Buddhism and the Stage of Dread

Buddhist monks discourage you to ask or read too much. You must teach yourself stillness. They will tell you they are there to guide you on your own personal journey, nothing more and nothing less. If you have questions, sit still often enough and the answers will come to you. If you want to hear of heaven, quiet presence in the present moment will give you the chance of finding it. If you are scared, they will not hold your hand, you must face your fears on your own. In fact, they will tell you to hold your fear (if you find it) with both hands, lay it down on the floor beside you, and sit with it, too. They will tell you to never believe in what they say, but instead, go seek for yourself, by yourself, with yourself. As someone who comes from a conservative Catholic background where everything is about absolute control and order, you can imagine how radically romantic this all was for me.

Still, feeling rather rebellious at a monastery in Thailand, I grabbed a book titled “Bodhinyana” from their curious library of non-mainstream texts, and ate up everything a certain Venerable Ajahn Chah had written there. One page was particularly relevant to where I was in my journey into Buddhism. He says that at some point in your practice, you will encounter a stage of boredom and dread. He was talking about the stage wherein you are only beginning to realize equanimity (all emotions are equal) and you start seeing and accepting the impermanence in the world. You begin to sense that you are learning to be somewhat indifferent to the environment that usually stimulates, excites, and concerns you. You know it will all go away or alter eventually, anyway, so you’re beginning to feel like “meh?”

Okay, the last bit is not exactly how the Ajahn would put it. But this stage was exactly where I was at the time.

This book provided insightful assistance throughout my personal practice at the retreat.

Only instead of meh, I felt stuck and was strongly resisting. 

I had an absolute interest in everything I was learning and I was an eager student. But I’d say I was definitely at a stage of sheer dread over future boredom. Yes, I wanted peace of mind. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to learn from the masters. I wanted to be a master of my self. But did I want to let go of desire? Of excitement? Of passion? Of going after something with the entirety of my being? Of ecstasy? Also, to not care anymore. I knew my capacity to care too much had always caused me to be unnecessarily hurt and exposed. But did I want to risk all feeling I had already invested in the world around me? I worked hard for these feelings, damnit. And all of the above were qualities I had always considered myself to be positively built in with. They were assets. If not for how I care for my family and friends, and my adventurous spirit and enthusiasm for life, what kind of mould should I be transformed into? I don’t want to be a total dud in the world.

Did I truly want this? Did I plan to become a monk and shut myself off for the sake of solitary enlightenment? Was I brave enough to cross the threshold just to find out what it’s like on the other side? Did I want everything from within me to change? My mind and body were tied up together and one of them was screaming, “No, we don’t!” while bullying the other to agree.

Hello, inner conflict!

It was clear that I was attached to what I already knew and what was familiar. You see that the monks know exactly what they are talking about because they warn you about this — how you have become attached to concepts and that you must let go of all your attachments. I definitely clung to the world I already knew. I wanted to stay in my relationship with the world, just as it was.  This was my world, my feelings, my beautiful disaster (yes, so romantic). I mean, sure, I would get suicidal thoughts and anxiety and I was convinced that the world was coming to an end and wished masses of human population would just die, but…… I’m, like, okaaaayyy. It’s quite decent and comfy, actually!

Moreover, what about being an artist? It was in being an artist that I felt most alive! What would I possibly write about without anger, angst, anxiety and exaggeration? How could I still sing and perform if not with rapture, lust, weight, and longing? Vice versa, etc.

Although, seriously, I was where I was, searching for what I was searching for, because I did feel that maybe caring a little less could help ease many of the burdens that were bringing me down. I couldn’t stand the world at times. I just wanted so many things to change around me.

But suddenly, the possibilities of peace was a little bit daunting.

Happiness? Risky.

Change myself?  Terrifying.

The Next Level

Now, I have to be honest, I am not entirely sure how I got past the stage of dread.

Here’s the thing about following what the monks say. They are right; it is a personal journey. Every time I feel that I have gotten past an obstacle, I don’t seem to remember exactly how I got past. It might have something to do with whole new dimensions suddenly opening up before me and I get too enchanted and mystified to be able to pause, look back, and take down notes. Or maybe because since it is a new dimension, I feel that I don’t have the proper vocabulary for it yet. I only understand that I have gotten to the other side when I find that there is this completely new view in front of me.

So let me just tell you about the view.

Changing. It is constantly changing.

After dread, close to a year later, this is the view and the stage where I find myself in. Changing. Yes, definitely an ongoing stage. I just started on this level and am nowhere near the highway tunnel to the next one. And let me tell you, I am in no way rushing this, because it is way too wonderful here!

It has been such a rich journey getting to where I am at now and I have difficulty mapping out in my mind where certain transformations began and certain patterns broken through. It has been an overlapping adventure of insights and new dimensions that I am just enjoying it for now. Once I get further past this level and figure out a clear picture of the exact route and pitstops I had taken, I hope to be able to put all details into words. But for now, just changing.

I am talking about change in every possible way. Changing my habits. Changing my reactions and patterns. Changing how I breathe. Changing how I look (not my clothes or my haircut, but the actual act of “looking” at things). Changing how I treat myself. Changing how I nourish my body. Changing my vocabulary. Changing how I listen. Changing how I see people I love and how I see people I used to hate. Changing how I eat and drink and sleep and wake up. Change every day. Change every encounter. Change every chance that I can change.

Maybe I shouldn’t be getting too excited and pause to explain. To be sure, I am not going crazy on the street and giving in to random whims. Exactly the opposite. I feel so in tune with myself that I hardly give in to randomness anymore. It took hours and years of sitting down in stillness with myself before I was bold enough to take this level on. The changes outside must come from changes inside. And the results are nothing short of alchemy.

So what is so wonderful about this great act of constant changing? Well, what’s great is I’m doing it. I don’t mean this to be arrogant, I mean this to express the greatness of the simple act of taking great responsibility with yourself. Don’t we all spend so much time trying to make other people and other situations change? Isn’t that a glaringly brilliant waste of our precious time when there is also so much that we need to change within ourselves? When you try to change something outside yourself, what are your chances of succeeding? Guess what your success rate is if you come up with that list of what you must change in yourself and you start working on that instead. 

If you don’t face the dread of changing from within, the changes outside will always look dreadful to you.

So you see, as it turns out, what waited for me ahead was quite the opposite of boredom. Everything about my days and my hours and my sumptuous seconds has become an adventure. An exploration. A discovery. Every desire and passion and excitement is being met by the life around me. And however I see things, I know that I have the power to change how I see it.

Now, before you imagine me in a Dora wig jumping over rainbows, I have to explain that these experiences are all very subtle. It is not a production number. It is not stuff for movies. But that’s what makes it so beautiful.

So many of us picture and want such big things from life that we fail to notice how the small moments are the big things. It’s those small things our lives are made of that make the whole special. It’s not boring at all, it’s revolutionary. At the same time, I find that I am able to care more for others because of how present I am. Because all my opinions and emotions are no longer a birthright, I willingly and happily adapt and adjust to the needs of the people I love. I have all this extra space for change.

It was only ever dreadful to move forward because it was the unknown. This is why Buddhism teaches stillness and meditation, so that all the unknowns within and without us can come forth and come close; so that we get to examine and understand and know where change must take place for growth to persist. We have gotten so used to looking outside of ourselves so much that the smallest opening to go within terrifies us. It is like the fact that humanity has explored more of outer space than the depths of our own oceans. We look up to beg from our Gods but look down on the the person right in front of us in the mirror who actually has all this power. The real secrets are inside us. And if only we dare go there, we will find that a life of endless wonder, fascination, discovery, and creation awaits.

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