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How to respond to fear of non-attainment?

The question of how to have spiritual urgency without letting fear creep in has been on my mind since I began my journey into Buddhism nearly 2 years ago. I have come up with some answers on my own, but I thought maybe it would help to ask for other people’s thoughts on this too.

There’s a lot of emphasis on the importance of attaining stream entry in this life in Theravada. Which makes sense. There’s a skilful kind of “fear” or spiritual urgency that can really add a lot of fuel to one’s practice.

But then there’s this less helpful fear that can creep in. It’s the paralyzing fear of dying before the attainment of stream entry.
Instead of inspiring practice, this can cause one to become stuck like a deer in the headlights.

The thoughts I’ve come up with on my own so far are the following:

  1. The fear seems to be rooted in the sense of self. There’s a desire to go from being an unenlightened person to an enlightened person. To become something else. Which, as I gather from various teachers, is not a skilful way to go about this.

  2. I have thought about the question “What if in the next life, I continue to worry about not attaining stream entry instead of using that time to practice? And the life after that and so on?”
    This really demonstrates the futility of worrying like this.

  3. There’s also the fact that the good that you do is not lost.

  4. I’ve also thought about how the danger of falling off the path is actually much more immediate than future lives. It’s possible fall off the path in this very life, so it’s best to focus on staying with it right now in this moment.

All of these thoughts have lessened the fear. But it’s not totally gone. It seems that providing counter-arguments to worry-thoughts doesn’t make them cease. The mind seems to conveniently forget that we already settled this issue, and starts grasping at the fear again.

So I wanted to ask, does anyone have any thoughts on how to respond to this fear? Or personal experiences?
Much metta to you all!

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The way I am finding my way through this conundrum is using the advice Ajahn Brahm gives in a wonderful transcribed talk “ In the presence of Nibbana”.

Quote from this talk:

One Drop at a Time

The Buddha compares the practice of the Dhamma. to a pot filling up one drop at a time. There comes the moment when just one more drop falls into the pot, and then the pot overflows: the Dhamma. is seen. One never knows when the time for that last drop has arrived. The ordinary, unenlightened individual can never see this pot filling because it’s in a part of the mind which he or she as yet has no access to – but little by little it’s getting filled. One day it will become completely full, and it will spill over into the mind as you know it now and then lead one to the source, into this innermost mind, which is usually hidden by the defilements and the hindrances. This is when one starts to see the source, which the Buddha called “the house-builder,” the creator of birth and suffering.

So whether you are a monastic, or one with lay precepts, you never give up the effort and you never give up the training. This is a theme which runs throughout the Buddha’s teachings. If one gives up the training in virtue, meditation, and wisdom, one has no chance of success. But if one continues with the training, if one continues following the Buddha’s instructions, one will find that this training only leads one way. It leads to Nibbana .

This message is beautifully encapsulated in some of the best advice I ever got, given to me from a highly respected monk in Sri Lanka. It’s a piece of advice which I always value and keep in mind. He told me that at the end of each day, it doesn’t matter so much to what stage one has attained, or what you have achieved. What really matters is whether you have really practised to the limit of your ability that day – whether you have really tried your best – or whether you have been slack, and heedless, forgetting the Buddha’s teachings, and forgetting one’s faith that these teachings actually lead to Nibbana . If at the end of the day you look back and you know that you tried your best, then you are accumulating spiritual qualities, you are getting inwardly filled with these precious drops of water, and drawing closer to the goal. By continuing in this way, it will and must happen that Enlightenment will come to you as well. This reflection is a means of developing faith in the Buddha’s teachings.

The Buddha not only encouraged faith using the metaphoric “carrot” – the encouragement, incitement, and reassurance that this is a path which produces fruit; he also used “the stick.”. The stick is just reflecting and wisely seeing the consequences of going the wrong way – into the realm of craving and desire, of disappointment and frustration; into the realm of suffering; into realm of more births - - and uncertain births at that . Uncertain births produce uncertain results, sometimes with great suffering and great torment.

That is enough of a stick because it gives a sense of wholesome fear ( Ottappa ), the fear of the consequences of not continuing to make an effort, not continuing to walk this path, and not continuing to progress as far as your ability allows. It doesn’t matter where you are on the path as long as you are stepping forward, as long as every day another drop falls, filling up that great jar inside yourself. If you are doing that, in the sense that you are walking the path that leads to Nibbana .”

—end quote

(The monk Ajahn Brahm credits with the best advice he ever got was Ven. Ñāṇavimala Mahāthera, a German national who ordained and lived as a monk for over 50 years in Sri Lanka.)

You are not alone, many of us face these fears. Use the fear in a wholesome sense like the Buddha advised, don’t let it make you depressed. This only bogs you down.

:+1:t3: Focus on that!

So keep adding to the pot, drop by drop, you are getting closer to the goal :pray:t3::pray:t3::pray:t3:

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Great quote @Ficus, thank you!

I’ll just add one thought - I think that this fear also comes because we’re trying to “do” something while we should get rid of “the doer”. Having trust and faith in the Dhamma is very helpful to overcome that fear. As Ajahn Brahm often says we should abandon trying to do anything, just have trust in the training and do what should be done. Let go of all that doing and worrying, just trust and let the Dhamma happen.
Often when we look back we can see our progress on the path and reflect that all weird coincidences led us to the point we are now. Sometimes you can even feel that it was just meant to be like that, that Dhamma was guiding your path, probably you were on that path since many rebirths. Seeing that it’s easier to think that everything will happen when it should, nothing should be forced, just listen to the greatest teacher, the Buddha, and all great living teachers who speak from their own experience, follow instructions and let it go. Have faith that even if you won’t get enlightened in this lifetime you’re already on the path and if you’ll be following instructions you’ll have good kamma and will continue the path in next lifetimes. That’s how I often get rid of those kinds of fears :slight_smile:

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Wonderfully said @Nipaka :pray:t3:

So much of this fear in my Own experience was the fear of losing control. Again, a sense of ego and self that I was grasping on to, “ the doer” , like you said :grinning:.
Focusing on the process (vs “me doing this”) of following the 8-fold Path and confidence in the Buddha’s teachings helps allay the fears.
Sometimes we add to the pot, that’s good. Sometimes we don’t, that’s ok. Just keep on adding the good stuff to the best of your ability :pray:t3:

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I often have the same feeling, even though I work on my own and spend a large part of my work listening to Dhamma talks (I have my own small business with handmade items so I can create and listen).
I’m not married and I know that someday I’ll ordain, I try to prepare as much as I can, but it’s not easy to leave, especially in that not easy world’s situation. I also still have my family to support, I’m preparing them too, but well, it’s a process(3 elder women who worked hard to raise me - my mother, grandmother and aunt).
I think that the only way of dealing with that feeling of wasting time I know is just checking if I do as much as I can in the situation I am in and if I can really change anything. If not really, I just think about the good things I do, try to see when I’m pointing in the wrong direction and try to do more good instead and wait for what time will bring.

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Just popping in to remind everyone that the forum isn’t for discussing personal practice issues. A public forum is just too impersonal a space. We can, however, discuss general questions about meditation that can be answered with material from the EBTs.

Thank you for your understanding.

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This is a good example of a case of the hindrance restlessness and worry (remorse).

“If there is water in a pot, stirred by the wind, agitated, swaying and producing waves, a man with a normal faculty of sight could not properly recognize and see the image of his own face. In the same way, when one’s mind is possessed by restlessness and remorse, overpowered by restlessness and remorse, one cannot properly see the escape from restlessness and remorse that have arisen; then one does not properly understand one’s own welfare, nor that of another, nor that of both; and also texts memorized a long time ago do not come into one’s mind, not to speak of those not memorized.” —SN 46.55

Note this is an active hindrance, so it’s antidotes involve developing tranquillity:


To put this in doctrinal context, the fourth foundation of mindfulness (MN 10) comprises five groups which develop the duties appropriate to each of the four noble truths. The groups relevant here are the five hindrances (which are to be abandonded), and the seven factors of enlightenment (which are to be developed). In this case the tranquillity group of the 7 FoE is to be developed. The resultant decrease in stress is to be directly experienced:

“Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose,
illumination arose within me with regard to things never heard before:

‘This is the noble truth of stress’… ‘This noble truth of stress is to be
comprehended’ … ‘This noble truth of stress has been comprehended.’ …

“‘This is the noble truth of the origination of stress’ … ‘This noble truth of
the origination of stress is to be abandoned’ … ‘This noble truth of the
origination of stress has been abandoned.’ …

“‘This is the noble truth of the cessation of stress’ … ‘This noble truth of
the cessation of stress is to be directly experienced’ … ‘This noble truth of
the cessation of stress has been directly experienced.’ …

“‘This is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of
stress’ … ‘This noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation
of stress is to be developed’ … ‘This noble truth of the way of practice
leading to the cessation of stress has been developed.’—-SN 56.11

Nourishing serenity:

“And what is the food for the arising of unarisen serenity as a factor for Awakening, or for the growth & increase of serenity… once it has arisen? There is physical serenity & there is mental serenity. To foster appropriate attention to them: This is the food for the arising of unarisen serenity as a factor for Awakening, or for the growth & increase of serenity… once it has arisen.”—SN 46.51

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Ja388
The Master told this tale while dwelling in Jetavana, concerning a brother who feared death. He was born in Savatthi of good family and was ordained in the Faith: but he feared death and when he heard even a little moving of a bough, or falling of a stick or voice of bird or beast or any such thing, he was frightened by the fear of death, and went away shaking like a hare wounded in the belly. The Brethren in the Hall of Truth began to discuss, saying, “Sirs, they say a certain Brother, fearing death, runs away shaking when he hears even a little sound: now to beings in this world death is certain, life uncertain, and should not this be wisely borne in mind?” The Master found that this was their subject and that the Brother allowed he was afraid of death: so he said, “Brethren, he is not afraid of death for the first time,” and so he told an old tale.

Once upon a time when Brahmadatta was king in Benares, the Bodhisatta was conceived by a wild sow: in due time she brought forth two male young. One day she took them and lay down in a pit. An old woman of a village at the gate of Benares was coming home with a basket-full of cotton from the cotton field and tapping the ground with her stick. The sow heard the sound, and in fear of death left her young and ran away. The old woman saw the young pigs, and feeling towards them as to children of her own she put them in the basket and took them home: then she called the elder Mahatundila (Big-snout), the younger Cullatundila (Little-snout), and reared them like children. In time they grew up and became fat. When the old woman was asked to sell them for money, she answered, “They are my children,” and would not sell them.

On a certain feast-day some lewd fellows were drinking strong drink, and when their meat was done they considered where they could get meat: finding out that there were pigs in the old woman’s house, they took money and going there, said, “Mother, take this money and give us one of those pigs.” She said, “Enough, young men: are there people who would give their children to buyers to eat their flesh?” and so refused them. The fellows said, “Mother, pigs cannot be children of men, give them to us”: but they could not get this though they asked again and again.

Then they made the old woman drink strong drink, and when she was drunk, saying, “Mother, what will you do with the pigs? take the money and spend it,” they put pieces of money in her hand. She took the pieces saying, “I cannot give you Mahatundila, take Cullatundila.” “Where is he?” “There he is in that bush.” “Call him.” “I don’t see any food for him.” The fellows sent for a vessel of rice at a price. The old woman took it, and filling the pig’s trough which stood at the door she waited by it. Thirty fellows stood by with nooses in their hands. The old woman called him, “Come, little Cullatundila, come.” Mahatundila, hearing this, thought, “All this time mother has never given the call to Cullatundila, she always calls me first; certainly some danger must have arisen for us to-day.” He told his younger brother, saying, “Brother, mother is calling you, go and find out.” He went out, and seeing them standing by the food-trough he thought, “Death is come upon me to-day,” and so in fear of death he turned back shaking to his brother; and when he came back he could not contain himself but reeled about shaking. Mahatundila seeing him said, “Brother, you are shaking to-day and reeling and watching the entrance: why are you doing so?” He, explaining the thing that he had seen, spoke the first stanza—

Something strange to-day I fear:
The trough is full, and mistress by;
Men, noose in hand, are standing near:
To eat appears a jeopardy.

Then the Bodhisatta hearing him said, “Brother Cullatundila, the purpose for which my mother rears pigs all this time has to-day come to its fulfilment: do not grieve,” and so with sweet voice and the ease of a Buddha he expounded the law and spoke two stanzas—

You fear, and look for aid, and quake,
But, helpless, whither can you flee?
We’re fattened for our flesh’s sake:
Eat, Tundila, and cheerfully.

Plunge bold into the crystal pool,
Wash all the stains of sweat away:
You’ll find our ointment wonderful,
Whose fragrance never can decay.

Cullatundila hearing him, thought, “My brother says so to me: but it is never our custom to plunge into the pool, and by bathing to wash away sweat from our bodies and after taking away old stain to get new ointment: why does my brother say so to me?” So he spoke the fourth stanza—

But what is that fair crystal pool,
And what the stains of sweat, I pray?
And what the ointment wonderful,
Whose fragrance never can decay?

The Bodhisatta hearing this said, “Then listen with attentive ear,” and so expounding the law with the ease of a Buddha he spoke these stanzas—

The law is the fair crystal pool,
Sin is the stain of sweat, they say:
Virtue’s the ointment wonderful,
Whose fragrance never will decay.

Men that lose their life are glad,
Men that keep it feel annoy:
Men should die and not be sad,
As at mid-month’s festal joy.

After the lesson, the Master declared the Truths and identified the Birth—at the end of the Truths the Brother who feared death was established in the fruition of the first Path—“In those days the king was Ananda, Cullatundila was the Brother who fears death, the multitude was the Congregation, Mahatundila myself.”

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If you remove the idea of enlightenment altogether from the teachings, you would see that the path is a good way of living considering the first two noble truths. The vast majority of us are following the path without knowing what the third noble truth really means, and we are doing just fine i guess :smiley:

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sorry, need to read more carefully and find another space,

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Thank you I did not know that, have deleted my posts. Does that mean this whole thread is against the rules?

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I feel like this thread is toeing the line. I’m not sure if it’s explicitly about personal practice. But it’s hard to avoid including personal practice with this subject. Since the conversation here is pretty much finished, perhaps it’d be useful to lock it, so it doesn’t keep popping up on top of the feed? I’ll leave it up to the mods. I’ll keep my threads more strictly in line with forum guidelines in the future.

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Pretty much, yes. :slightly_smiling_face:

It’s entirely possible to phrase these types of questions and answers like the information you would find in a book.

I’ll go ahead and close it.

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