This is a rather epic blog about the future and the nature of stress. Looking back from the vantage of 2022, I can see how the eight years of practice that followed this blog further anchored my day-to-day experience into a less stressy place.
Interestingly, this blog was before I really plunged into the world of somatic practice with Reggie Ray and fully immersed myself in the fleshy present.
The fifth thought that I recall from Ajahn Sucitto’s talk touches on how time creates suffering:
Nibbana is the abolition of the future.
This arose in reply to that meditator struggling with the sense of ‘so what?’ in his practice. Sucitto talked about the very subtle levels of stress that occur as soon as we ‘intend’ something. As soon as the mind constructs a future with our intentions unfolding into it, we are away from the current source of happiness. We believe ardently (but foolishly from a Buddhist point of view) that thinking, planning, and policing our future will make us happy. Counter-intuitively, it’s the thing that is making us unhappy.
I am keenly aware of this.
Recently, I moved away from London, where I had lived for 13 years and took a house down by the sea in Sussex. This was not me following some romantic seaside idyll. The move was undertaken in the hazy, dissociated sleepwalking of someone fleeing from a battle scene. Senses blurred, only innate intuition guiding. Now, months later, I wake up in this house overlooking the harbour and scratch my head about how on earth I got myself here in one piece.
My mind has been a relentless firestorm of anxious planning, forward projection, scanning the horizon for disaster and attack
Part of the reason for my zombie-like state when I moved here was (I believe) the consequences of 40+ years of extreme inner stress.
My external life has been one of unalloyed good fortune – being born human, born in England, born to prosperous parents. Well-educated, blessed in career and friends. But internally, my mind has been a relentless firestorm of anxious planning, forward projection, scanning the horizon for disaster and attack. And aged 43, in the darkish night of the soul (it seems I and many of my contemporaries are lurching through), my mind finally gave up and collapsed into a tired heap.
Part of my enthusiastic return to samadhi practice is to do with this breakdown. Until I was able to stop fabricating futures full of anxiety and sit still and breathe, then my mind would never get better. And this is completely in line with Buddhist thinking.
Another Theravadan teacher, Ajahn Thanissaro, is a forthright speaker and skilled translator, and he always renders the key Buddhist concept of dukkha as “stress” rather than the more usual “suffering”. All our suffering in the world comes from things we do with our minds. We experience pleasure and pain in our bodies (like all animals) but what we do with those sensations creates suffering or dukkha.
We may lose something (as all things are bound to be lost at some point), and we bewail this as a personal tragedy: “Why did he leave? What is wrong with me? With him? With the world?”. It’s like bewailing the unfairness of the universe when a lightbulb blows. That’s what lightbulbs do. They shine, and then they stop shining. Similarly, people don’t hang around according to our whims and wishes. Death takes them, or more often, they take themselves where their whims and desires lead them.
Things and people and jobs and good and bad fortune move in and out of our lives all the time.
Not getting the things you like or getting stuck with the things you don’t like is part of life. Things, people, jobs, good and bad fortune move in and out of our lives all the time, impacting us as they do so. And, of course, the grief of loss is real, and I’m not advocating some hard-hearted ‘stiff upper lip’. But while we can tend to hurt and lose, we don’t need to create the oceans of extra suffering we habitually do.
In a given life, particularly one in the hyper-privileged West, there are relatively few periods of pain caused by external circumstances like hunger, disease, disaster, warfare, etc. However, these external sources of stress are nothing compared to the relentless and permanent stress created by our minds.
Usually, these ripples of unease, anxious checking and counter-checking patterns begin early in life.
Being an infant is a world of terror as well as bliss. There is the beautiful feeling of being wrapped in a mother’s love — but we are also hard-wired to freak out completely if there’s the slightest possibility of that mother-love vanishing, with good reason. Without a food-bearing, protective mother or father, we would die, almost within a day.
The Hindu creation myth begins with a Void. Then the thought “I am” arises, and then immediately after that, there is fear.
As soon as we exist as helpless human babies, there will always be the clanging sound of that fundamental anxiety in the wings.
Fear and our dance around it is the root of human stress.
Even as we glide into middle age, the echoes of that early terror still ring at the far edges of our consciousness. And in response to that frightening possibility, our minds and brains developed patterns (we call them personalities) that ensure this awful fear never really comes fully into consciousness. Our defences against it are as subcutaneous as the fear itself. We don’t consciously feel the fear, nor are we conscious of our habitual shapings around it.
However, that fear and our dance around it is the root of human stress.
Dharma practice is fully cognizant of this (though most Buddhist teachers don’t talk or consider early infant development). For practitioners, as soon as we slip out of the simple awareness of our body-in-the-world, breathing and being. Then instantly, there is the arising of “future” with an imagined “me” in it. And then, microseconds later, a whole forest of microscopic or massive anxieties springs up around it.
As soon as I lean out of the present, the first ripples of anxiety and stress begin.
I saw this when I first moved here by the seaside. A perfectly quiet and peaceful place – and I imagined my neighbours were criticising me. Or passers-by on the street were poised to attack me. At the time, I believed these thoughts. But now recognise how fried my mind was. I created these fears and sprayed them out on the world around me.
When I take a breath into the belly then the swell of anxiety becomes contained in the contours of my fleshy body
Even now, I see a slightly less paranoid but equally pernicious version of it. Whenever I catch myself thinking about the week ahead (even though it’s practically empty of serious events), I start to construct problems and potential solutions to those imagined problems in my head.
When I take a breath into the belly and feel my feet on the pavement or the lawn, then the swell of anxiety becomes contained in the contours of my fleshy body. But if I didn’t do it, then my whole body would unconsciously cramp with the endless proliferations of stressy thought.
The place and the body are not stressed. My mind creates stress in the place and my body. And the physical toll is real. Hence my physical collapse last year.
The habits of my mind are very well-established. I am sufficiently modest to realise that I can’t change them in a few months. Buddhists often think in lifetimes, but I’m more sanguine. I notice the benefit of these last three weeks of daily samadhi practice. It’s not miraculous, but I feel the repeated anchoring in the breath. The calming and noticing each time my mind leans into the future and creates stress. All this helps.
Another teacher from the other end of the Buddhist spectrum – Chögyam Trungpa – speaks to this subject all the time. He’s a little more direct, dashing our attachment to ‘hope’ which is a codeword for future-making:
[Practice] here means surrendering hope [.]… When we give up promises, potentials, possibilities, then we begin to realize that there is no burden of further imprisonment. We have been completely freed, even from hope, which is a really refreshing experience
No more future. A lot more refreshment.
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I’d love to know your thoughts about stress and meditation. Drop me a message with any ideas, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!