The Worm of Doubt

Doubt is difficult, no doubt about it. We speak of being plagued by it, or gnawed upon by it—and that’s exactly how it often feels.

I myself am very good at doubt.

I know people who are not, or at least don’t seem to be, either in general or at least with respect to a particular area of their life. They sail along in apparent certainty, and sometimes I envy them, because I think they’re happier than I am.

Unless, of course, they get blindsided by something they should have questioned and are abandoned by a spouse or asked to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid, like hundreds of followers of Jim Jones did in 1978. (Although, on the other hand, which is preferable: 10 years of happiness followed by a year of total anguish, or perhaps even death, or 11 years of being gnawed upon by the worm of doubt?)

I doubt most everything, except, perhaps, my love for my children and my grandchildren and certain staples like gravity and tooth decay—and one of the things I regularly doubt is qigong. I ask myself questions like “what if this is all really nonsense?” and “what makes me think I’m worthy of being a teacher?”

I recently went through a period of doubt during which I considered quitting taiji and qigong and pulling the plug on this blog. I wondered whether I should have taken up the accordion instead of qigong, and whether I’d be good enough to play in a band if I’d devoted as much time and energy to practicing the accordion as I have to practicing qigong.

I was really into my doubt, and I was not happy, because a kissing cousin of doubt is despair.

I pulled out of it after teaching a taiji class at my church on a Tuesday evening. My four students are such lovely people and the evening was so altogether satisfying, that I felt wonderful afterwards and clear that I was on the right path.

Doubt is particularly awkward when you are a teacher—or, I suppose, a preacher or a salesman, which, come to think of it, teachers kind of are.

I was pretty much on an even keel doubt-wise when I taught the final session of a Level I Yi Ren Qigong class at church three days after my Tuesday of despair. I was trying to tell my students why I practiced and taught Yi Ren Qigong and what I felt it had to offer them. I wanted to be as honest as I could be—and certainly, the truth is that I keep doing qigong myself, and in all but my darkest moments see myself continuing to do it until I die.

But I wished I’d been able to give it more oomph. I would have liked to be able to point to dramatic improvements in my happiness or health. I do think there have been improvements, but I can’t be sure because I haven’t just been practicing qigong, I have also been living, and I have been getting older. I’d need a clone as a control group to know for sure what changes in me are due solely to my practice of qigong.

And so I doubt.

I know that doubt is a function of my intellectual mind. And I knew even before I started studying qigong that my logical/analytical intellectual mind, while extremely useful, also had its limitations. As I wrote in “A Doubter’s Journey,” I first saw Buddhist meditation as my path for getting beyond the incessant stream of words in my head to some greater knowing, some greater understanding. Then I discovered qi, and qigong, and decided that it was an easier, richer route to greater knowing that offered the fringe benefit of better health.

I don’t think practicing qigong has caused me to doubt less—not yet, anyway. But I do think that my forays into doubt and depression may be getting briefer. I think that my practice of Yi Ren Qigong may be making it easier for my intellectual mind to let go of doubt and other emotions that are not helpful to me or anyone else. I am more able to remind myself that what feels so bad right now will not last forever.

I don’t want to give up doubt. I’d like to be able to doubt, assess the situation, come to some good-enough-for-now conclusion—and then let go. I don’t know how to make this happen on command. But it does seem to happen if I am open to the possibility, or if I put myself in the right space for something to change.

With qigong, I keep getting little surprises that bring me back from doubt—like yesterday, when I first worked on this post. I had decided that I was written out, and that it was time to do some qigong. I put on one of my qigong CDs, rose from my desk and for a moment just stood there.

And as I stood there, I felt that my body was swelling, that I was being filled with energy, the way a dry sponge swells and grows when dropped in water. The tension of writing fell away and I was relaxed and at peace.

I am writing about doubt because I believe it’s important to acknowledge that it exists and not just treat it like an embarrassing form of cancer that shouldn’t be mentioned. I am grateful to others who have shared their doubts with me.

As I sit here, I am visualizing three separate occasions when people I respected—two Buddhist teachers and a fellow Yi Ren teacher trainee—told me they had wrestled with doubt about their own practice.

Those conversations, two of which happened years ago, remain with me as vivid, I-am-there memories because what they taught me was this:

I do not doubt alone.

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