In this piece and the next one, I am going to talk about healthy doubt as a tool for opening up beyond the limitation of our egos. In contrast to negative, reactive doubt, doubt which includes deep questioning can be an effective tool in moving through the layers of sediment that clog up our ability to fully appreciate our lives.
Our doubting mind has several positive features. For example, it may pull us back from making a choice before we have thoroughly examined alternatives. Many years ago I was trying to settle on a spiritual community to commit myself to in order to support my fledgling meditation practice. I wanted to practice in a context where I could get the most support in drilling into my psyche to discover the well of timelessness and the water of contentment that lies at its center. I went back and forth between the San Francisco Zen Center and the Vedanta Society, skeptically looking at each alternative as I weighing their pros and cons. This process of careful deliberation, as well as the doubting that went along with it, enabled me to choose a practice that has resonated with me for many years.
Unlike many spiritual practitioners who value belief rather than doubt, Zen practitioners are encouraged to question any and all beliefs. We don’t have a god or other authority figure that we need to have faith in. Instead, doubt is our ally, helping us weigh our choices and dive deep below any and all conventional truisms.
In many cases, doubting the authority of a specific spiritual teacher is very healthy. The role of a teacher is to encourage us to deeply search for something beyond the limitation of belief so that we may both overcome complacency and loosening preconceived ideas. This needs to include any and all ideas that are spiritual in nature. And sometimes we need to ask ourselves whether a given teacher is really helping us do this.
It is so easy to fall into “doubt denial” because we don’t want to pay the price of giving up our attachment to “received wisdom,” whether it be from a teacher, religious institution, or belief system.
Skeptical doubt in spiritual and psychological exploration, as in science, is healthy and useful. “Be a lamp unto yourself,” said the historical Buddha to his disciples as he was near death and they were crowding around to receive his final teaching.
Serious meditation practitioners are well served by doubt, especially if they can use their questioning to drill down below all the sediment that clogs up the spaciousness of the Buddha nature or clear sky mind.
There’s an expression in Rinzai Zen that faith and doubt are equally important in the quest to tap into that spaciousness and clarity—-faith that if we keep drilling, keep questioning, keep asking, we will, indeed tap into this spaciousness.
A healthy complement to this is to doubt in any and all beliefs that we get attached to along the way.
In my childhood I was exposed to my grandparents’ Catholicism in which faith is crucial and doubt suspect. I was also exposed to my parents’ Unitarian Church, in which doubt was crucial and faith suspect. I was encouraged to doubt all so-called religious beliefs or doctrines by my minister. And in Zen practice, faith and doubt are equally important. Or, one could say that it’s important that we have enough faith to stay with the process of deeply doubting so that we can move to a deeper level of being.
When you are locked into a specific emotion you might ask yourself, “Who’s upset? Who am I? Who is angry? Who is depressed? Who is nervous? Who is struggling? Who wants to be enlightened?”
This deep questioning can be very fruitful if we keep with it. “Keeping with it” or determination is the third leg of the Zen practice stool, the first two being doubt and faith per above.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher