Many people take their spirituality for granted. By spirituality, I am referring to an individual’s experience of the sacred, spiritual or transcendent that expands their sense of self into a more unified state of awareness. It’s usually associated with a search for deeper life meaning, with questioning identity and having a willingness to change through personal transformation.
Whether pursued within a structured religious expression or a more informal, personalised context, spirituality is viewed by spiritually aware people as a core aspect of identity. They have a “spiritual knowing” that grounds them to something greater than their mortal lives, a knowing that helps them deal with life’s challenges. It’s not that they never experience doubt; it’s just that they hold that experience within the comforting embrace of a faith or deep knowing.
Others, however, experience the gnawing discomfort of sitting on the fence, doubting the idea of a spiritual reality. They are not atheists who reject a spiritual basis to life. These doubters, perhaps a large proportion of agnostics, hope for some continuation beyond death. They may have experienced spiritual and/or psychic experiences at times but feel uncertain about the validity of materialist and spiritual perspectives.
Healthy doubt provides the motivation for individuation, for exploring and dealing with existential uncertainty. Feeling unsettled by doubt offers us the psychological fuel for lighting the dark night that spiritual doubt all too often inhabits.
Each perspective — that there is just this meaningless, happenstance physical world or that there are non-physical dimensions and beings beyond our perceptions — can feel too fantastic to hold comfortably in doubters’ incredulous minds. Compared to our normal, mundane lives, both the void and the infinite possibilities of spirit worlds feel fantastic, in the sense of unbelievable.
Can you relate to this doubt or feeling of uncertainty? The seemingly fantastical explanations? Do you feel overwhelmed by the materiality and lack of connectedness? Do you feel a lack of deeper life meaning? If you answered yes to any of these, you may not just be experiencing spiritual doubt but feeling what I term a quiet despair, a private angst.
Having been a chronic doubter with a scientific, secular background I understand the effects of living with chronic spiritual doubt. It can be unsettling to drift upon the seas of uncertainty, wanting to know, rather than believe, that we are spiritual beings on a “physical” adventure. I, like many others, meandered through life half believing, always wanting to know “for sure”, wanting to consolidate my spiritual desiring but never quite being able or willing to jump off the fence of existential doubt.
Questions around spirituality often arise when we reflect on life meaning and our mortality. Desire to engage with these questions is a fundamental quality of a spiritual doubter who is seeking change, leading to an identity in which spirituality is the core of his/her sense of self. This article discusses spiritual doubt and how you can live harmoniously with it and move into a stable sense of knowing.
What is spiritual doubt?
The term “doubt” refers to a sense of uncertainty or indecisiveness between often valid but competing or contradictory ideas, motives, actions or decisions. It stems from the Latin dubitare, “to question, hesitate and waver in opinion”. The “du” part, meaning two, refers to being in two minds between two (or more) things. Spiritual doubt thus refers very broadly to being in two minds between being materialist-oriented and possessing a spiritual understanding about reality and our places in it.
Spiritual doubt can express in healthy and unhealthy ways. Healthy doubt may be felt as a sense of uncertainty, possibly angst about the nature of reality. While healthy, it can nevertheless be uncomfortable. This doubt is part and parcel of the human condition. A healthy approach to doubt of all kinds is to acknowledge the seemingly unsolvable mysteries of our existence. A quote by Winston Churchill in 1939, in relation to Russia, perhaps best captures this fundamental mystery: “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”
By openly and honestly exploring spiritual doubt we may grow into a deeper, more meaningful knowing that not just alleviates our doubts but helps us to live with humility and acceptance of the unknowable.
To acknowledge and accept your spiritual doubt is to know that uncertainty about the true nature of reality is normal. A person with healthy doubt is less likely to be arrogant, overly sceptical and cynical, and more likely to be open and humble about their perspectives. Questioning our identity is part of the process of individuation, of realising deeper aspects of our beings and potential. Healthy doubt provides the motivation for individuation, for exploring and dealing with existential uncertainty. Feeling unsettled by doubt offers us the psychological fuel for lighting the dark night that spiritual doubt all too often inhabits.
The unhealthy forms of doubt begin as healthy doubt that, over time, leads to a closing and numbing of the mind and heart. It’s like any negative emotion or feeling, such as anger. Anger is perfectly appropriate if expressed suitably and without malice. It only becomes destructive if uncontrolled, withheld or hurtful. Doubt of a chronic and disturbing nature can lead to scepticism and cynicism, even anxiety and depression. These states of mind tend to close down opportunities for interpreting meanings that could transform and transcend these mental states.
Managing your doubting inner voice
Doubt is not the absence of faith or knowing, just as courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is our inherent capacity to acknowledge, accept and overcome the immobilising and stifling effect of fear, such as the fear of death, spiders or flying. Doubt operates in a similar manner. It is a crucial part of our journey towards deep knowing.
There is a deeper knowing waiting for us through the experiences and lessons of searching, of quenching the thirst that often tires us. By openly and honestly exploring spiritual doubt we may grow into a deeper, more meaningful knowing that not just satiates our doubts but helps us to live with humility and acceptance of the unknowable. It also grounds identity in something vaster than our mortal ego selves. Research also shows that the deeper the sense of life meaning and the more resilient the sense of self, the greater your mental wellbeing. Research conversely indicates that “unhealthy” spiritual doubt is associated with depression and reduced happiness.
Understanding that our spiritual doubt is part of the search within a greater personal and collective narrative can help us to navigate the uncertain paths and times of our life journeys.
These are the truths within the story of our search for becoming of “one mind”. The stories we create by the way we sit with and let go of doubt are part of the inner fabric of our life narratives. Understanding that our spiritual doubt is part of the search within a greater personal and collective narrative can help us to navigate the uncertain paths and times of our life journeys. This is the broad perspective we could take to deal with and resolve the itch of a spiritual yearning.
So how are we to deal with the discomfort and pain of existential doubt? People living with spiritual doubt can attempt to quench it by searching for an experience of inner calm and connection through contemplative activities such as yoga, meditation, prayer or following religious teachings, as well as being of service to others and “wisdom” teachers. However, too often doubt can lie within the facade of faith, religious or otherwise. Perhaps the iconic symbol of piety and religious faith of the 20th century, Mother Teresa, established a facade at various times that masked her profound sense of spiritual doubt.
Mother Teresa (1910–97) was a Roman Catholic nun who devoted her life to serving the poor, primarily in Calcutta. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and was canonised by the Catholic church in 2016. She was a symbol of love and service to the destitute, as well as the embodiment of Christian love and benevolence. Yet in many personal letters to her confessors and superiors over a 66-year period, published in the 2007 book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), she expressed profound and painful doubt about the existence of heaven and God. She bemoaned the “darkness”, “loneliness” and “torture” of this spiritual doubt. She felt hypocritical in leading prayers and speaking of Jesus’ love when within she felt such darkness and doubt. “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness are so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”
While this spiritual doubt can be viewed as a characteristic stage within the development of faith by saints, spiritual masters and ordinary spiritual seekers, Mother Teresa learned to live with it and continue her mission to help the poor and dying. She did not abandon her mission based on her wavering faith in Jesus and God, at least in regards to her sense of connection with them.
Her story of living with doubt has lessons for those of us experiencing profound doubt — that there will never be absolute certainty in our limited human existence and that in admitting our doubts we can keep the door open for the possibility of sensing the Divine within every aspect of reality. It is not so much certainty or even clarity that the doubter should aspire towards, nor the relief from doubt, but instead the deep feeling of knowing that arises from direct experiences of connectedness and belonging.
Dealing with spiritual doubt: connection
Quenching doubt is not about developing unshakeable faith or beliefs. The type of doubt that troubles us must be accepted in a way that allows us to flourish in the presence of uncertainty and mystery. Consistent doubt gets tiring and overwhelming … how do we get off this fence before giving up on ever experiencing and maintaining “knowing”?
There are many approaches to living with spiritual doubt and managing it in a way that may help you experience a spiritual knowing. One approach is “knowing through connection”.
To enter into a knowing state of mind is to not be overwhelmed by doubt. The first step is to exert control over your mind, to not be the passive victim of feelings associated with doubt but instead be more directive with your wandering, distractible mind. How? Make time and space each day, preferably in a natural, quiet place, to immerse yourself, which includes your entire attention and whole being, in the present moment. The journey towards knowing begins with simple practices and rituals.
Practise mindfulness so you can neutrally observe your doubt. Notice dispassionately what it feels like, where it manifests in your body and know that it’s like any other feeling that arises and dissipates. As you maintain attention on your rhythmic breathing, watch it diminish as you feel the inner calm and clarity arise. Letting go of the need for resolution is essential.
Practise mindfulness so you can neutrally observe your doubt. Notice dispassionately what it feels like, where it manifests in your body, and know that it’s like any other feeling that arises and dissipates.
Connection is the bridge to sensing or intuiting the specialness of life, to feeling a sense of oneness or interconnectedness with nature. Connection often arises in the calm and joy of wonder and awe. Go into your favourite bit of bush, under a tree, beside a bubbling creek or waterfall or into a park and make space to become mindfully present. Allow the body and mind to be completely immersed in nature. One effective way to feel unmediated connection is to mindfully perceive something with deep appreciation and gratitude. Soon enough you will have forgotten about doubt and feel a loving connection, which is the glue of the universe. It binds and holds us to what is true.
It’s within this experience of deeper connectedness that insights into life, self and the infinite interconnectedness of life can arise. The cultivation of these healing inner spaces — “knowing through connectedness” — is a non-rational, embodied and heart-based approach to entering into a new perspective towards spiritual doubt. In this way doubt becomes a motivating partner in knowing through connection.
Experiencing profound connection nourishes the inner knowing of the sacred. As with learning any new skill, take small steps to begin with. First, master the challenging skills of mindfulness, depth perception and compassionate encounter, and then let the knowing unfold as a wildflower unfolds its delicate petals to welcome the insect fertilisers. Knowing, too, may arise from letting go and opening up to the fertilisation from a mindful, loving and perceptive connection with nature.