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  • Thomas Bien

Doubt: The Fifth Hindrance

The Fifth Hindrance: Doubt

Doubt can, of course, be a positive word when used in contrast to naïve belief. It is of course potentially harmful to swallow everything we hear without considering it, and the Buddha warned against this kind of naïveté.

But when doubt comes up in our practice, it can nullify what we are doing. That’s what makes it so dangerous. Suddenly, though we are well into a sit, we start to wonder what we’re doing and why. Does it really make sense? Wouldn’t it be just as well to amuse or entertain myself, to watch television maybe, or to enjoy a little snack?

This kind of doubt is a little like the doubt of the long distance runner. Suddenly in the midst of a long run, one asks, “now, why am I doing this exactly?”

The purpose of this kind of doubt is often just a form of laziness or sense desire in disguise. It can be very powerful especially because it can seem so compelling and natural. “Maybe, instead of meditating, I should just lie down for a while. I’m tired. I’ve had a rough day. I should just take it easy.”

Sometimes such an impulse may actually be correct. But most of the time it isn’t. When I used to run long distances, I would just tell myself, “I know this made sense to me when I started out, so I’ll just continue know and consider this thought later.” This was, and is still, useful for many kinds of endeavors.

The first thing the Buddha teaches us about doubt in the sense intended here is to notice that it is present. You can’t subdue an opponent that you don’t know is present, or that you think may actually be a friend.

A great Christian preacher of a bygone era, Harry Emerson Fosdick, gave a famous sermon called “Doubt Your Doubts.” This is wise advice. Why should we assume our doubts are more accurate than our faith? Look into the nature of your doubt. Acknowledge it. See if it is leading in the direction of greater peace and well-being, or of more suffering.

But for now, until it’s clear, just keep on going.

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