A few days ago the phone rang while I was cooking dinner. A man introduced himself as calling from some web site, and because he was speaking so quickly, I did not catch his name. All I heard was that he wanted to verify details about my credit card. I immediately thought it was a scam, someone trying to trick me into giving just the right information so my card could be stolen. He had enough personal data about me that I didn’t immediately hang up, but rather suspiciously and abruptly said “Who ARE you?” And once again, he said dropping his tone and pace so I could understand him, “Mme, my name is Ray and I am trying to help you.” At which point he recited my full credit card number with all of the correct verifying information, along with my full name, address, and clearly he had my home phone number. He also had my full attention. Again I said “Where did you get this information and who ARE you?” I was so suspicious and alarmed that I was having trouble listening. I doubted everything he said about his legitimacy. Again he explained the purpose of his call. It turned out that someone was, indeed, trying to use my credit card to make a $7500 purchase on his web site. Because this was a highly unusual order, he was suspicious and decided to track me down. I still didn’t believe he was the innocent merchant until he finally emailed me the lengthy exchange between him and the supposed customer. Attached to the email was a copy of a hand written purchase order with my forged signature. I didn’t doubt Ray any more. He really was a Good Samaritan looking out for both of us.
In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Hindrances are part of the fourth Foundation of Mindfulness, Mindfulness of the Dhammas, (dhammas in Pali, dharmas in Sanskrit) defined as the truth of how things are, the patterns and categories of experience, the natural law of conditons. Doubt is the fifth and last of the Hindrances. The Buddha described the mind filled with doubt like a bowl full of dark and muddy water. And overcoming doubt is like crossing a dangerous desert safely. As with the other hindrances, knowing when doubt is present and knowing when doubt is absent is where we begin.
The expression to be “plagued by doubt” describes this hindrance very well. If one is plagued, one may feel confused, stuck, unable to see clearly, indecisive. Phrases like “I can’t do it,” “It won’t work,” “It’s not a good time,” are examples of the doubting mind, one that can be self-defeating and self-sabotaging. In the context of meditation practice, this kind of doubt is a hindrance to concentration, reflection and insight. Outside of meditation, the doubting mind can also be a hindrance to growth, exploration, creativity and appropriate action.
A well-known teaching on another kind of doubt is from the 18thcentury Zen teacher, Hakuin Ekaku. This kind of doubt is not a hindrance, but functions as a significant and necessary doorway to understanding.
“Great Doubt, Great Awakening
Little Doubt, Little Awakening
The Buddha taught that the antidote to doubt and the skillful way to address doubt is through investigation. Looking into the nature of the doubting mind with interest and curiosity lifts the fog of doubt. As the fog lifts, more light comes in. The lighter it gets, the clearer we see and the doubt is transformed into greater awareness and understanding. With greater awareness and understanding, wisdom grows. With more wisdom, the more skillful our actions become.
Start with one of the concentration practices that feels most natural to you; simply being with the breath, focusing on the in-breath and the out-breath, reciting phrases, or tuning into the natural ease and peace of the moment.
Once the body and mind are settled, repeat the question “What is it… What is it?” Take your time and observe. I learned this from Martine Batchelor, a former Zen Buddhist nun. She taught that to bring whatever difficulty is present under the bright light of “what is it” focuses the attention so directly that understanding emerges. This is a very simple yet profound practice.
“The emergence and blossoming of understanding, love, and intelligence has nothing to do with any tradition, no matter how ancient or impressive – it has nothing to do with time. It happens on its own when a human being questions, wonders, inquires, listens, and looks without getting stuck in fear, pleasure and pain. When self-concern is quiet, in abeyance, heaven and earth are open.”
-Toni Packer, The Work of this Moment