I Seriously Doubt It

Doubt is a common barrier to regular meditation practice. It’s right up there with finding time for practice, sleepiness while meditating, and restlessness of mind or body while meditating. There is even instruction in Buddhism for overcoming these barriers. Doubt makes appearances in my meditation practice. Rather than struggle with doubt by denying its presence or exaggerating its significance, I strive to follow the process of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Have doubt–take a friendly or neutral attitude toward it–notice the thoughts my mind thinks about doubt–pay attention to how these thoughts influence my emotions and other sensations in my body–decide how doubt could be used in service of the valued direction for my life–and set goals accordingly.

Have doubt. That’s easier said than done. My mind wants to read doubt as a signal of a problem. When I meditate and doubt shows up, I have noticed I follow my problem-solving mind out of the present moment and  into the hunt for the remedy to doubt. The thoughts sound something like, “This isn’t working” or “I’m not doing it right.” The path then is a mission to discover how to make the practice better or make me better by finding the “cause” (i.e. who or what is to blame) of doubt. I have an agenda. Until I satisfy the agenda, I have to keep struggling with doubt. Finding the cause of a problem in the external world is a useful strategy. For the internal world, where thoughts and feelings appear and dissolve spontaneously, seeking to eradicate doubt is ineffective.

It’s like I’m working a control box with two dials on it, “Discomfort” and “Willingness.” I’m trying to turn down that Discomfort dial. Doubt feels heavy. I feel disheartened. The thoughts turn into, “Here I go again, giving up something that is good for me because it got difficult,” or “When will I finally get it together?” In trying to dial down my discomfort, I’ve turned myself into a problem. Now I’m using blame, attempting to motivate me to correct my behavior. The trouble is, blame feels bad, too. This is usually the point that every other possible activity suddenly seems  more interesting than meditating. In trying to free myself from doubt, I’ve increased the struggle with it. I’ve turned doubt and me  into bad guys. Now I have even more problems to solve, and down the rabbit hole I go.

Luckily, I have another option. Dialing up willingness means that I choose to experience doubt exactly as it is. I notice the process of doubt–thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, memories, urges to act–and I observe instead of engaging in tug-of-war. I accept that doubt is a normal part of any endeavor. This does not mean I give in to doubt. It means I drop the rope and leave a game I cannot win. It means I give myself a break for being a normal human. It frees me to discover what useful information doubt might have, such as telling me that a meditation practice is important to me. If it wasn’t important to me, I probably wouldn’t care enough to doubt whether I’m doing it right.

Connecting with the value I place on doubt while calming myself through mindful attention, I can see other possibilities besides trying to throw doubt out of the party. It can stay and mingle with the other guests. I can listen to what it has to say and judge for myself which parts of the message take me in a valued direction. I can thank my mind for doing its job, taking care of me, while training it to focus on the present moment and not get carried away by its own story about doubt.

Having doubt. Easier said than done, and worth the effort.