Don’t Let Doubt Stop You Living The Life You Want
There will always be doubt. But it doesn’t have to be an enemy.
“Doubt everything. Find your own light.” ~The Buddha
As far back as I can remember, I’ve allowed my life to be shaped by external forces.
On the outside, it appeared like I was just another carefree soul, living in the moment and floating through life like a leaf on the wind. But on closer inspection, I was running away from having to make any real commitments and avoiding getting myself into a position where I had to make difficult or important decisions.
It wasn’t until recently, when I realized it was five years to the date since I’d fallen into a job I’d despised for as long as I could remember, that I even stopped to notice.
It was on this fateful this day, as I stood looking around and contemplating where I’d ended up, that I also suddenly — and surprisingly — decided things were going to change.
Before I knew it, I was acting on something that, until then, had been just a vague, albeit persistent idea lingering in the back of my mind.
I was applying to go back to university.
There was little doubt about the decision: it was something I’d be thinking about for a while but had been putting off and putting off until the “right” time came.
But sure enough, the doubt soon crept in. I loathed formal education the first time around, and this time I was going to study something that was sure to stop any conversation dead with 99 percent of people I knew and make me the bestie of my quirky aunt who’s deep into crystals and horoscopes:
I knew it was what I wanted. And I was pleased that for once I’d actually stood on my own two feet and made a decision. Not to mention, I was secretly relieved that I wouldn’t have to make another big one for at least a few years.
But little did I know that was far from how it was going to be.
In making such a big life choice, I’d made a complete about-turn from my familiar and reliable strategy of avoidance and chosen to stare life directly in the face.
And I’d forgotten just how scary-looking life can be.
My instinct to run was immediately triggered:
Maybe this isn’t what I really want. Maybe I’ve changed my mind… people change their minds all the time, don’t they? Life would be simple if I just stayed where I am and found another job. It’s not too late to drop out…
Instead of fleeing like usual, this time I froze stiff. You could say I’d made progress, but it felt like I’d gone backward— despite being unable to move backward, forward, or in any direction whatsoever.
I was well and truly paralyzed by doubt.
And I was going to study mindfulness.
My paralysis came from a long-held belief that I needed to be free from any trace of doubt before I could make any major decisions and move forward in life. But as I quickly came to see, if this was the case, then no one would ever do anything they really wanted to do.
It’s in the nature of the mind to doubt. And whereas I thought the problem was that I’d rushed the decision or hadn’t considered the other options thoroughly enough, it was that I was, in fact, stirring up the murky waters of doubt with my constant questioning, and making it all but impossible to see things clearly.
Two years now into once again being a student, I’ve made more ballsy decisions than the rest of my life combined. Doubt doesn’t debilitate me anymore like it once did. And when it does appear, I know why it’s there. Rather than indulge it or push it away, I can simply let the water settle before getting on with what I want to do.
Below is what I learned about doubt broken down into three steps. If you have some doubt about whether they’ll stop you from putting off big decisions and second-guessing yourself, put that aside for a moment and read on to discover for yourself.
1. There will always be a reason not to do something
If you try hard enough, you can always find a persuasive enough reason not to do anything.
You can’t go to the party because you haven’t gotten as much work done as you’d planned.
You can’t start a family because you need to make at least ten grand a year more first.
You can’t run your own business because you’re already tired as it is and life would only become more demanding.
When we’re faced with making a big decision, our mind often fishes for reasons not to take action, automatically accepting the ones that seem to fit into our fear-driven stories and justify how we feel.
In this way, we can come to relate to our experience according to the ongoing internal narrative about what’s going on, rather than what is actually happening in the new and ever-changing here and now.
It’s easy enough to nod and agree when reading this in an article. The trickier thing is when it actually happens to you, and the stories appear so real that debunking them feels like an impossible task.
This is even truer with doubt as all the while it will tell you things like:
There’s no point even trying. There’s a reason you can’t do it, you just haven’t found it yet. You’ll always be this way, you might as well just succumb to your fate.
But no matter how sophisticated and convincing the story, if it’s going against what you really want or know deep down to be true, then you can be sure it is the doubting mind.
As a function of the mind’s problem-solving mode, doubt is an incredibly useful tool that can alert us to impending danger, help us think more critically, and enable us to make better decisions. If we spend most of our time in this problem-solving mode, though, this vulnerability-seeking mechanism can become chronically switched on and quickly become debilitating.
Either way, the doubting mind is not you. But how do you know the difference between you and this part of your mind? Well, you don’t — at least not when you’re stuck in this mode, as by definition that’s what the doubting mind will tell you.
The doubting mind will tell you that certainty is possible. It will tell you there will always be a better time. It will tell you that you’re able to see the future and know how things will turn out if only you consider things a little bit longer…
First things first, then, to break free from doubt, you need to recognize that when you go fishing, you are going to catch some fish. In other words, when you believe that thoughts will give you a definitive answer and will relieve you of uncertainty, you’re only going to create more and more doubt.
It’s only by letting the water clear that we can start seeing what it reflects. And to do this, you don’t suppress the doubt — that only stir things up even more. But nor do you passively accept it.
2. Instead of accepting it, learn to doubt the doubt
In Buddhist theory, overcoming doubt is not a matter of letting it be and having blind faith in something greater. It’s about exploring it through a process of active investigation.
And what are we most likely to find when we inquire into doubt?
For a long time, I believed to be truly ready for something, you needed to be without fear. That was, after all, what it meant to be fearless, to be a man, a Buddha, a superhero, or whatever other ideal I was guiding my life by.
Without knowing it, I had thus long been avoiding fear, shielding myself from it and denying that I was or could ever be scared of anything.
In this way, I built a life that was safe, limited, and void of the things I really cared about, while losing the resilience to be able to do anything that was even the slightest bit meaningful to me.
But here’s the thing:
Fearlessness does not mean being free from fear. It’s the opposite: it’s learning to be so intimate with fear that it no longer controls you. It’s making such a close friend of fear that you can use it to propel you forward instead of treating it as the enemy and allowing it to hold you back.
One way to uncover fear is the sneaky and perspective-shifting act of doubting the doubt. This is essentially the role of meditation and learning to notice thoughts as passing phenomena, as opposed to accurate reflections of reality.
Through practice, meditation gives you an alternative to pushing away, passively accepting, or being completely swept away by thoughts. It allows you to relate to your experience, in particular fear, in an entirely new and previously unseen way.
3. If there’s fear, you’re on the right track
Because I was failing to acknowledge fear and was denying its existence, my doubting mind quickly stepped in to try to solve the problem.
As opposed to filling me with angst and making my hands pour with sweat, the doubt appeared as a friend trying to protect me. And that makes sense — your doubts and fears are only ever trying to keep you safe.
“When you no longer allow fear to step blatantly before you and shout of cataclysm, it will creep behind you and whisper something reasonable in your ear.” — Ram Dass
But a true friend doesn’t hold you back; instead, he or she propels you forward. And fear can do that for you, but only if you let it.
If you acknowledge fear in its raw form as sensations in the body, before the conditioned responses and makeshift interpretations, you see that it is a bubbling energy of potential that isn’t just shouting or whispering to you about what you can’t and shouldn’t do, but signaling to you what you can and could do.
By trying to push it away and remove fear from my experience, I was creating a recipe for a life of limited potential and of being able to achieve only what happened to fall into my lap. By learning to include fear as a valid part of my experience and recognize it for what it is, I could take the same ingredients and use them to cook up a life of unlimited potential and growth.
You can’t have change, innovation, creativity, and originality — in other words, life — without insecurity, uncertainty, and fear. And so by embracing these fundamental states and changing how you see fear, you can begin to use them to your advantage so you can live a richer life.
This isn’t about, say, giving in to the fact that leaving your job is terrifying and so getting it over with as quickly as possible. That would mean still categorizing fear as an unwanted foe and trying to conquer it through blind action.
This is about welcoming fear as a valuable and even desirable part of your experience. It’s about noticing that when you feel terrified about leaving your job, the feeling is saying wow, you must be doing something really challenging and/or meaningful. It’s learning to see fear as a guide that’s there to help you. It might also suggest that you want to prepare yourself, and wait until after your next paycheck. But if you know deep down that you want to do something different, the presence of fear is there to tell you:
“Keep going in this direction, you’re on the right track.”
It’s only by bringing fear, with all its demons, into the light that we can begin to unravel the doubts and excuses that have been piled upon them — many of which we don’t know are there until we look. You can then see fear without any pretense, without any doubt, and without any fear, so you can embrace it as the true ally, guide, and source of life it really is.
And if you immediately think you can’t do it, are overcome by a poor track record, or just immediately zone out or want to run and hide, notice this as the doubting mind. Beat it at its own game and doubt it. And then ask yourself, what sort of life do you, not your doubt, choose to lead: one of comfort, dissatisfaction, and surety, or one of growth, fulfillment, and the thrill of the unknown?
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