This post, on doubt (samshaya) is the second of a 9-part series on the obstacles to spiritual practice, from verse 1:30 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:
vyādhistyānasanśaya pramādālasyāvirati bhrāntidarśanālabdha bhūmikatvānavasthitatvāni cittavikṣēpāstē̕ntarāyāḥ |
Is it really worth it?
Am I capable of doing this?
Am I doing this right, or good enough?
Am I on the wrong path?
Why am I not enlightened yet?
Is there really any higher state of consciousness, anyway?
In any worthy endeavor in life, we’re bound to run into some doubt, known as Samshaya in Sanskrit; one of the 9 obstacles to spiritual practice. You may notice it arising in your mind as questions like the ones above.
Aspirational goals take time, effort, courage, and persistence. It’s not always fun. Whether we’re training for a marathon, getting through college, raising a child, starting a business, or on the path of awakening, there will be joys and success, and moments when we wonder if we’re capable or if it’s even worthwhile.
We doubt ourselves, our efforts, and the outcomes. We question if we’re doing things right, if we’re good enough, smart enough, or have what it takes. It’s all a bunch of hogwash.
Seriously. You may have just thought, “but really, I’m lazy. It doesn’t seem to be working. I’ve tried so hard and it’s not changing. Other people seem to be further along than me…” etc. Your thoughts are very normal, but they aren’t Real, and it’s important to not buy into them.
The Path Up the Mountain
If you want to make it to the top of a mountain, you have to keep going. It’s fine to stop and rest for a while. You can enjoy the view and appreciate where you are. You can turn back if the weather is bad and then re-ascend another day, or gather some equipment you realized you needed. You can go nice and slow, taking your time, or you can decide to shift to a different trail that is less steep. There are many ways to get up the mountain besides just a quick, easy, direct ascent. But don’t give up on your climb!
The spiritual path is very much like that trail up the mountainside, but the obstacles are primarily in our thoughts. The mind is very sneaky. It prefers not to change, to just keep doing what you’re doing and avoiding any discomfort. It fears that if you become more conscious and awake, that you won’t need it anymore. So any chance it gets, it will use these doubtful thoughts to attempt to dissuade you from your spiritual evolution.
Recognize that this is happening whenever those doubts apear. Know that the obstacle of Samshaya, doubt, is bound to arise on the path. And there are four essential practices that will help you move past it.
Practice #1 – The Neutral Witness
The first and most essential skill to cultivate is having a neutral witness within yourself. This is your higher consciousness, able to observe your thoughts, words, and actions without passing judgment one way or the other. It simply sees, hears, and recognizes what is happening in your thoughts and the reactions to those thoughts, which manifest in words and actions.
From your neutral witness within, you can catch that doubt in the act. OK, there’s the doubting mind again. Label it. The neutral witness won’t freak out because you’re having doubts; it won’t get angry at yourself, or fret over it. It simply notices and says, there it is again.
Normal, but not Real
Remember, doubt it is normal, but it’s not Real. Thoughts are not real or true in themselves, they are simply mental manifestations. You can manifest all kinds of different thoughts. Right now, you could choose to think utterly absurd things, such as that your toes are actually strawberries, or that poop is actually a song in mud form. Did I make you laugh? Why? Because those were probably some of the most bizarre thoughts you’ve heard and you know they aren’t true.
The funny thing is that we tend to believe a number of similarly false (but perhaps not as bizarre!) thoughts that occur in our mind. Why? Because they’re familiar. We’ve repeated them again and again, so they appear to be true because that’s our habit.
The neutral witness gives you a fresh observation point on those thoughts. You can begin to question anything that arises – especially doubt! The neutral witness within you can bring your attention to the fact that it is happening.
When you are aware in that moment, then you actually have a choice. If we’re unconscious of our thoughts, they’ll tend to run us. But when they are consciously observed, then we can decide whether or not to believe them and what thoughts we’d like to change.
The next time a doubt about your meditation, yoga practice, or other spiritual endeavor arises, cultivate that neutral witness within you. Question the thought, give yourself a little compassionate understanding, and consider what to refocus on to keep you on that trail up the mountain.
Key #2 – Refocus
Yes – once you can see that you’re plagued with doubt, and have neutrally observed it with compassion, then decide on a different mental focus.
Feeling burned out? Rather than give up, take a little break with a clear time or day to restart. Wondering if you’re good enough? Know that almost everyone has this doubt, and that we’re all Divine beings with infinite potential. Feeling like a failure because it hasn’t happened fast enough? The journey is the blessing in itself when we’re fully open to it, and the goal is a great mystery. So come back to the here and now and practice Presence rather than having an agenda.
Use the skill of refocusing to shift your attention from the doubt to a more encouraging thought or a gentler way of practicing.
Key #3 – Faith
There are times on the spiritual path when you may feel discouraged, even depressed. This is when faith, or Shraddha, carries us through. Abbott George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri) describes Shraddha as an “unshakeable faith in his objective, in himself and in the methods which he has adopted.”
Shraddha is the deep inner knowing of your path. It is the understanding of Truth with a capital T – that we are all, indeed, One with the Infinite Presence. Our true nature is not limited by our thoughts, emotions, sensations, beliefs, or perceptions. We embark upon spiritual awakening because our inner self senses this deep Truth and longs for the realization of it.
Invoke Shraddha when you’re stuck in that doubt. Remind yourself of what truly matters to you. Ask for a sign, a reminder of why you are pursuing this noble path. Pick up a book that will reinspire you. Listen to a recording of someone who is filled with the light of Spirit. This is faith informing your choice to refocus. Faith will guide you to what you need to move out of that mental funk and back onto your trail up the mountain.
Key #4 – Ask for Help
If you’re still struggling, reach out to someone. Find a yoga or meditation teacher that speaks to you, or reach out to your current one. If you are a member of a spiritual community, seek the wisdom of the spiritual director or a mentor. There are also online spiritual communities, classes, and support groups which can help you overcome doubt on the spiritual path. It helps to be part of a group of people that are similarly committed to their awakening. Together, you can bolster each other when Samshaya arises.
Keep these 4 keys in your awareness whenever you find yourself mired in the obstacle of Samshaya – doubt. Develop a keen neutral witness within you to see your thoughts and reactions clearly; remember that you can refocus your attention to something helpful or inspiring; keep your faith strong by knowing your true nature and the purpose for your practice; and know when to ask for help.
Doubt is likely a sign that you are progressing and have levelled up to a greater challenge and capacity for spiritual awareness. The Universe is saying that you are ready for more. It’s getting a bit steep on that incline. So keep your eyes on the trail ahead and know that, even when your mind doesn’t think so, you are making progress.