because they are missing some basic learning (although sometimes it does). Taking the stance of a student who truly wants to learn is a way to stop taking a resistant stance toward panic. The focus of our attention right now is how to get better. Choose to become a student of panic because it is the attitude that best moves you toward health. If you are paying attention to how you can learn from panic, then you will stop fighting against panic. As you reduce your fear and defensiveness, you influence the entire dynamic of your relationship with panic, and it can no longer rule your body.
Later, I’ll teach you a specific skill that uses this paradoxical stance.