Practicing with the Five Hindrances

Geri Larkin, Lama Palden, Ajahn Amaro, Michael Liebenson Grady, Sharon Salzberg


The Fifth Hindrance: Doubt: Q & A with Sharon Salzburg

DoubtI make a point to keep sitting every day, but lately I’ve been asking myself what good it’s doing me, apart from the value of sticking to my commitment and the supposed benefits of spending time in silence and alone. How can I reinvigorate my faith in the practice?

Doubt and faith in our meditation practice often arise and pass away depending on what we are using as criteria for success. The first step is to try to move away from incessantly evaluating what’s going on in our practice. We need to be willing to go through ups and downs without getting disheartened. When doubt arises, try to recognize it as doubt, and realize that it is a constantly changing state.

If that doesn’t help, you might need to seek clarification about the meditation method you’re using, and perhaps make a change in your practice. You shouldn’t hesitate to ask a teacher or fellow practitioner about that. But in most cases, the doubt is simply a reflexive sign of our impatience.

This example is sometimes used to describe practice: It’s as though you’re hitting a piece of wood with an ax to split it. You hit it ninety-nine times, yet nothing happens. Then you hit it the hundredth time, and it breaks open. But when we’re hitting the wood for the thirty-sixth time, it doesn’t exactly feel glorious.

It’s not just the mechanical act of hitting the wood and weakening its fiber that makes for that magical hundredth moment, just like it’s not the physical act of sitting on the cushion that leads to realization—though both are certainly necessary. It’s also our openness to possibility, our patience, our effort, our humor, our self-knowledge. These are what we are actually practicing, no matter what happens or doesn’t happen to our problems, our moods, our sense of “being in the moment.”

Every so often I meet someone who seems perfectly congenial on the surface, but something in me just doesn’t trust them. This doubt ends up evidencing itself in my behavior, and sometimes causes hurt. When is it worth noting these feelings of doubt, and when is it best just to let them go?

It’s important to note a feeling of doubt that arises in a relationship. If we immediately attempt to let it go, we are automatically discounting our intuition. If you allow yourself to acknowledge the doubt and investigate its constituent feelings without judgment, a lot will be revealed.

You may notice that at its root are sadness, envy, competitiveness, or perhaps even echoes of a time in the past when you didn’t trust your intuition—with unfortunate consequences. In looking quietly at the doubt, you may decide it is largely a result of your projections onto the other person, or feelings of your own inadequacy, or jealousy.

As a result of this inquiry, you may resolve to behave differently. Or you may decide that there really is a disquieting element to the other person’s behavior that you don’t want to ignore. If it is the kind of relationship where you can communicate your feelings, it is worth trying to skillfully convey your discomfort to this person, and to listen to their response. If the relationship doesn’t allow for that, it is good at least to be aware of how your doubt might be clouding the ways you interact with that person, so that you don’t cause unnecessary hurt.

Sharon Salzberg is cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience.

Images: Artwork is from The Dharma Cards Game, a divination system based on Tibetan Buddhist symbols, created by © Jacqueline Pitman.  

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