In traditional Buddhist teaching, doubt is a hindrance to progress. Now the English word doubt can also mean something positive — the kind of skeptical enquiry upon when rational thought, science, and even true spiritual practice are based — but the hindrance of doubt is not a helpful thing. While healthy skepticism is an essential part of a search for truth, the hindrance of doubt (vicikiccha) is an avoidance or even denial of the truth.
Doubt is a form of storytelling. It’s the lies we tell ourselves. So when we hit an obstacle and tell ourselves “I can’t do this” or “this is a stupid task anyway,” that’s doubt. When we tell ourselves “this always happens,” that’s doubt. When we’re feeling depressed and hopeless and think that things will never change, that’s doubt.
The root of the word vicikiccha is cikicchati, a verb meaning “reflecting, thinking over.” That sounds like a good thing, right? But then we add the prefix “vi-“ and we go from “thinking” to something more like “over-thinking,” or ruminating. That’s not so helpful. Doubt is a kind of cognitive distortion: an inability to see what’s really going on, and an inability to recognize our own potential.
When we’re in a state of doubt, we profoundly limit ourselves. We believe the stories we tell ourselves, and so we end up stuck. We lose touch with our memories and experience of change and growth and competence.
If we’re hit by doubt while writing, we say “I can’t write,” and forget about all the times that our writing has come fluently. (Writer’s block is a classic form of doubt).
When doubt hits us and we tell ourselves “nobody likes me, I’m always alone,” we don’t recognize or value the connections we have with others. We forget about all the friendships we’ve had in the past, or currently have.
We can become so invested in the doubt that we’ll concoct all kinds of stories to explain away evidence that contradicts our narrative of hopelessness. If someone says “Yes, but I love you and care for you” we might tell ourselves “they’re only saying that to make me feel better” or think that if they like us their friendship can’t be worth much. Isn’t it crazy?
So how can we deal with doubt? Here are a few tips:
1. Link unhappiness and inner enquiry
First we have to recognize that what we’re experiencing is doubt. And that’s not easy. We live inside a web of stories, and rarely question our interpretation of reality, assuming that our interpretation is reality. So here’s a suggestion: when you’re not feeling happy, take a look at what your mind is doing to cause your unhappiness. We feel down, and we check to see what thought-patterns and emotional habits are making us miserable. This healthy skepticism becomes a habit. Once this habit becomes established, it’s harder to stay in a state of doubt.
2. Don’t believe everything you think
We need then to question the thought patterns that are presenting themselves to us, and look for more creative responses. So if we find ourselves saying “This isn’t fair — life sucks” we can remind ourselves that life has ups and downs, and that just as the ups are impermanent, so are the downs. If we’re telling ourselves that we can’t write, and that everything that comes from our pen is trite, we can remind ourselves that that’s what editing’s for, or remind ourselves of past successes.
3. But don’t judge your doubt
It’s tempting to say “Oh, heck, I’m experiencing doubt. How stupid of me. I’m always doing that. I’m a terrible person.” Hey, wait a minute. Isn’t that just more doubt? Yup, unfortunately doubt has a way of hijacking the mind, so that recognizing doubt is just another excuse to experience more doubt.
So we also have to train ourselves to be nonjudgmental about our doubt. Doubt is just one of these things that happens. It’s no big deal. Just note the thoughts and let them go.
4. Give your doubt a name
Jack Kornfield suggeste that we give our inner critic a name. We can then listen to our doubts and then say, “OK, Betty. I’ll get back to you on that.”
It’s a great idea.
5. Align your spine
When we feel low, we actually physically get low, by slumping. When we slump we can’t breathe properly, and the brain runs at low efficiency, keeping us in a state of doubt.
So sit up! Upen your chest. And as we say in Britain, “Keep your pecker up.” (That always gets a smile from my American friends. Honestly, it means the same as “keep your chin up.”)
6. Connect with Awakening
Sometimes we can reach out to, and surrender to, our own potential Buddhahood. I often find the phrase, “All beings are, from the very beginning, Buddhas,” going through my head. It’s a way of reminding myself of my potential. Another way of doing the same thing is to call to mind a Buddha or Bodhisattava, like Tara or Avalokiteshvara. Surrendering ourselves to these figures (who are simply embodiments of our potential) is a way of embracing change — and change, fundamentally, is what doubt tries to deny. Doubt and an awareness of change cannot long coexist, and so calling our potential to mind is a way of saying “adios” to doubt.
The traditional way to dispel doubt is to reflect on the Dharma (the path and teachings that help us reach enlightenment). I’ve always thought “Oh, yeah, right!” when it comes to the effectiveness of this kind of reflection. But a few weeks ago I was sleep-deprived and feeling low, and I found myself reflecting that all things arise from conditions (the traditional teaching of pratitya-samutpada, or conditioned co-arising) and found that within seconds, almost, my doubt was gone.
So the tips above constitute a kind of toolbox for dealing with doubt. They’ve worked for me, and I hope they work for you.
Do you have any tips of your own that you’d like to share? If so, take a moment to comment below.