How I overcame my fear of claustrophobia

“Sometimes what you’re most afraid of doing is the very thing that will set you free.”- Robert Tew

Every time I watched a movie scene that showed someone getting stuffed into the boot of a car, I would have incredible recoil. It was an indescribable feeling that the mind recalled, perhaps from my own death in some past life.

The same would happen when scenes of earthquakes – and people being buried under buildings – would pass through my eyes or thoughts.

Over time I started imagining these scenes in my dreams and woke up breathless. Knowledgeable friends and books told me that this state linked to financial stress. My mother said, her worst nightmare was getting swept away by a deluge of water.

Different people, different opinions. The issue remained, coming and going off and on, at its own will. And despite all that, I lived normally for most part.

In fact, as I can recall, I never had problems in dark or closed spaces; movie halls, underwater, elevators or caves. I could spend good time in them, unless my brain went into overdrive and conjured up those images. Then I’d panic breathlessly, and run outdoors towards fresh air.

“What would I do if I were actually in an earthquake… or the victim of a missile attack?” I remember asking myself. There would be no way to run into an open space at will. What would I do?

Thoughts of this nature led me to ask a Tibetan lama for a solution. Those people know a lot about living and dying, through intense meditations and documentation. He suggested three recipes which I will enumerate later in this article. They might help you. And they probably did help me too, but not as much as what happened in Mexico.

Fool your fear. Don’t let it know you are facing it

I had no idea what swimming in a clear-water cenote could be like. My wife’s cousin was a professional scuba diver and we were his guests in the beautiful, nature-bound land of Comitan, Mexico. It was a sparkling bright morning and he suggested that was the day we join him at his private hideout… a cenote (which is a landlocked freshwater body connected through underground channels, uniquely found in south-eastern Mexico) which had 85 meters of clear visibility.

I had been scuba diving in Maldives earlier. By the time I’d crossed 5 meters I signalled to the Japanese instructor… “get me out of here”. I had panicked. And that was the end of the rare sights I was starting to see around me, when I found my paranoia winning.

I had also been swimming into a small cave-cenote earlier, for a short 5 minutes, to see (by torchlight) fossilized fish on the roof of the cave. This occurrence was the consequence of a sudden fissure that had inundated that cave a few million years ago. And that was an exciting and memorable swim.

So when this invitation came, I had mixed feelings. Since the day was so wonderful, I said yes… conditionally. I would not wear scuba gear. I’d only swim. And at the most, snorkel. That would give me the visibility deep down those clear waters I rationalized. Everyone agreed and we set off.

When I wore the fins and snorkel, once again my only source of air was going to be through a tube that covered my mouth as I clenched its end between my teeth. Three times I removed the nose cover and wore it again… each time telling myself something like what Lori Deschene observes, “Don’t let your fear paralyze you. The scariest paths often lead to the most exciting places.”

In fact, that morning I had fooled my fear. I had told it that claustrophobia was about being surrounded in closed space… about being unable to move… not about swimming freely with one’s back open to sky. And that was how I plunged into the water.

Watch your fear at the extreme level

Now something remarkable happens when you are in the water with that cover over your face. You can hear almost nothing and you breathe in and out only through the mouth. This is not what your typical meditative breathing is like (wherein you keep the mouth closed and use the nose). But it is a pure meditation nevertheless. You are in oneness with the water; with what you sense and see.

As I was experiencing this, my cousin-in-law pointed to me a sculpture of Mother Mary that the divers had built 25 meters under water. It was beautiful. And before I could say “mother mary” he had propelled himself towards her like a tadpole on steroids, with snorkel and all.

All I did was observed… in awe… as he surfaced after having touched her. “How did you do that”, I asked when we both removed our gear to confer. And he told me how to block the tube and retain air in the lungs for the few seconds it takes to make a quick dive.

Now I was not going to do that. But I knew it could be done, without being pushed into doing it. That was enough. I felt safe.

The next hour disappeared into discoveries all around the cenote. Rock formations. Plant life. Sunlight streaming vertically downward like laser beams. Shades of shadow on the bed… all clearly observed from the surface. It was wow!

And then he asked me whether I felt tired. I scanned my body and was surprised at my own reply. “No, I’m extremely energised and relaxed at the same time”.

Two short lessons on Energy

Being a Qigong instructor, I work with energy. And, as I discovered, the effect of being in a cenote, encapsulated by nothing except pure natural energy, is an incredible energizer and relaxer. The same is the effect of taking a walk along a forest trail. Or of being in communion with universal energy, during a short qigong break in the middle of a stressful day. Our regular connection with universal energy familiarizes us with all the goodness it stands for.

Fear is also a form of energy. A protective energy that stops us from over-reaching. Believing that universal energy will always stand for our good, the energy of fear can be overcome by simply surrendering to nature. And if we do it by fooling our fear and watching it at the extreme, we may rewire the brain to eliminate the fear energy for all time. The problem comes when we allow the fear to stop us in our tracks and do something else, like running out to fresh air in my case.

3 other remedies for Claustrophobia

The lama had recommended a few exercises, each independent of the other.

1. Visualize yourself in a closed room in the comfort of your home. Everything is comfortable, ideal, except that one wall of this room keeps moving in towards you. Watch the wall. Then watch it stop. And then visualize another wall move in. Repeat the stop-start visualization with all the walls one by one. Keep observing them. Keep still. Sitting. Knowing you are in a comfortable place. Let them go past you and into you. Keep sitting.

2. The causes of claustrophobia could relate to a traumatic death in a past life, or to sexual misconduct, or to being the subject of oppressive violence in one’s youth. Practice forgiveness. Forgive the assailant. Forgive yourself for allowing to receive it at that stage. Recreate those moments (or imagine them) in detail and tell the smaller version of yourself that was victimized that it’s fine now. The memory has served you and need not stay around anymore. Let it go.

3. Practice breathing meditation, concentrating on the out breath. Let go with each exhalation. Detach. Whatever thoughts come to mind while inhaling, exhale them out. The limiting beliefs and associated energies will loosen up and find release.