Believing the Impossible

Something that has been a defining part of my psyche and that I have worked with quite a bit in my practice is doubt. Particularly self-doubt. I know I’m not alone as most of us, at some point, if not many points in our lives, experience self-doubt. It’s not for nothing that the Buddha named doubt as one of the first three ‘fetters’ which when seen through and ‘broken’ mean significant progress on the spiritual path. Doubt is a powerful and deep force in the mind and can be painful to experience.

Self-doubt can make us feel uncertain about our choices or lacking in confidence. It can make me doubt the words I put on these pages, question whether I’m saying anything of relevance or even if my words make sense. Whatever evidence there is to the contrary, doubt is that little undermining voice, that squirmy unsettling feeling. It might just appear once in a while or seem to be ever present. It can hold us back from action in an endless round of second guessing ourselves.

A few months ago, I came across a podcast series from the BBC called ‘How They Made Us Doubt’. Maybe some of you listened to the dozen or so episodes? I listened while I cooked lunch, so the recordings didn’t have my fullest attention, but enough get a clear sense of the damage done through the deliberate introduction of doubt into public discourse.

There were two main targets: firstly, from the 1950’s onwards around the effects of smoking on our health, and in more recent decades, focusing on human made climate change. The podcasts showed evidence of a documented and deliberate policy of the tobacco and fossil fuel industries to seed enough doubt to sew confusion about the harms done despite overwhelming scientific research to the contrary.

I find this manipulation of information in the world we live in mirrored by the way doubt or self-doubt works in our minds and affects our views, opinions, and choices. Doubt is insidious, it promotes an alternate and distorted perspective. It plays on ‘what if?’, and ‘how can I be absolutely sure?’ Doubt plays a game of smokes and mirrors leaving confusion and paralysis in its wake. It creates an equal playing field by giving a platform to the almost impossible – and in the process making it seem entirely possible.

We can see doubt working in our own minds like any other mental ‘object’; it needs observing, feeling into, and to be seen for what it is. But this is easier said than done as it is such a slippery, amorphous mind state. I find a number of things help once doubt has been identified in our experience.

  1. Check if you’re identified with it. Are we believing what doubt is saying about us, or about a situation? Recognising the identification and the belief that it is true will help release its grip, enabling us to see it more clearly.
  2. Seeing through the view that we have to take doubt’s perspective into account. (We all know now that smoking is bad for us!)
  3. Treating it like ’Mara’, a mischief making, undermining voice that we can safely ignore. (I’ll keep writing despite its whisperings!)
  4. Remembering that the Buddha experienced doubt right until on the point of Enlightenment. It’s not a mistake or failure to experience it.

We can remember too that in Buddhism doubt is not all bad, with sayings such as ‘the bigger the doubt the bigger the Buddha,’ or ‘great doubt, great awakening’. These aphorisms are talking about the potential of doubt; that searching questioning quality of mind that doesn’t close down options prematurely.

Our job is to feel into and distinguish between doubt that is helpful to the path, and doubt that leads to more suffering.

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