by Jessica Graham
When we talk about meditation, it’s often in the context of relaxation and stress relief. These have certainly been a wonderful benefit of my own practice. There is, however, another word that also comes to mind when I look back over my spiritual development: Terror. Blood-chilling, knee-shaking, “Oh God, no!”-saying, terror. For many of us on the contemplative path, real fear is just part of the journey.
The first time I had a taste of terror during meditation was very early on in my practice. I was housesitting a new home that I wasn’t used to being alone in. I sat down to meditate and soon heard a strange noise, as if someone was in the next room. Instantly I felt very afraid, but instead of jumping up to check out the situation, I stayed put. I knew that no one was actually in the house but the fear began to build nonetheless. My blood ran cold, I started to shake, and my chest and throat contracted. It was intense, but my practice had taught me to observe and allow body sensations, no matter how uncomfortable, and so I did just that.
As I focused on the sensations of fear, they intensified and multiplied. Soon I was no longer afraid of an intruder, I was just plain afraid. Terrified. Images arose in my mind, red eyes looking out of the darkness, sharp teeth glinting. I had learned to observe and allow images just the same as sensations. I did my best to just witness these creatures crawling out of my subconscious, but before long I could not only see them, I could feel their spiky fur and smell their animal scent. Big werewolfish monsters surrounding and closing in on me. It was so real that I was sure I would be eaten alive at any moment. The terror was all consuming. Being a good little meditation student I just continued to recycle the reaction into my mindfulness practice.
Soon I was having a full-on vision, alive inside a virtual reality of terror. I stayed with it, noting sensations, thoughts and sounds, while being certain that a very painful death was seconds away. Suddenly everything went as completely black and silent, swallowing my mind. Then a bright white light burst forth and filled my consciousness. All the fear vanished and was replaced by a feeling of joy and comfort. Maybe even bliss. My body felt light and my mind was quiet.
The experience didn’t stop there, but the terror portion had ended. I knew that I had worked out some significant knots in my psyche. I also realized that this whole meditation thing was going to be a really wild ride.
As I learned more about meditation I found that experiences like this were not uncommon. One of my teachers, Shinzen Young, had a period when he saw huge, frightening bugs everywhere he looked. Like a really bad acid trip. And many of my friends and students have gone through terrifying experiences as a result of digging into the mind and body with meditation. When the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree it is said that he had to find equanimity with soldiers that were “half-human half-beast demons, with long claws and sharp teeth.” So feeling terror in meditation is nothing new. But why does it happen? I can only offer my opinion based on my own experience and what I have observed in others. I have come to understand this terror in a few ways.
As we access and peel away layers of trauma and conditioning through meditation, they manifests in interesting ways. Sometimes they can take the form of a depression like sadness, sometimes mild to extreme irritation and frustration, and sometimes terror. Let’s say you were physically abused as a child or went through some other major trauma during your life. As you confront that in your meditation practice, even on a subconscious level, thoughts and emotions will surface. It’s possible that these thoughts and emotions could take the form of scary images, even visions, and the intense fear of death. You may not be reliving some exact experience from your past, but the fear can work its way out in creative and terrifying ways. If you are able to sit with these phenomena, bringing equanimity to them, you will find that they eventually break up and even transform.
It’s important to say that you may need extra help when going into this stuff. If you have a history of mental illness you will want to proceed very carefully. Get the support of a meditation teacher and a therapist. You don’t have to do this work alone.
Another way to look at terror in meditation is that the Ego dies hard. When you are approaching a big shift in your perspective of the Self, or shall we say the death of the sense of a separate self, terror can arise in a big way. Through meditation you can begin to see that the self is not a solid thing. You can see it rather as a constantly moving activity of thoughts and emotions, none of which signify a whole. So basically, there is not one thing, no entity, to call Me.
When you have spent a lifetime thinking that you are a solid and constant thing, this realization can be downright terrifying. It’s like drifting though outer space on your own or falling from an endless height. It can put into question everything you think you know. It’s called waking up. The Ego (the parts of you attached to the idea of a solid self, and fully attached to all your thoughts and emotions) doesn’t want to leave the spaceship or jump off the cliff. It wants to be solid and sure.
Faced with waking up, parts of you can become very afraid. This can come in the form of visions, hallucinations, very strong emotional sensations, and more. These experiences and feelings are totally normal. As I’ve already mentioned, if you have serious trauma in your past, you may need extra help to sort out the terror related to trauma from the death of Ego terror. If you have successfully addressed your past trauma you should safely be able to mindfully attend to this fear of death of a solid self. The reward for sitting with the terror? Freedom.
I had many other terrifying experiences with meditation, but eventually they cooled down. Now when I am facing a major shift in perspective or a death of one of my Selves, I tend to feel a sad but also compassionate and joyful. Not everyone will go through this. We are all unique beings, with our own paths. You may be able to find the same freedom I’m talking about by just being willing to sit with achy knees and a busy mind. No werewolves necessary.