Doubt and Belief as Energies: Handicap and Powerhouse, or…

Doubt and Belief as Energies:

Handicap and Powerhouse, or…

Charles T. Tart

Copyright © 2015 Charles T. Tart

 These are some of my ongoing musings about doubt. belief, and how you get to better understandings of reality, very important aspects of life.  For those very attached to their beliefs and doubts, though, I should warn you in advance that I don’t have any final answers as to how to deal with these things, and I raise questions!  If, on the other hand, you think would be interesting to explore doubts and beliefs, read on.


One of the things I do to try to keep my full humanity alive, as opposed to getting overly involved in the cool, rather detached objectivity of scholarship and science, is subscribing to a daily email called the Glimpse of the Day.  This is put out by the Rigpa Fellowship, Lama Sogyal Rinpoche’s teaching organization.  His first book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, became a spiritual bestseller when it was published back in 1992…., And remains so today.




sogyal rinpoche w out bkgrnd







Lama Sogyal Rinpoche

These daily glimpses are primarily one or two paragraph excerpts from that book or his other writings, and they serve as reminders to me of various things psychological, inspirational, and spiritual.  I am very much an empiricist and  scientist, though, so I don’t regard them as The Truth, but as useful stimulations for me from a someone who I’m sure is a lot further along the spiritual path that I am.  Sometimes the day’s reminder makes me feel like “Right on!  Thanks for the reminder!”  And sometimes more like “I think that’s got part of the truth, but it needs more adaptation to the modern world,” and many other reactions.  If you’re interested in this sort of thing, I believe you can sign up at this website URL: .

Note that in discussing a recent daily glimpse, I’m not trying to persuade you that I’m on to a superior form of the truth through Sogyal Rinpoche’s teachings, even though they’ve been extremely valuable in my own growth.  It’s clear to me, though, that what is a stimulating and valuable expression of spiritual teachings for one person may be nonsense for a second, tie into delusional and neurotic thinking for a third, and even be crazy-making for some people.

The November 23, 2115 reminder was about doubt, a topic that has long been of great concern to me.  Here it is.


November 23

The Buddha summons us to a different kind of doubt, “like analyzing gold, scorching, cutting and rubbing it to test its purity.” For this form of doubt really exposes us to the truth if we follow it to the end, but we have neither the insight, the courage, nor the training. We have been schooled in a sterile addiction to contradiction that has robbed us repeatedly of all real openness to any more expansive and ennobling truth.

In the place of our contemporary nihilistic form of doubt I would ask you to put what I call a “noble doubt,” the kind that is an integral part of the path toward enlightenment. The vast truth of the mystical teachings handed down to us is not something that our endangered world can afford to dismiss. Instead of doubting them, why don’t we doubt ourselves: our ignorance, our assumption that we understand everything already, our grasping and evasion, our passion for so-called explanations of reality that have about them nothing of the awe-inspiring and all-encompassing wisdom of what the masters, the messengers of Reality, have told us?


I quite agree with Rinpoche’s concerns about nihilistic and destructive doubt.  For many people, especially in intellectual settings, expressing doubts makes them feel like they are sophisticated, and that they are impressing others with their sophistication.  Thus the expression of doubt toward any idea they haven’t already heard about and accepted becomes an automatic, conditioned habit, not actually involving any real analysis leading to a rational reason for doubt, just a negative personality trait.  My own attempts at psychological and spiritual growth have involved a lot of effort in trying to monitor what it is I’m experiencing and doing, and I’ve seen this kind of habitual and destructive doubt in myself way too often!  The other side of this, though, is I’ve noticed how difficult it is to legitimately express a doubt as part of the seeking of a better understanding, without it too often appearing cynical or being perceived by others as an attack on what they think is true…


Doubt and Belief as Energies:


An image of doubt, from

One useful way I have found of thinking about doubt and belief as to see them as both kinds of psychological energies, which manifest not only in how we experience the world, but in how we act in it.  Beliefs, even if they don’t represent reality very well, can synchronize or desynchronize our energies and make them more or less effective, regardless whether the outcome of that might be good or might be bad.  Many of the craziest and most destructive people in human history have had very clear, integrated belief systems that led them to do horrible things.

When my wife Judy and I trained in the Japanese martial art of Aikido years ago, instructors would occasionally show us a simple exercise that I found to be an excellent demonstration of the effects of doubt and belief, of splitting your attention versus concentrating it.  Two people would be asked to stand 10 or 12 feet in front of you, with their inner arms reaching toward each other.  There arms did not touch or interlock, nor was this any kind of strong position to try to keep their arms from being moved.

I’m not sure this verbal description is too accurate, so with the help of my virtual twin (and the objections of my wife, “You’re going to have me photograph you dressed like that?”), here’s what I’ll call the Aikido Gate:

Aikido arm gate












The instructor would now have someone walk toward these two people who had  their arms outstretched.  The blue arrow illustrates the trajectory of the walk.  In one condition, the instruction would be for the walker to maintain a mental image of the space just behind where he started from as he walked forward.  In the other case the walker was to focus all his perception on what was on the other side of the people with their arms out.

With attention on a mental image in back of you, a person would walk into the arms and be suddenly stopped, or, perhaps by exhibiting exerting great muscular force, be able to push through after being slowed.  Without that “behind me” image in their mind, just focusing on what was in front, though, the walker simply and relaxedly walked through the two people’s arms gate with no real effort.

Split your energies in opposite directions, intention is split, power is lost.  Put all your energy and attention in one direction, and you’re strong.  This kind of principle is used in all the martial arts, so that in some ways these arts are like training in concentrative meditation, not just a matter of learning some physical techniques.

When you’re being taught some kind of concentrative meditation technique, a learnable skill central in probably all spiritual development systems, you are asked to rest your attention on one thing, and one thing only, and if it strays off, which it will certainly do for any normal person, gently bring it back.  If you start trying to learn concentrative meditation by doubting whether you can do that, such that, for example, you’re checking every few seconds, “Am I doing it correctly?”  Or “Damn!  I’ve drifted off into thinking about other things again!” you don’t get very far.

When you have some kind of belief system that gives you reasonable satisfaction in the way you experience and act in your life, it’s natural to get very protective about it.  You have beliefs, styles, goals that direct your attentions and intentions pretty well.  If someone comes along who questions it, you can get nervous, and/or defensive, and/or angry.

If the questioner is doing it in a hostile way, that’s not too hard to handle, you categorize them as an enemy and bad person, and certainly don’t give serious attention to thinking about the doubts they start to bring up.  You use doubt of their goodness to deflect what you may see as an attack.  If it’s a more friendly question, this rejection defense may not be readily available, but chances are you still don’t really want to think about your belief system, it means too much to you.

Insofar as your belief system is effectively adaptive, and the circumstances it was developed for don’t change too much, it’s useful to have that much investment in your belief system.  You’ve probably deliberately formed alliances with other people who share your basic belief system, or been raised by people who share that belief system—your culture, your particular religion, etc.— You’ve also got social support for defending your belief system.  At the extremes, you get religions who gain secular power and punish or kill heretics.

When your beliefs keep you functioning well in your world, you are, in a sense, in a close system, locked in by success.  When the outcome of your beliefs leads to the unknown, doubts arise….   Which can be seen as a curse, or a great opportunity….

belief cycle

One of the things I’ve liked about Buddhism, with its emphasis on psychological functioning, is its recognition that becoming attached to any particular beliefs about yourself or the world can create suffering.  A line in a Buddhist prayer I often use at the end of my meditation practice, as a way of reinforcing my goodwill toward people, is praying that we may live without too much attachment and too much aversion.  This is good psychological advice for most of life, and we’ve all had many experiences of having suffered about something only to eventually realize that it was our attitude, our attachment to that attitude, about the event that was the primary cause of our suffering, not the event itself.  The actual event simply wasn’t that important.

The version of the Buddhist prayer I use, without too much attachment or too much aversion, is a way that Lama Sogyal Rinpoche translated a traditional Tibetan prayer with this advice in it.  Later he began translating the Tibetan more literally, and this is how most Lamas translate it, that beings live without attachment and aversion.  Since I think living with no attachment and aversion is probably impossible for most of us – – it’s certainly impossible for me – – I don’t care for that translation, and I also suspect it could be misunderstood as advising an attitude of apathy.  You certainly won’t suffer much if you don’t give a damn about anything, but I don’t think that’s much of a way to live!

There’s so much more that could be said about belief and doubt and the energetic effects they have on us, but enough for now.










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