It’s a commonly held belief in most spiritual practices that to successfully attract whatever it is the devout is seeking, the pilgrim must “believe and not doubt.” Doubt, among the devout, is the enemy of faith. Many spiritual leaders will tell their followers that the reason they don’t have what it is they’ve been seeking so sincerely, is that they have doubt. So the faithful try to build their faith while pushing aside anything that might produce doubt.
While beliefs are powerful, and they certainly do come between us and what we so diligently seek, the power of doubt is underrated in the arena of faith.
Everything in our lives must have meaning. The more painful an event is to us, the more urgency to find an explanation. Yet when we look out at the universe, we are confronted with the probability that the cosmos itself might not have meaning—or if it does, we certainly can’t see it. The size of our universe, compared to our ability (or inability) to comprehend it, creates a frustrating conundrum. We are but finite minds trying to understand a seemingly infinite space, from the outer reaches somewhere inside a single cell of that universe.
Since our understanding is finite, within an infinite system, the only way we can cope with all this uncertainty is to create beliefs about it. So we create beliefs about our universe and about our place in it. These beliefs help to orient us—to ground us—in this colossal cacophony and localize the infinite to something we can call “real.” In essence, beliefs are a survival mechanism.
Beliefs are built through process of filters: generalization, deletion, and distortion. We take the millions of bits of information coming at us every second, and generalize what we can into usable information, and delete everything else. This creates distortion. Once a belief is constructed, it then starts to control what is allowed in, and what is deleted—creating its own distortion.
So we can see the problem, then, with beliefs. They’re not built upon reality. They’re filtered through whatever mechanisms we may have put in place, either through our own experiences, or through societal norms coupled with the beliefs of our families. They filter everything that may disagree with them, and allow in only what supports them—even if it’s destructive. We have only to look at our modern day extremists to see just how far they’re willing to go.
As beliefs grow, they take up more space in our psyche, and if they go unchecked, they become “truth”—which is really dogma, though the belief can’t see that. Dogma, once in bloom, sees all perceived challenges as a personal threat, even if that challenge is being brought by someone who loves us. This is particularly easy to spot in religion and politics.
Regardless of our beliefs: what they are, or how strong they are, or how they grip us, we are still finite in the presence of the infinite. The Universe is happening regardless of our belief about it. For years we believed that Earth was the center of our solar system. Yet earth rotated at one-thousand miles per hour, moving forward at 67 thousand miles per hour in its orbit through space, traveling a distance of 584 million miles around our sun. Add to that our solar system orbiting the center of our galaxy at 560 thousand miles per hour while the galaxy itself is on the move.
Occasionally, the Universe will “intrude” upon our beliefs and shake us up. What we held as “true” can no longer be called so. This can be an accident, a sudden change in circumstances, or an event that directly challenges a particular belief. For many, when such an event occurs, they conclude that they’ve backslidden or that God has abandoned them. Those who persevere soon discover that they had a belief which found itself directly in front of the moving train called reality.
This thing called doubt is what protects us from our beliefs. It attacks our dogma and forces us to confront our position in our universe. Doubt is like a crack in concrete that provides enough room for a shoot of uncertainty to bloom. Now we can open up to what might actually be true (or at least closer to true). When we search for what might be true, we place ourselves in alignment with what might actually be true, and truth is a dynamic ally because all of nature backs it up. Conversely, it’s a formidable enemy for that same reason: all of nature backs it up.
So the goal should not be to abolish doubt as that only deeps our dogma—but to encourage, and even embrace it. Sometimes the most powerful thing we can ever say is, “I don’t know…” This can lead us into greater understanding and awareness. When we embrace our limitations, we can see that there’s so much to see and know.
So doubt is a gift to us, a call to look deeper—or further. Doubt is a reminder that we are finite, prone to delusion and self-deception. Once we have a better understanding of what is more true, we increase in our ability to trust that. The more we understand, the more we can trust.