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The paralysing power of doubt

For the last couple of weeks we have been exploring the 5 universal habits of mind that stop us from experiencing the wellbeing and happiness that we long for.

We have looked at the 5 habits of mind (or mind-states) you may remember these are:

You can follow the different links to remind yourself of the powers of the first four of these mind habits. You will also find them in your dashboard.

Today we are looking more closely at doubt.

In English doubt can mean different things. One type of doubt that is really important in our lives is the doubt we have when we are told to ‘believe’ something. It is healthy to try to find the evidence that supports things, and to investigate and experience for yourself is something is indeed to be believed. In times of COVID-19 this is especially relevant as there is a lot of misinformation out there.

This is not the doubt that is the troublesome mind-state. The challenge comes to something that is often referred to as paralysing doubt. The kind of doubt that stops you from taking a decision. The doubt experienced by a donkey in a story where two bales of hay are placed at equal distance from the donkey. The donkey cannot make a decision as to which bale to choose and dies of hunger.

In our daily lives, paralysing doubt usually shows up as indecision or constant questioning. Our mind goes back and forth, desperately seeking the perfect fit or solution, all the while we do nothing. We become scared to make a mistake, we doubt any action we do take. It is a very difficult mind-state. What makes it particularly difficult is that we can really get stuck in it, and the consequence is that it brings things to a standstill.

To quote the ‘Life of Pi’ – To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is like choosing immobility as a means of transport.

How to recognise ‘ paralysing doubt’

As with all the habits of mind, the first step to not get caught up by them is to recognise them. We all have different ways of expressing doubt and it is really interesting to start to discover how doubt expresses itself within you. There are some commonalities that you might want to look out for:

Thoughts full of doubt

It is very common for doubt to express itself as thoughts. Sometimes very reasonable and wise-sounding thoughts.

What am I doing?

What’s the point?

This is useless

I should do something else

This is not working

I do not know what to do

If I do this, then what will happen …..?

…. Fill in your own personal doubt thought

Just as with all other thoughts, doubtful thoughts only become a problem once we start believing them. If we treat them like passing events in the mind, as we learn with the awareness meditations, these thoughts do not decide our actions.

When we do get caught up in our thoughts full of doubt, we can also recognise that in our actions.

Maybe you find yourself constantly changing what you do. Always seeking more clarity and certainty. We can use the example of what we do to feel happiness and wellbeing. It might show up as a tendency to constantly try different things, because we tell ourselves the other thing is ‘not working’.

We might move from meditation, to changing how we eat, to reiki, to therapy all because we doubt that one or the other is ‘working’. We spend our time wondering if what we are doing is the right thing to do, rather than actually doing the thing that we are doing. 

Moods full of doubt

Another way that we can express doubt is through our moods.

Moods are the underlying currents in our experience. They are more stable and constant than emotions, and harder to detect. They have a tremendous impact on our day to day life and also have a tendency to come and go, albeit slower than emotions.

Becoming aware of our mood can take a bit of practice. Sitting in meditation can help. You can try the meditation below, or you can try longer meditations with longer periods of silence. You have to get to a ‘deeper’ layer.

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Meditation

Explore doubt

Start meditation

Meditation

Explore doubt

Moods that could indicate doubt are moods like discouragement, feeling down or low energy. Maybe you can identify your own.

Self-Doubt

There is another, very debilitating element of doubt that is very common. This is self-doubt. When we have self-doubt, we have thoughts like:

These types of thought are widespread in western societies. We live in a world where we are bombarded with reasons to doubt ourselves.

The story goes that one of the first times the Dalai Lama taught in the West he was asked by a participant ‘ I do not believe I am a worthwhile human being, how do I work on that?’ and the Dalai Lama answered ‘ your feelings of unworthiness are wrong, you are deceiving yourself’.

That might sound harsh, but he was not denying that this person was feeling the feelings of unworthiness, he was challenging their truthfulness. In a way, he was saying what you are feeling is real, but it is not true.

We can also see our self-doubt as that. The feelings are real, but not true. They are just thoughts, not the truth. As long as we do not believe the thoughts and do not get caught by the story, we can be free from self-doubt even with self-doubting thoughts.

I also find it really encouraging to know that self-doubt is universal to all of us. Especially self-doubt can feel very personal, but it is not. It is a universal mind-state. Not as anything personal or unique to us, and like I mentioned, very widespread in western societies.

What can we do?

You will start to see a trend in how to deal with the difficult mind-states, as it is pretty similar, but not easy.

Kindness

Recognising that these mind-states are very very stubborn and strong and will probably always be around (unless you want to become a Buddhist monk), it is always good to bring some kindness to these mind-states when you notice them.

Recognition

Secondly, you can really start to recognise them. In your thoughts, your behaviour and your moods. When you recognize them you can allow yourself to become less caught up in them.

Remember, this is a mind-state that often sounds very reasonable.

Not getting caught up

It is very easy to get lost in thoughts, and even easier to get lost in thoughts full of doubt. This is also because often these thoughts sound so reasonable.

Recognising the thoughts of doubt and then knowing that they are that can help free us to take action that we need to take, to disentangle ourselves from situations (internal or external) that feel stuck.

Take 5 minutes to practice not getting caught up in toughts with the below meditation.

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Meditation

See your thoughts

Start meditation

Meditation

See your thoughts

It takes time

A quick word of caution. Like with all the mind-states we discussed, these are persistent, strong habitual mind-states. We will not be able to ‘let them go’ or not fall into them unless we dedicate our lives to meditation, and even then, we might not. But small steps go a long way, try taking this mind-state less seriously and less personally and see how much freedom that gives you.