imageI’ll never forget the day I was trying to find a parking spot at our local market and I saw this bumper sticker:

Great Doubt Great Awakening

Little Doubt Little Awakening

No Doubt Fast Asleep

– Zen Maxim

Now, Boulder is full of philosophical bumper stickers of all persuasions, but if you know my work, I’m sure you can imagine why this one brought a huge smile to my face. You mean Zen Buddhism is supporting what I talk about every day in my work? How wonderful!

Buddhist Psychotherapist Tara Brach says it this way:

“Like investigation, healthy doubt arises from the urge to know what is true–it challenges assumptions or the status quo in service of healing and freedom. In contrast, unhealthy doubt arises from fear or aversion, and it questions one’s own basic potential or worth, or the value of another.”

― Tara Brach, True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart

So we’re not alone here on this site talking about the healthy function of doubt. Doubt is a sign that you’re a thoughtful, analytical person. Doubt means that something very important to you is at stake and you’re not going to make the decision lightly. What’s interesting about Tara Brach’s statement is that, if you’re suffering from relationship anxiety, you’re dealing with both healthy doubt and unhealthy doubt. What begins as healthy doubt about your relationship stemming from a need to walk forward with eyes wide open as you ask the essential questions about love and relationships can quickly morph and spiral into a nightmare of unhealthy doubt as the anxious-sensitive mind spins around on itself and bites its own tail. Here’s how it goes:

I wonder if I love my partner enough to continue this relationship. What is real love anyway? How do you know if you’re in love? What makes a relationship survive and thrive in the long term?  [Healthy and valid questioning]

Anxious mind now steps in: Asking these questions is evidence that I don’t really love my partner. If I really loved him or her, I wouldn’t be asking these questions at all. I would just know [buzzword for the anxious mind]Over the course of the next several minutes, hours, or weeks, anxious mind spins into overdrive: What if I never really loved her? What if I’ve just been convincing myself all along? Didn’t I always have that little whisper of doubt from the beginning? And you’re off and running, tumbling down the rabbit hole of anxiety and despair…

If you knew that great doubt was a sign of great awakening, you wouldn’t spin into anxiety when doubt first showed up. Doubt often arises when the love-drug of infatuation dies down, which is another indicator that doubt carries within it the seeds of wisdom. There’s nothing wise about infatuation. If you had an infatuation stage in your relationship that’s all fine and good, but there’s no correlation between having a honeymoon stage and the longevity or sustainability of a relationship. Infatuation is primarily hormones, and it doesn’t take magic to synchronize the hormones inside of two separate bodies. All this to say, when infatuation crashes and doubt steps in, you’ve just woken up. Now it’s time to learn about real love.

And if you never had an infatuation stage the awakening happens in other ways. Then the doubt centers around the fact that you never felt head-over-heels-in-love and the fact that the niggling voice of doubt always circled around your ear like an annoying fly. The questions circle: “Was I ever in love? What does it mean that doubt was always present? It must mean that I’m with the wrong person.” And then you’re tumbling down your own rabbit hole of despair and confusion.

Yet here we arrive at the gift of doubt. While doubt that exists from the beginning may not be a sign of great awakening or health, it can lead to great awakening when we understand that this doubt is code word of fear and that the presence of fear always presents an opportunity for growth. The culture says: If doubt was present from the beginning, it’s a sign that you’re with the wrong person. The wise person knows: If doubt was present from the beginning, and you’re with a healthy, loving partner, it means your ego, fear-based self knew from day one that this is someone with whom you could grow and heal, which means someone whom you could truly love. Where there is love, there is the risk of loss. Therefore, doubt is here to prevent you from taking the risk of love, which means opening to the possibility of loss. There is wisdom in the doubt. The task is to learn to hear the doubt, but not listen to it, which means not allowing it to sit in the driver’s seat of your mind and heart. 

Where do learn this in the culture? Nowhere – at least certainly not in the mainstream. But when doubt hits, another voice is always present – if only a whisper – that says, “I don’t want to leave. And if I don’t want to leave, there must be something here for me to learn.” This is how our heart’s longing for growth and healing supersedes the ego-mind’s need to maintain the status quo. Whereas the ego is terrified of change, the heart invites it. So you search and Google and ask and talk and write until you find your way here or to another source who espouses the truth about love and relationships. And something inside of you, your heart’s deepest longing, says YES.

The more I do this work, the more I see that the greater the doubt, the greater the consciousness and the higher the likelihood of a healthy relationship. This is because doubt, as code word for fear, invites transformation. If we allow doubt to rule our actions, we’re sunk. But if we accept the invitation to learn about fear, we grow in leaps and bounds on all fronts (emotionally, cognitively, spiritually). If we can make space for the doubt, we make room for love. If we allow for imperfection in all forms, both in ourselves, our partners, and our perceptions and illusions about what love “should” look like and how it “should” feel, we open to moments of perfect grace.

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