Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt

One of the things I love about running retreats is that I get to go on them as well. Granted it’s different from the front of the room, but the essential elements – time away from everyday routine, the invitation/excuse to step away from my everyday thinking, and the chance to dive deep into the stillness of the space within are precious to me. Not only does it feel wonderful, but I inevitably have insights and fresh thinking for weeks and sometimes months afterwards.

Our recent Silent Mind/Beautiful Feeling retreat was a great example of that. We essentially focused on three things during our time together:

  • The nature of the beautiful feeling of spaciousness and expansive aliveness that is always present underneath the rollercoaster of emotions that come with our habitual, conditioned thinking.
  • The silence of the deeper mind that all our thoughts arise inside of.
  • The constant love, impersonal but tangible, that begins to fill us up and overflow onto the world when the constant variable of thought begins to fade into the background.

Since returning home I’ve gotten to bask in these deeper feelings but I’ve also seen something new about the nature of doubt that has me questioning some of my longest held beliefs about it…

After a dialogue about the ever-changing landscape of their work environment, a participant said “I guess I’m just going to have to accept that insecurity is a part of my job.” I pointed out that what they would probably benefit from accepting was the uncertainty that came with their job, but that insecurity comes and goes with thought, independent of what’s going on at work. And uncertainty without the addition of insecure thinking is just a game of constantly emerging possibilities.

While this was apparent to me, I was struck by a comment made by one of my co-presenters, Dicken Bettinger, who pointed out that doubt was just like insecurity – a symptom of a low mood and not something that needed to be taken to heart or used as a reason to seriously question your inner knowing.

His comment threw me, as I realized I had doubt in a different box in my mind than other feelings that I know come and go with my thinking. It seemed to me to have a bit of wisdom built into it – a sort of a safety mechanism to make sure that even when we swallow the fish whole we don’t forget to spit out the bones after. And to claim to know anything “beyond a shadow of a doubt” was to claim a kind of infallibility that’s generally the domain of the charlatan or zealot.

But on reflection, I realized something breathtakingly simple:

Doubt is the opposite of belief, not of knowing. The “shadow of a doubt” is just the shadow of our thinking.Click To Tweet

In any given circumstance, I know or I don’t know – no doubt or excess thinking required. But since we’re not used to functioning with such a usefully black and white mind, we’ve learned over the years to substitute “belief” for knowing and “doubt” for not knowing, and then rocking back and forth between the two depending on our state of mind in the moment. The problem with that strategy is that belief is nothing more than manufactured certainty. And we don’t have to believe in (or doubt) something we know to be true.

For example, if my relationship with gravity were based on belief, I might spend time affirming it in moments of doubt. Say it with me now:

“I will not float off into space, I WILL not float off into space, I will NOT float off into space!”

Hopefully, that felt a bit silly, because at some level you know you won’t float off into space regardless of what you affirm and that gravity’s just a fact of life, regardless of what you think.

In the same way, as we learn to navigate by knowing, treating our belief systems as the deservedly second-class citizens of our brain, feelings of doubt become wake up calls that we’re temporarily stuck in some grungy thinking and that when our thoughts settle and our heads clear (which they will because that’s what they do), we’ll be back to the simplicity of navigating by wisdom, desire, and curiosity.

One of my first coaching apprentices, Rich Litvin, tells the story of how after verbally committing to a year of working closely with me, he kept having doubts. Every few days I’d get another email with a “quick question”, the answer to which would stem the flow of doubtful thinking until the next one came along.

Finally, after three or four rounds of this cycle, I said to him “Rich, I could answer your question, but I’d be wasting your time. Underneath all these questions you already know whether or not you want to work with me. If you do, let’s get started; if you don’t, let’s move on.”

He hired me formally the next week, and has since gone on to become a bestselling author and well-respected coach of high performers from around the world. Had I taken his doubts as seriously as he was taking them at the time, we might still be “exploring possibilities” more than a decade later.

So if doubt is just a symptom of a low mood, like a runny nose is a symptom of a head cold, what do we do about it?

While you may be of the “take zinc”/”megadose on vitamin C”/”eat chicken soup” school of cold-caring, most people realize that unless you catch the symptoms early, the only real cure for a cold is time. Your immune system will take care of it, and usually within a week (sometimes less, sometimes more), you’ll be back to full, healthy functioning, as if the whole thing had never even happened.

In the same way when you see that doubt is a symptom of an already overly busy mind, thinking more about whatever it is you’re doubting is like hitting the accelerator when your tires are stuck in mud. You’re not going to get anywhere, and you’re liable to make one hell of a mess while trying.

But if you give it a few minutes (sometimes less, sometimes more), your “psychological immune system” will ensure that your thoughts will settle, your head will clear, and you’ll be right back to your best as if the whole thought-storm had never even happened.

What’s your experience of living beyond the shadow of doubt? What fresh thoughts and insights does this prompt in you?

Have fun, learn heaps, and happy exploring!

With all my love,