Saying adios to doubt

In traditional Buddhist teaching, doubt is a hindrance to progress. Now the English word doubt can also mean something positive. It can refer to the kind of skeptical inquiry upon which 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.

7. Reflect

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.

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14 Comments. Leave new

  • Boy, when I saw your posting on Facebook I immediately identified with it. As a self-employed creative person, it’s all too easy for me to lapse into self-doubt, which then in turn leads to a depressed state.

    It seems creative individuals struggle to self-validate because our society teaches us to place value on things that (have the appearance of) giving us worth from without, rather than from within.

    Anyway, what I find most helpful when the fear and doubt take hold, is to count my blessings and try to feel grateful for what I do have, rather than remorseful for what I don’t.

  • Thanks for writing, Scott. Replacing complaints with appreciation is a great practice. It’s been shown that writing a letter of appreciation can boost your mood measurably for two weeks!

  • Aloha, Bodhipaksa! Your post on doubt was so timely for me. Doubt is harder for me to recognize than most mind states. I tend to believe the “I’m not worth anything” thoughts. The Don’t Believe Everything You Think tip is very helpful. Sometimes, though, it just helps to ask a trusted friend to give me a reality check. Often meditation teachers do that for us, too, and it’s so helpful!

    • Ah, yes, spiritual friends are the bomb. There’s nothing like a reality check, and sometimes that’s even more useful when it’s not sugar-coated!

  • I instinctively link doubt to fear – fear of failure, fear of not being able to achieve – it can become paralysing, and somewhat self-fufilling

  • Ah, yes. Fear and doubt are very closely related. Very often doubt arises either when we hit a snag and our self-confidence collapses (we’re scared to push on and see what happens) or when we change coming — even positive change — and think we can’t handle it.

  • “In traditional Buddhist teaching, doubt is a hindrance to progress.”

    Given the importance of doubt (and faith and determination) in koan study, it kinda depends on the tradition being taught, doesn’t it?

    • You need to bear in mind my comments beyond the first sentence of the article. In English, there are phenomena covered by the word “doubt” that are spiritually useful. The same is true in Japanese/Chinese, although not in the Pali tradition, where investigation and questioning are seen as valuable, but where the word vicikiccha (which is what is translated here as doubt) is never used positively.

  • Thank you for your response.

    • I just reread my comment and realized it could come across as snarky — at least the comment “beyond the first sentence.” I meant to say “following the first sentence,” not to imply that the first sentence was all you’d read. I should never reply to comments when I’m in a hurry.

  • Thanks Bodhipaksa.
    I’ve often found reflecting on vicikiccha in the light of my reluctance to commit to change.
    The purposeful muddying (storytelling) of the waters means that I don’t see the thing I need to do clearly so I can remain comfortable (in a suffering sort of way :-). Unintegrated parts of me are having a little tussle – Desire to Grow and Expand v. Tight, Nervous Ego.
    It’s great to uncover and work mettafully with doubt – it being one of the Three Fetters needing to be broken before Stream Entry means that any transformation is very rewarding.
    The help of friends is invaluable, seeing myself and my potential through their eyes is literally enCOURAG(E)ing (and also helps break the Fetter of Fixed Self View – hooray!).

  • […] is the founder of Wildmind’s Buddhist meditation blog.  His post this week on “saying adios to doubt” is a thoughtful look at how our inner critic uses doubt as a tool to undermine us or hold us […]

  • Hmm… so we need to have scepticism about our doubt? The English language can be a bit misleading sometimes. IMHO a better translation of “vicikiccha” might be “suspicion”. This is the negative and fear-based rumination that is such a deadly part of clinical depression. Scepticism or healthy doubt looks for evidence or proof — it challenges. I believe the Buddha himself praised this approach. Suspicion confirms itself with further fearful thoughts.

    I love your clear, thoughtful writing and comments, Bodhipaksa. Your wisdom and compassion shine through everything you say.

    • Thank you for the compliment.

      “Suspicion” certainly can be negative and fear-based, but it can also be rational and healthy, as when a doctor has a suspicion, based on particular symptoms, that a patient may have a certain disease. There’s no fear, just an educated hunch.

      I’m quite sure that the Buddha faced the same kinds of problems with language as we do, and in fact I have a suspicion (sorry!) that it was even harder for him to find appropriate terms since the languages he was familiar to had a much smaller vocabulary than modern English; the PTS dictionary, for example, has only about 17,000 entry-words. He would have been using words that were used in popular speech, and trying to make them function as technical terms. We have to do the same thing, and the best we can do is to be clear about what we mean by the words we choose so that we reduce the risk of confusion.


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