Meditation 14: The hindrance of doubt

There are two possible senses of ‘doubt’, just as there are two senses of ‘confidence’ as its opposite. Doubt can be a disabling paralysis preventing us engaging in actions we have decided upon, or it can be a liberating questioning of views that have previously been understood dogmatically. How do you tell the difference? Well, disabling doubt is disintegrating and disempowering, but liberating doubt is integrating and empowering. Disabling doubt is a voice making negative dogmatic assertions that undermine you without justification, whereas liberating doubt is balanced and merely makes us aware of our degree of uncertainty as embodied beings.

This distinction between two types of doubt is found in the traditional Buddhist discussion of doubt as a hindrance in meditation. Doubt as a hindrance is a translation of the Pali term vicikiccha, and is something every meditator will have come across regularly. Unfortunately this is sometimes badly translated as ‘sceptical doubt’, which can only be based on a major misunderstanding of scepticism: I much prefer the translation ‘disabling doubt’ which tells you about its practical effects. Sceptical doubt as I understand it is liberating doubt, enabling us to let go of attachments to dogmatic claims wherever they are found.

The way I experience disabling doubt in meditation is as a loss of confidence that meditation is worth doing, or is worth persisting in. For example, I could sit for a while, find myself going round a spiral of distractions, and conclude “There’s no point in sitting here any longer – I’m just wasting my time.” Or  maybe I don’t even start in the first place. Perhaps I get up in the morning, feeling a bit groggy, and “Oh, it’s obviously not worth trying to meditate this morning – I’ll never get anywhere.” At this point I also hear the voice of past meditation teachers from somewhere in my superego saying “Ah! But that just goes to show that meditation is the very thing you need most!”, but, if the disabling doubt is disabling enough, I will of course ignore them.Doubting Thomas Johann Jaritz

How do I know that this disabling doubt is not liberating, sceptical doubt? A case could be made. Perhaps I am hanging onto an idea that I should be meditating every day, regardless of the evidence. But perhaps it really isn’t very useful to try meditating at this juncture. Meditation is not a panacea for every situation, as you need a basic degree of starting integration to make any progress with meditation in the first place. Perhaps this doubtful voice is just saving me the trouble of wasting my time when meditation would indeed be fruitless? Perhaps I am also attributing dogmatic authority to the voices of past meditation teachers?

Of course, this is possible, but I think there are also some ways to spot disabling doubt when it tries to assume the mantle of liberating doubt. One, that I’ve already mentioned, is that disabling doubt is negative dogma. It won’t be open to real examination of the question of whether meditation would be useful – it will just be offering rationalisations to support a feeling of not wanting to meditate. If it’s liberating doubt, you should be aware of arguments on both sides, and be in a position to weight them up. Ask yourself whether that’s really the case. Another way of spotting disabling doubt is that it will probably be accompanied by quite a negative emotional state: a retractive, shrinking away from things.

The traditional Buddhist answer to doubt is usually ‘faith’ – involving at least an element of unconditional commitment to metaphysical claims, such as the Buddha’s enlightenment. Interpreted in this way, I don’t think that approach is any help at all. At best it is a way of experiencing group pressure to conform and do the things that the group does, symbolised by their metaphysical commitments. You might decide that some group pressure will help you stick to your commitments, but this will just be repressive if the commitments themselves are made under group pressure, especially if this is reinforced by appeals to tradition.

Instead, I’d suggest that, yes, we do need to commit ourselves to meditation practice, and follow it with some sense of discipline, in order to make it work. If we allow ourselves to re-assess that commitment every time we meditate, regardless of the mental state we are in, it will undermine the practice. However, in order for meditation practice to be justified by experience rather than group pressure and dogma, we do need to review it regularly and thoroughly. Is it really worth doing? Is it really making progress? The answer ‘no’ has to be a real possibility if you are really asking these questions, rather than just going through the motions to satisfy a group that claims to be open and critical but isn’t. If you know that you have thought through your commitment to practice for the time being, it makes sense to suppress (not repress) any contrary impulses for the moment, and just sit down and meditate regardless.

My personal experience is that sometimes I have answered ‘no’ when I asked myself if meditation was working for me. At that point it wasn’t. But I have always come back to it, because if I don’t do it then I miss it and notice the effects. By allowing doubt free enquiry in the appreciation of uncertainty, I am reasonably confident that my commitment to meditation is founded in experience rather than dogma.

Index of previous meditation blogs

Picture: Doubting Thomas photographed by Johann Jaritz  (Wikimedia Commons)

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

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