This is my second post on doubt, the last of the Five Hindrances Buddha discussed- difficult energies which arises in the mind and life for those with meditation practices.
Recently, I saw a movie about Winston Churchill at a major time of crisis during World War II. The predominant feeling in the UK was that the Nazis couldn’t be stopped. Churchill was Britain’s only leader who was able to put his doubt aside. In doing so, he pulled the entire nation out of its collective depression and mobilized what turned out to be a successful defense of the homeland and Western Europe. How many of us have Churchill’s steady determination and resolve in spite of being surrounded by doubt?
Doubt often evokes scatteredness in which we can’t make our mind up about anything. When this happens, simply bringing our mind back to our immediate bodily sensations is often not helpful because the mind is immediately off and running again.
When this happens, we may want to talk to our doubt. We may say something like, “Thank you doubt for trying to protect me, but I want to live with a sense of adventure, follow my dream of doing my best to unburden my mind of thought.” And sometimes we may want to remind ourselves, “This doubt is neither me nor mine; it arises from causes and conditions, and it will pass with the passing of those causes and conditions.”
Clinging or grasping gives doubt considerable power as it undercuts our aspirations. Maybe our doubt is based on a sense that our life is not controllable. Can we accept this, along with the uncertainty that arises because life is unpredictable and often painful? When our minds contract around this uncertainty, doubt may change from unpleasant discomfort to excruciating suffering.
When this contraction happens, maybe we can remind ourselves that risk, failure, and not knowing the right thing to do are an intricate part of life. Maybe we can even embrace ignorance, frailty, and failures. When we do this,our tolerance for uncertainty grows. We may even discover that we are able to sit steadfastly on our cushions regardless of how big our doubt is.
Since life is always changing, we all have a degree of anxiety about the future. This anxiety is always based on our projections from the past, who we once were, and what we perceived to be important. When the future arrives, you are bound to be different, as will the circumstances. As Mark Twain said, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes – most of which have never happened.” It is possible to be at ease with our doubt, to take advantage of the energy of our anxiety without being caught in the stories. Often it’s the case that once strong doubt takes hold, all our other anxieties will join in. But we don’t need to be defined by any particular constellation of thoughts and/or emotion.
And sometimes we are unable to recognize when we are caught in doubt. We may be afraid that if we let it in at all, it will take over. But everyone experiences anxiety at times, which is often elicited by doubt. I can remember my friend being incredulous when I told him that our Zen teacher, Dainin Katagiri, sometimes experienced anxiety before his public talks. My friend needed to believe his Zen teacher was strong and invulnerable. By avoiding doubt about someone else, we keep our own doubt at bay. But denial forces you not to look at the full range of possibilities in our lives.
Our body reacts in recognizable ways when strong doubt arises. We may experience fluttering in the stomach, burning of the eyes, body tension, lack of energy, anxiety, fuzzy thinking, vagueness, or not feeling present at all to our moment-to-moment experience. These feelings/sensations may reappear each time there is strong doubt. And once we’ve identified these sensations, you can allow doubt to be present without needing to do something about it. Our nervous system is quite capable of handling it.
And if we continue to be deeply discouraged by doubt, we might ask, “Am I clinging to an old view of myself or of how life is supposed to be? Does this view or attitude need to die?”
To go forward in the face of doubt requires trust, courage, and a suspension of disbelief in our own power to transform.
At the beginning of an acting class I had in college the teacher said to us all, “If you want to improve your acting skill during the next 12 weeks, it might be best for you to suspend any and all judgment about the value of the process I am taking you through and just give yourself to it.” That was the best acting class I had because I was able to hold my critical mind in abeyance and experience something quite transformative. I am confident that you can do that, too.
Let me end with a passage from Rilke:
“We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. . . . we must hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. . . . Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.“
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher