Trusting The Process of Doubt

November 30th, 2011

One of my all time favorite TV shows was Picket Fences. My favorite character, partly because he had one of my favorite real life names, “Fyvush Finkel”, was an outrageous attorney named Douglas Wambaugh. He was so offensive that he was barred from his own synagogue. His tongue in cheek legal mantra, printed on his business cards, said “Reasonable doubt for a reasonable fee.”

Reasonable doubt has a subtle legal meaning. It grew out of a superstitious worldview where judges and jury faced the pressure that if they wrongly charged an innocent person they would suffer eternal consequences. Reasonable doubt was a spiritual escape clause in case they made a mistake. Today the phrase is used to support the rights of the accused. Another phrase that is used is “beyond a shadow of a doubt.”

When it comes to personal doubt, both reason and shadows are important. Doubt uses reason like a judge and jury to see if something you see or hear matches the evidence of your common sense. Doubt buys you time to check the facts as best as you can discern them. But when it comes to personal shadows, it’s not always reasonable. Sometimes doubt triggers something in the shadows of your psyche and you can’t think your way through it. Like the bear on a hunt in the kids’ tale, you can’t go over it, under it or around it. You have to go through it. You have to stay with the doubt and let it lead you to your most integrated self. This is the way that doubt takes you closer to the essence of who you are.

Without doubt, there is no growth. And then with growth comes new doubt. Is that ever a hard lesson to learn? So far I’ve looked at celebrating doubt, and outlined the benefit of doubt. Now I turn to the process of doubt. Doubt isn’t neat or predictable, or else it wouldn’t be full of doubt, but there are some patterns to the process of doubt. I will describe an approach to the stages of doubt that I learnt on a retreat several years ago.

In 2005, I spent a month in Salt Lake City at a Zen retreat. I arrived with a head full of questions and a heavy heart because of some things that were happening professionally. I was staying in a house about a mile from the retreat, and borrowed an old bike from under the house. While riding one day, I hit something, came off the bike and next thing I remember I was in the hospital with a broken arm and heavy concussion. Apparently I had been pushing the bike aimlessly around the streets, not an unusual sight in Salt Lake City, but the bloody face and torn clothes alerted someone that I was in trouble.

It was a bizarre experience to be in a strange place, and completely disoriented. I remember someone asking me if I knew where I was. I answered, “I know I’m in Salt Lake City but I have no idea why I’m here.” I was about to find out why. I didn’t know exactly who I could trust back home, or where the professional situation was headed, and here I was with a group of strangers. It was a time of great doubt.

A combination of the head injury and stress led to some pretty intense soul searching. I was spun into a deep doubt, doubt of everything that I had worked hard for, everything I stood for. I doubted being a spiritual teacher. I doubted my own ability to stay grounded. I doubted human nature.

I found a container for my doubt in the middle of this bizarre situation. I learnt about a Zen teacher Tozan, who lived about 1200 years ago. He taught 5 stages of enlightenment, which I got to practice through this experience. The 5 stages weave in and out of doubt. I will explain them as best as I can.

1.       Spiritual Growth

Stage one begins when you first look for a spiritual path. You yearn for something more than the daily grind. You might join a church, or start yoga classes or find a teacher. You might seek out time in nature to feel more connected to the essence of life. It is a time of great growth- new ideas, and a new experience of peace. Your mind is open and full of new questions. Doubt usually manifests as enthusiastic questioning and intense searching in stage one.

I arrived in Salt Lake City in 2005 expecting to do this sort of searching with a new teacher, and learn a new method. I had no idea how deep it would go.

2.       Hitting the First Wall

Stage two begins when you first hit a wall on your new spiritual path. If stage one led you back to the church of your upbringing, you might begin to doubt some of these religious beliefs. Maybe they don’t make as much sense as you’d hoped. For many people this might include doubting whether there is a God, or whether prayer works. You might start to doubt the spiritual teachers you listen to or read. It’s not your detractors that surprise you in this stage. It’s the ones you thought were the heroes- the football coaches, pastors, presidents, teachers, parents. In this stage, the doubts are “out there” at arm’s length. You doubt other people and systems that no longer give you the security they used to.

Stage two often invites you to take a leap of faith, beyond security- it’s the bungee jump off the ledge of certainty into the unknown. As Anne Lamott said,

The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.

Tozan described a Great Death. I hit this wall soon after my bike accident, doubting EVERYTHING.

3.       Landing in Bliss

Stage three is a profound experience of inner peace. You catch a glimpse of something beyond your doubts, the awareness behind the experience of doubt. It might happen through meditation or in deep reflection. You realize the futility of striving for an experience of non-striving and instead rest in just being. You don’t need to prove any beliefs and you don’t need an infallible teacher at this stage. So you stop striving. I found this in Utah while doing sitting meditation, where I experienced hours of incredible bliss. Soon it becomes like a summer vacation. You never want it to end. You become attached to the bliss and don’t want to leave it. But of course you have to leave. It’s not permanent. It’s a peak experience, a peak into an experience beyond doubt.

4.       Fall From Grace

Stage four is a major shock to the system. It’s the fall from grace. You realize how much attachment you have to the bliss and it’s a huge blow to your ego. Then you REALLY begin to doubt; you doubt even the peace you experienced. Was it just a trick or a delusion? Now the doubt is not “out there”. It’s inside of you where you can’t escape it. This is when you might even doubt who you are or what your purpose is in life. Your attachments and expectations are stripped bare. This is rock bottom, where you realize that earlier crises were just minor bumps. This is the real thing. Life can never be the same again. Many people can even become deeply depressed at this point. I struggled with that at times in Salt Lake City.

5.       Spiritual Mastery

Stage five is when you learn to be completely immersed and present to your doubts without letting them rule you. You recognize your doubts for what they are- part of your intuition but not your whole being. The voice of doubt is useful, but it is only one voice among many. You also have a voice of acceptance and trust and a peace that passes rational understanding. You have the emotional mastery to observe your feelings and sensations without chasing them. In this stage, you fully appreciate your humanity AND know that you are a spiritual being with peace at your essence. Many people describe this stage as being IN the world, but not OF the world. You might say you are IN your doubts, but not OF your doubts.

This is also called the Bodhisattva vow. You realize that nothing is lacking in your life, and yet because others are suffering you have more work to do. Mother Theresa is a brilliant example of this stage. When you think of Mother Theresa, you tend to think of selfless service. More recently it has been revealed that Mother Theresa lived with incredible doubt for most of her life. She doubted God, her effectiveness and the purpose behind service. It’s such a pity she lived in an environment where she couldn’t be honest about her doubts. Imagine the inspiration it would have been to others who felt the same doubt to know that the great woman also doubted.

Maybe she didn’t realize how powerful her doubts were. I can only imagine that it was her doubts that  sourced her compassion. She knew doubt and suffering, and it gave her insight into the doubts and suffering of her fellow humans.

So it is for all of us. Liberate yourself from guilt. You have permission to feel doubt and ask questions. Feel your doubt as deeply as you can. It is preparing you for something amazing. As the Zen saying goes,

Where there is great doubt, there will be great awakening;

small doubt, small awakening,

no doubt, no awakening.

And don’t be surprised if your spiritual path ebbs and flows. The reason it’s helpful to know about systems like Tozan’s stages is that it reminds you not to get stuck in one place or feeling. Doubt comes and doubt goes. Sometimes you think your way through it, sometimes you will your way through it, and sometimes you fall deep into its embrace. Take comfort in your constant becoming. Doubt is preparing you to be a whole person and to help others to find the same liberation.

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  3. Great post Ian (and Tozan)! I always try to embrace and find the meaning of not just events, things and sensations, but the spaces between them. What appears at first to be empty space or time is where much of great value is born. Your reflection leads me to realize that those voids, which I’ve always been able to associate quite easily with faith, can also be filled with doubt. Thanks for the articulate reminder that either one can be full of potential.

  4. Brenda Kath says:

    Wow, that sounds like me right now with the soul searching, spinal injury and grieving, and now feeling kind of alone.  I get discouraged noticing that most people prefer to live procreation centered lives and have a way smaller bit of time – if any – devoted for spiritual study.  I worry I’ll never find people to share my life with since I don’t want to do the same.  Besides finding that dull and limiting, I wouldn’t be fulfilled or feel like I was living a meaningful life doing that with the overpopulation situation. I’d rather devote my life to helping others.  It can be kind of scary to be in the minority on a planet where most people only care about their own families for the most part.  So, that was an encouraging article to embrace the doubt.  I’ll try to remember to do that.

  5. ian says:

    hi Brenda, stay with it and be authentic. Im a strong believer that when you are authentic, the right people gather around you.

  6. ian says:

    Nice to hear from you Jeffrey. Interesting visual of the void- maybe the void is full of layers of doubt and faith. Thanks for exciting my imagination.

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  8. Gibson Goff says:

    That graphic is powerful! “Doubting your doubts” – grabbed my attention and dragged me in. The article didn’t let me down, either.

    Good work, Ian.  

  9. Great post, God Bless >< >

  10. Judith says:

    Thank you…  I really needed to hear this today.  When I am doubting myself I get so scared at times that I just want to settle for easy.   But of course I can’t settle for easy.   Your words reassure me.

  11. Great article. One of my favourite quotes about doubt comes from the poet Kahlil Gibrain: 
    “Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.”

    Judy Croome
    South Africa 

  12. Chris says:

    Love this post and I love the Kahlil Gibran quote from Judy (I had never heard it before).

  13. sarah waldin says:

    Another great piece Ian. thanks for being out there – finding the words that enlighten the journey for so many of us. 
    love and light 

  14. ian says:

    thanks Sarah- have a great day

  15. Kristine says:

    inspiring. yes. being filled with doubt keeps me humble. and since ego is my biggest problem doubt is healthy for the time being.

  16. Laura says:

    Beautiful piece.  I am definitely in Stage Four, not knowing what’s next, or even if there is a next.  This is particularly difficult for me since I am a person who guides others for a living.

  17. Gamma says:

    Mein Schatten kennt den Zweifel nicht, bin ich bei Gott, fällt alles spirituelle Sinnen, der schwarze Mantel von mir fort. In Liebe und Gottes Segen.

  18. diana Lewis says:

    TY so much for such a prolific piece of transforming information. I am sitting on great heights in this moment in time. Awesome, and just to think where my mind has been and doubting the doubt. When it was and is the most measured awakening for enlightenment.

  19. ian says:

    thx Diana, and good thoughts to you.

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  22. Dr. Ben says:

    Thank you, Ian, for the example of your own journey and how it illustrates the stages you describe, as well as the reference to Mother Theresa. It seems that being in touch with our own doubts and questions – without despairing or being ruled by them – can indeed open the door to deeper understanding and compassion, both with ourselves and others.

  23. Excellent article. I absolutely appreciate this website. Continue the
    good work!

  24. josho says:

    Much Love  Ian ! Blessings to you and your family Always .