Recently, I was listening to a talk given by a Tibetan Buddhist lama. He noted that doubt was a common stumbling block for many of his students here in the West. He believed that this was because, as a culture, we take great pride in cleverness, and as a result of putting such a great social premium on the intellect, we have become increasingly neurotic. This made me think of one of my favorite movies, Woody Allen’s "Annie Hall." The plot revolves around the relationship between Alvy and Annie -- two native New Yorkers who spend the majority of their time neurotically analyzing their relationship and life in general. In the end, their neuroticism only serves to fuel their doubts and their relationship ends. Although I can’t vouch for whether or not this particular Buddhist teacher had ever seen Annie Hall, it is for me, at least, the perfect example of how doubt creates undue havoc and misery.
The Five Hindrances of Nirvana
In Buddhism, doubt is considered one of the five mental hindrances on the path to nirvana. The other four are desire, aversion, lethargy and anxiety. These thought patterns sabotage our ability to be mindful and fully present in our lives. They are mental states that impede our ability to focus and obstruct our meditation practice. When we over-analyze, doubts arise and we rob ourselves of the opportunity to learn to be at peace with whatever situation we find ourselves in. (Read on in Exploring Aversion.)
Doubt is one of the most insidious of all the mental hindrances. It is as destructive as anger, only more sly and underhanded. When we are bitten by doubt, it poisons our entire thought-stream. Everything gets thrown into question, and as it sinks its metaphorical teeth deeper into our spirit, we watch our entire life become a series of “what ifs?”
As a culture, we have been instructed to trust our intellect above all else. In the towers of academia we are taught to focus on researching and on proving or disproving theories. Although this approach can be useful in day-to-day life, like when researching what stocks to buy or determining the best time of year to plant a garden, it has limitations in our spiritual life. (Read more on The Nature of Fear.)
Have a Little Faith
The antidote to doubt is love and a deep sense of faith. There is nothing intellectual or particularly factual about having faith. To be clear, I’m referring to faith in secular terms here and not religious terms. Faith in life, faith in humanity, in the goodness of others, faith in the Universe, whatever you want to call it. By nurturing and cultivating this inner taproot, we can anchor ourselves against doubt.
I am not advising for blind faith here; healthy skepticism is a good thing. Learning how to think for oneself is an invaluable lifelong tool. What I’m talking about is having faith in which, despite our suffering, there is still a fundamental "OK-ness" to our life. Our life is workable. It’s not broken. Let’s call it smart faith. We get to choose our karma because we get to choose our actions and how we respond to situations. If we get blindsided by doubt, our ability to take action and see clearly is hampered. We then begin to victimize ourselves and forget that we have an inherent power to be our own agent of change. This is why surrendering to faith is so powerful. We learn to gracefully accept that which we cannot change, focusing instead on the things we can. (Learn more in Vulnerability and Bravery.)
Faith gives us the strength to move on with our life. It gives us something to believe in and something to hope for. You don’t need to be religious to have faith. In fact, it may be better if you’re not. You can be an atheist and still have faith that there is a seed of goodness within every human being. You can be a pessimist and have faith that there is a solution to every problem. You can be a student of yoga and have faith that there is a greater universal consciousness we are all a part of. What you have faith in doesn’t really matter. The point is having faith. Sometimes, we have questions we simply do not have the answers to in life. Having faith allows us to take action and move forward instead of being trapped by our thoughts. (Try A Meditation on the Universal Self.)
The RAIN Technique
Doubt is masterful at creating in us a sticky kind of inertia. It puts us on hold. The point of life is to live it, not press the pause button until everything lines up perfectly the way we want it to. Doubt paralyzes us and keeps us in a state of fearful unease. It is the voice of our inner critic.
Insight Meditation provides a powerful formula for dealing with mental hindrances when they arise. It is called RAIN, and it is an acronym for:
- R-Recognize the hindrance is arising.
- A-Accept it’s presence in your mind and body.
- I-Investigate how it feels, both emotionally and physically, what event or thought sparked it and what stories you’re telling yourself about the reasons for why you are having doubt.
- N-Non-identification, recognize that it is a passing and impermanent emotional state, not a definition of who you are as a person.
Take the Plunge
Living a full life requires a measure of surrender to the unknown. It’s like taking a plunge into a mysterious mountain lake whose waters are such a deep shade of indigo that you can’t see further than a hand's width below the surface. There is only one way to jump - by embracing the fear and doing it anyway.