April  2002 
 Number 60 


Doubt and Other Questions
Where are you going? An Indian Pilgrimage (Chap. 8)




Doubt and Other Questions
'Doubt may be an uncomfortable state of mind but certainty is ridiculous.' Voltaire.
Questions and Answers with Ajahn Amaro, Thanksgiving Retreat,
Santa Rosa, California, December 1999.

Ajahn Amaro: Feel free to ask whatever questions you might have….
Q: Do you have any words of encouragement for those of us dealing with strong doubt? I doubt if I can do this, or if I even want to. [laughter] I want to go home.


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.
      In that very gesture we begin to recognise all of the assumptions that are being made around the question. How we are defining what we are, where we are, what we want. All of that starts to become a bit clearer. Whereas if the attention is buried in the text of the question we can't see that. What happens when we just let the question be in this way, is that we then allow our intuitive wisdom to operate, the natural attunement of the heart to the true nature of things. That spaciousness allows a different kind of knowing to percolate through.
      It depends on the kind of doubt, but sometimes what will come forth in the heart when we leave the question alone like this is: 'This is not knowable. There is no answer.' So continuing to pursue the question has no point. Or it might be vividly clear, like: 'Where is there to go? You'll still be there.' Or it might be: 'Yes, this is the wrong place to be.' But we haven't thought our way to that conclusion. It's like putting on a pair of shoes. The shoe fits or it doesn't fit. It's a knowing of a whole different quality. We can't will that kind of knowing into existence, it is caused to arise solely by sincerely leaving the doubt alone. It's like in the Chinese and Japanese tradition of koan practice - they have thousands, literally thousands of deliberately impossible questions to help get the mind to that point of dropping the question and allowing the intuitive wisdom to operate instead.

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.
      Once again, it can be helpful to spell it out, to let that self-critical voice speak rather than immediately trying to do something with it. Just to clarify: 'What is this reaction? Why is this so bad or so wrong?' We can listen to that and realise: 'Oh, this is a habit of pride, I don't want to get this wrong. I don't want to be wasting my time. I want to get this right.' We thus become clearly conscious of the self-image that is involved in that, hearing how much 'I' there is in that: 'I like, I want, I shouldn't, I should.' We hear all the 'I-ing' going on and recognise that any sentence with 'I' in it is not to be trusted. Seriously. When we clearly state those kind of things we get a sense of the tone of it.
      We sincerely make an effort, but recognise the self-creation and learn to let go of that. We respond to it by reflecting: 'Sometimes it's like this.' Some days the mind is very agitated, it's determined to run.
      In terms of catching it sooner, there are different things we can do: as the mind goes into a state of fantasizing or drifting, then often it's a subtle kind of confusion, a subtle dull state. If we can keep the level of alertness higher, that can help support catching it sooner, before it gets carried away.
      There are things we can do with our posture, or the mudra, how we hold our hands, to detect when the mind starts to drift and we lose that alert quality. We can use the feeling of the thumbs touching each other as something to focus on, being very precise in the way we hold our hands. As soon as we find ourselves squeezing them together, it's called 'mountain thumbs,' we're getting too revved up, or if we're dozing then we get 'valley thumbs,' they drop down.
      When we find our mind has been drifting for a long time, we don't let the self-recrimination take over but just say: 'Begin again.' And then sit with the eyes open for a little while - open the eyes, and then re-establish where we are and what we are doing.
      We can use the visual consciousness to keep us attuned to where we are physically. And if we find the mind is really wandering a lot, don't close the eyes at all. So, if we're sitting there staring at the shrine and we realise: 'I'm not in Peru. How can I be in Peru, on my way to India, when I'm sitting here looking at these monks, and this shrine?' - the mental and visual realities are not matching. The cues are much quicker than if we have our eyes closed, where we have a free open screen and we can project on it whatever we like. We can be in Peru for half an hour. Sometimes people find that having the eyes open makes it more difficult to concentrate but if you're trying to break the habit of drifting then that is a good way of doing it. One can either look straight ahead at a blank object or down at the ground in front.
      Alternatively, one can just apply will and resolution - when we see the mind drifting we can try just saying: 'NO.' Not in a aggressive way but simply stating: 'No. This is something that is not being followed.' It's a retraining of the mind.

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.
      I had an amazingly strong tendency to be scripting the future, creating scenarios and then getting really excited or really upset about the outcome. [laughter] Part of us is saying: 'This is absolutely absurd, this hasn't even happened yet.' But the mind is going: 'When he says that, I'm going to tell him such and such. And if comes back at me and says such and such, well you know, it's really too much. Wait a minute, wait a minute…' I found all I could do was just listen to it.
      Be very kind, because at first there is no off button, or even a pause. We can't even take the batteries out, except maybe by going to sleep. We recognise the power of a life-long tendency, or from many lives probably - that 'wanting to know.' In a way it's an impulse to counteract uncertainty. We're fending off our fear of the future by creating a belief, because when we're facing the unknown it's frightening to the ego. It wants to know, so it needs a game plan, it needs to work it out. Even if it's something bad, at least we know what is going to happen. The not-knowing is the most unsettling and painful thing to the ego because it conveys a sense of threat.
      We all have had that experience, where we're really afraid something terrible is going to happen and then we think: 'Oh my god, it's not going to work, I'm going to fail.' And then finally we get the letter saying we have failed: 'Ahh what a relief! Now I know.' The not-knowing is worse than knowing the worst, right? It's weird, but that's how it is, that uncertainty is horrible to the ego. So we fill up that uncertainty with scenarios, because even having ghastly scenarios is more comforting than not knowing. The frightened ego has created this habit of trying to map the future. My own experience of it was of hauling back on the reins for six or seven years just trying to get the thing to slow down.
      The partner to this, which is equally virulent, is the rewriting of the past, which is almost more absurd. I don't know if your mind does this, but my mind used to have a great time going back to some little scenario and then changing the characters around a bit, usually with myself coming out on top or having things wonderfully the way I liked them. We get really stuck into reworking the plot. And then a little voice says: 'It wasn't that way.' And yet the desire is to think: 'Yeah but, but if only I'd done this and he'd done that and she'd done this… That would have been great. And I could have. And then I could have…' But it wasn't that way. A lot of it is just the desire-mind seeking satisfaction. The sense of 'I' looking for some kind of wholeness, some kind of completion, some sort of security.
      It takes a lot of training to let go and just keep saying: 'The future is uncertain, don't worry about it, figure it out at the time.' That is a direct affront to the ego. It's not used to that. It's a matter of training the heart to really trust - when the situation comes about then we'll know what to do, we'll respond to it mindfully. We see over and over and over again, when meeting situations, that we can respond sensitively to the time and place in ways that we couldn't have necessarily predicted. Besides, everything usually works out fine. Or even if things don't work out fine and we make a real mess - even that is fine. As Ajahn Chah would say: 'Good is good; bad is good' - i.e. we can learn and adapt in all situations if we're mindful.
      We realise that the initial reaction: 'Oh I failed, I got it wrong, what are people going to think of me?' is an egoic knee-jerk that we don't need to build our life around. People are generally more concerned about consoling us, making us feel okay. The one who is really suffering is me - because things didn't work out according to my plan. Over and over again we learn to trust that the resources are there to respond to every situation. If we give our heart to it, if we do the best we can, it will be fine. It's a matter of teaching the heart that that is the way it works, and that it doesn't have to have a game plan.

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.'
      Then I began to have some doubts: 'Did the Buddha really manage to build a world religion around this?! Is this supposed to be Nibbana? The thinking stops and then we just kind of sit there like a switched-off TV?' It was very perplexing. For a long time I thought: 'I'm missing something, this is just so dry and joyless. Okay, maybe I should get more light in here. Maybe I should do more metta practice.' I couldn't figure out what was missing, it was just so bland and dry and nondescript. Then it occurred to me: 'Maybe it's not something missing, maybe there's something getting in the way.' This little intuition perked up: 'Yes, that's what it feels like, it feels like the works are clogged up. What could it be?' Suddenly there was the realisation: 'Oh, I'm here! There's me, the meditator. I'm here.' There was one of those little 'Bings' - a light bulb appeared.
      I realised that the whole of the meditation was cast in the structure of me the meditator. Even if there wasn't a sense of the personality, there was a very clear sense of 'I: I am practising. I am doing this. I am being aware. I am the experiencer.' Even though the 'I' was not characterised as a personality, there was a very strong feeling of it. So I started to use a practice that Ajahn Sumedho had described a few years before (that previously I'd just used as a concentration exercise) which was to investigate the sense of self using the question: 'Who am I?'
      What we are doing is we are using the question as a way of tripping up the self-creation program. In that moment of asking the question: 'What is it that knows?' or 'Who am I?' or 'What is the 'I' that is knowing this?' it's almost as if we are turning the camera back on to the photographer. It's caught in the lens, the sense of 'I', that subtle quality which has actually been encapsulating the whole thing. What I found was that as soon as I did that the walls fell out. I suddenly realised I had been in a grey box. It was an experience of the walls of the building dropping open and suddenly there was free space, sunshine and fresh air: 'Ahhh.' A completely different quality.
      I often liken the sense of self to the force of gravity. It's so normal to us we don't notice that it's there - without question, an unarguable reality of life - the fact that the ground is down, that there is a down, and an up. However, just as 'down' and 'up' are actually relative constructs, dependent on the earth as is the pull of gravity, so too is the feeling of 'I-ness'. There are different kinds of practice that one can use to focus on this subtle feeling but the method of questioning is, I find, the most helpful: by aiming the attention at this very feeling of selfhood, the reality is being revealed.
      By doing this we begin see how much the feeling of self is constantly regenerated and is masking the reality all the time. If we examine it closely we realise that the feeling of self is just a feeling and that it is not self. The feeling of 'I' is not-self. It's just like gravity or the texture of cloth, it's just a feeling, just a particular texture. It has no absolute substance at all. There is no thing there. We might then get into doubt again, wondering: 'So, what am I?...?' There is no definable quality of which we can ultimately say: 'I am this' or 'I am that.' We are using the questions to arrive at the realisation of what IS - without aiming to verbally or conceptually define it; we don't need to. It is the reality anyway - the Dhamma upholds itself.