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I became a Buddhist for a reason.  This was after many years of living without faith, without religion.

In my late teens I faced a prolonged period of personal and familial hardship.  My mom had attempted suicide.  My parents were engaged in acrimonious divorce proceedings and  both wanted me to take care of their emotional needs and join their side of the battle.  In a desperate act to preserve my sense of self and not be used up by the manipulation and emotional incest, I cut my parents off.  I was painted as a traitor by my sisters and extended family for this action.  It was a time of intense personal pain and isolation.  Prayer didn’t seem to help and I experienced a loss of faith in God, Gods, or even a benevolent (if unresponsive) Universe.

Several years later I returned to religion consciously and with a purpose.  I knew I didn’t have faith but I was determined to have it again because I had been happier when I believed in something.  I had been a better person too.  And my panic attacks were getting worse.

Since the age of 8 or so I have suffered from anxiety attacks that would come on when I would consider existential questions.  These make up an intense “death anxiety” but is more than just a fear of death, more a fear of ego-obliteration or equally terrifying, a fear of ego-permanence in a meaningless and unsatisfactory Universe.  The attacks would come on mostly at night before falling asleep, but could also be triggered by other circumstances.  Dark movie theaters used to bring it on for me when I was young, looking at the expanse of the starry sky (which was overwhelmingly large and made me feel overwhelmingly small), or classroom lessons on astronomy.  My father was aware of the extent of my anxiety but had nothing more reassuring to suggest than that “no one knows what happens when you die, but that I would feel differently when I was older.”  Psychotherapy or pastoral counseling would have been helpful but this was never suggested and so I endured years of paralyzing anxiety and tearful bedtimes and eventually found ways to cope… mostly distraction.

Throughout the years periods of more intense anxiety (attacks multiple times of day for months on end) would alternate with periods of lesser anxiety (a handful of attacks or less over the course of several months).  Periods of attacks were worst when I had less religion and spirituality in my life.  The idea of faith – of saying that it is okay to not know the answer and to trust in a benevolent and loving Universe that things will work out in a way that I cannot understand as a mere human – helped.  Acceptance was the antidote to anxiety.  I discovered this as a Buddhist.  My anxiety lifted.  Religion was an answer for me.  Faith was an answer.

This is not the answer for everyone.  Irvin Yalom, a famous (Atheist) Existential Psychologist, wrote a book entitled Staring at the Sun, which deals with overcoming fear of death from a non-religious perspective.  His work is noteworthy.  Krishnamurti suggests that mental enslavement comes from running from fears to religious institutions or attitudes that soothe.  I am cognizant of that.  I sometimes wonder if my need for religion implies weakness or a desire for ignorance.

… but I don’t think so.  I don’t think that my need for religion is weakness because I have lived both ways and I know I can live both ways.  I am strong enough to endure my fears.  I have done so for many years.  I don’t think that my need for religion implies a desire for ignorance because I understand that I have a choice and I make my choice mindfully.  I have considered the costs and the benefits.  It is not only my anxiety that leads me to religion.  I consider also the sort of person I am.  When I had God or the spiritual path in my life I was kinder.  I had a sense of purpose and meaning.  I avoided wrong deeds.  I felt connected to nature and to other humans.  I felt joyful and in connection with something greater than myself.  When I did not have God or the spiritual path in my life I felt isolated, closed off, purposeless, and anxious.  I had an easier time rationalizing wrong-doing.  I want to be the better person.  I want to be the person who is loving, kind, forgiving, generous, and lives a life of meaning.

So here I am again.  In the last 6 months I have read so much about cults, destructive religions, and manipulation that my faith is in jeopardy again.  I am disenchanted with Tibetan Buddhism.  I am distrusting my spiritual experiences.  I am back at the crossroads, the dark night of the soul.  And my existential panic attacks have returned.  And I know where this path leads and I do not need to go there again.

I am here at the crossroads and I know now that I am someone who needs religion.  I need faith and spirituality.  And maybe they are all tainted with cult tendencies.  And maybe they are all a little wrong just as they are all a little right.  And I think that maybe it doesn’t matter so much which one I pick, which path I follow next, so long as I have a path to follow.

Would Krishnamurti be disappointed?  Maybe.  And maybe that doesn’t matter.  He’s just another guy after all.

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