Doubt and Other Questions
Ajahn Amaro: Feel free to ask whatever questions
you might have….
One of the things about doubt is that we can't think our way to the end of it - a really good doubt is impossible to resolve with reason.
|AA: There are a couple of different approaches. One is just to
go home. But that's probably not going to solve a lot. Perhaps it's useful
to bear in mind that there are a lot of different characters that come
under the heading of the word 'I': there can be one who sincerely, completely
wants to go home but there are a few other people, other voices, contributing
to the chorus. So one way of working with it is to very sincerely respect
the voice that says: 'Yes, I want to go home,' and actually allow ourselves
to think that. But then also not to believe that it's the one true representative,
that it's what we really think, what we really feel. Listen to it as if
it's a contribution from one of the members of a committee.
That's one way; because if we try to deal with doubt just by trying to make it shut up or go away that won't work. It loves that: 'Oh right, nothing like a good fight.' Also trying to think our way to the end of it doesn't work either. Instead of these kinds of approach we can learn to listen to the mind.
One of the best ways of doing this is by actually giving it full voice: 'Please tell me, why do you want to go home? Tell me all about it.' There is a quality of inviting it into the centre. Say: 'Please speak up. Tell me your story.' In that very gesture of accepting it and being ready to listen to it we take away a lot of its power. The ability of a doubt to become alive depends on a sort of suppressive, fearful, irritated energy. The more we meet it with that, the more we throw fuel on the fire. Giving it space and not buying into its contents removes the fuel.
One of the things about doubt is that we can't think our way to the end of it - a really good doubt is impossible to resolve with reason. It's like one of those endless courtroom battles, it just goes on and on and on. An objection comes up, with a whole pile of evidence that goes against the other option. So if we are to understand the nature of a doubt it's crucial to recognise that it's not something that can be resolved by reason. Because the very nature of reason is that it can make an argument for anything, absolutely anything: up is down, black is white, bad is good, good is bad.
Even though a doubt can get extremely demanding and be screaming away in the mind, the most skilful way I've found of working with it is to take a step back from the whole thing and realise: there is this particular kind of thought that's coming up with a question, and it's actually only a thought. There is an emotional quality associated with it as well, but in itself it's just another sankhara, another factor of nature like the breeze on our skin or the force of gravity or the shape of the room. It's entire unto itself.
| So that when the doubt arises: 'What
should I do?' That, in itself, is a complete and whole thing. It arises,
it does its thing, fades away, and comes back again. Just like everything
else, every breath, every sight or sound. When we take a step back from
that, using the reflections on impermanence, selflessness and unsatisfactoriness,
it's like saying: 'This is an impermanent condition. This is an aspect
of nature. It arises and it passes away. It's perfect. It doesn't need
anything else added to it to make it complete.'
Now the content of it - and this is the difference between the process and the content - is saying: 'Complete me, complete me, complete me. I need my answer, I need my answer.' But if we step out of the content and look at the process of it, it is absolutely perfect. It arises, does its thing and passes away. It's almost like seeing the space around it. And in that recognition, in allowing spaciousness around it, what we begin to notice is that any answer to a question can only be a partial truth. There is no answer that can completely satisfy us. We begin to see that we've been looking for wholeness in the wrong place.
One of the ways of working when a doubt comes to mind, is simply to say: 'Good question.' We're not being intimidated and buying into its demands: 'I've gotta know. I've gotta know.' We consider: 'Yes, you really feel like you've got to know, don't you.' We are holding the doubt with mindfulness and thus opening to the fact that a lot of the world we experience is in truth unknowable or at least mysterious to the conceptual mind. We're opening to the fact that we live in a world of uncertainty. That is why the Buddha encouraged the reflections on anicca, on uncertainty, because actually all things are uncertain and ultimately any definition can only be a partial truth.
'The Valley of Doubt'
'A Living Question'
Also it can help to consciously state
the question. Deliberately make the mind as clear and steady as possible,
and just state the question: 'Should I leave? Would it be the best thing
for me to leave?' So we're inviting it in, and then noticing the space
before saying the words: 'Should I leave?' and noticing the space after.
The silence before, the silence after, the silence behind it, around
it, permeating it.
Q: Is there a way to shorten the period from when you start drifting during meditation, to when you realise you're caught up in thought and come back? If it's short I feel like I'm doing the practice but if it's long I feel like I'm blowing it. And is there a way to deal with those feelings about it?
AA: Yes, it's a good question. In a way you said: 'Apart from
doing more practice,' but…. [laughter] What you describe is the substance
of the practice for most of us: to some degree getting lost and trying
to catch that sooner and sooner. I think that the point to begin at
is the point of self-judgement: 'If I'm meditating well, I'll do it
like this, if I'm meditating badly, I'll do it like that' - the mind
that goes into success and failure, the self-image of doing well or
doing badly. Even though we're not trying to justify lack of effort
or slackness, it's very crucial to get a sense for forgiveness and of
not creating a success/failure model. Reflect deeply to see that success
and failure are completely arbitrary concepts. We make success an absolute
good and failure an absolute bad very easily. We make them very concrete
and personal. It's most helpful when we find we've drifted off - ten
minutes, half an hour - and we feel: 'Whoa, where did I get to?' And
then, as that self-judgement leaps in: 'Oh you completely useless schmuck,
what are you doing here?' to aim right at that. To be clearly conscious
of that as an emotional reaction.
Q: I wonder if you have any words of wisdom on one's mind wanting to rehearse the future repeatedly, the same thing over and over and over?
AA: This was an extraordinarily regular feature of my early
meditation career. Probably about the first six or seven years. [laughter]
Yes, patience is a big commodity in this business. Recently someone
quoted to me a Christian monk who said: 'The first twenty years are
the worst.' [laughter] This is not a quick fix system.
Q: You talk a lot about getting the thoughts to stop, can you speak a little bit about once your thoughts stop, and there you are…
AA: And then what?
Q: And then what…?
AA: This was another sobering experience. Roughly around the
same time I found myself no longer creating the future all the time,
I found I could stop thinking. So there I was on a retreat, finally,
after six or seven years of meditation practice… 'It stopped…' - just
like when a refrigerator switches off, we feel: 'Ahhhh, silence.' That's
what it was like. Then there were a couple of days of: 'Wow this is
great, this is so good, this is marvellous, this is fantastic, at last
I've made it.' After a couple of days of that, [pause. . . AA makes
a face…laughter] 'So, this is it?!? This is pretty boring….' After a
few more days I thought: 'This is really boring. There's just me and
this nothingness, this sterile, bland quality.'