I’d only been a few days into living at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) when one word spoken in a certain way generated an insight into an edge of my meditation practice that I’d been working with for years.
We use the word “edge” often in meditation communities. I understand an edge to be a particular type of suffering in our lives that we’re bringing conscious attention to, with the aspiration to transform our relationship to that suffering. Edges can be how we’re relating to boundaries, gender or racial bias, codependent or aggressive behavior patterns, or perhaps a difficult emotion that frequently arises (among other things).
For many years I’d use any number of words to describe one of my biggest edges of practice: scrupulosity, fretting, obsessing, and anxiety.
On the night of my second day of working at IMS there was a coffeehouse. Coffeehouse evenings happen a handful of times a year. The meditation community gathers to share our hidden talents with each other. John plays his guitar, a fancy replica of a guitar Jerry Garcia once played. Dawn sang beautifully. Marsha led a sing-a-long. Tom read a haunting poem about casual sex. I’d only been up here a few days then, and I didn’t really know anybody yet, but I knew that these were my people.
After the music and the poetry, there was time for conversation, and Anna, who worked in HR at IMS by day (and has since become a dear friend), asked me, “What’s been the biggest challenge of your first couple days?”
Naturally, those edges that I mentioned above were quite activated only two days into a job. I’d been wondering countless times, did I do that right? Was that okay? I told Anna, “Most challenging is the ‘Is that okay’ mind.”
She didn’t understand.
I tried to explain it better, “I guess the most difficult thing is fear of making mistakes.”
Then she looked at me with recognition, and said, “Oh, you’re talking about doubt.” The casualness with which she said that word, “Doubt,” was instantly transformative of my practice.
I’d feared doubt for years. I thought it would cripple my practice. I can hear in my mind Joseph Goldstein describing doubt as the most dangerous of the hindrances, and one that can bring meditation practice to a complete standstill. Of course, Joseph would go on to talk about skillfully work with doubt, but I’d glaze over that part. I was determined to not recognize doubt with the hope that it never arises, which happens to be the opposite of what I’ve found is the most skillful way to be with everything else in my life. Yet the way Anna said, “Oh, you’re talking about doubt,” it didn’t sound so scary. It wasn’t even a problem, just something that arises and passes like everything else.
A couple days later I was driving to Leominster to register the Corolla I’d purchased in order to live in remote Massachusetts. Leominster, the closest place to register the car, was a forty-minute drive from Barre. I had some time to think of the previously unnamed doubts in my life: Did I lock the house? Turn off the oven? Lock the car? Did I buy the right car? Do I even need a car at all? Did I say the right thing? Did I neglect that friend when they needed me? It was amazing how much more easily I could be with such thoughts when I could honestly acknowledge that this is just the mental factor of doubt passing through my mind. It’s not who I am. It’s not the boogeyman. It’s just doubt. And then it’s gone.
As much as I might wish that naming doubt is the trick to make doubt disappear forever, it’s not so. The conditioning for doubt goes deep. It’s in some ways a rich family tradition. When I tell my mother how much I love a gift she’s given me, she’s often quick to respond, “The receipt is in the box if you want to return it.” My father seems always game to discuss his doubts about decisions he’s made over the last few decades or the direction of the country. The grooves for doubt run deep, and the capacity to say the word with casualness is not a panacea.
Yet there is still a great relief in being able to acknowledge doubt—to say inwardly, “I see you,” without turning away out of fear. The difference between a patterning of mind that is unnamed and acted upon and one that is named and not acted upon is a life-altering shift. I’m reminded of the wisdom Dave Matthews found on Sesame Street at naming an emotion:
As Dave and Grover point out, finding the word to say what we’re feeling today can be greatly satisfying. Equally important is having good friends with whom we trust sharing our experience. Grover’s journey of going from sad and mad to joyful in the course of a couple minutes is a powerful reminder that our experience is in a constant state of change.
Even our understanding of our emotions is changing. For instance, in the months since that illuminating conversation with Anna at the Coffeehouse, I’ve found doubt is no longer the word that best names the state of mind. Recently, worry has sounded more aligned with the experience, so now I’m working on making peace with worry.
I find the best way to be with difficult emotions, whatever name they’re given, is taking refuge in the moment-to-moment recognition of what is present and my growing capacity to open to that, often with the help of dear friends. With these refuges, I trust there’s not an emotion out there that’s too scary to name.