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June 26, 2008

Faith and Doubt

At a recent Tayu Sunday Meditation Communion, the subject of Faith and Doubt came up in our discussion. The Buddha is known to have advised his followers that the path requires Great Faith and Great Doubt. In Gurdjieff's masterwork, All and Everything: Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson, Beelzebub describes Faith as one of the sacred being impulses natural to a properly developed three brained being. Because of the distorted conditions of being existence on the planet Earth, however, the sacred impulse of Faith has degenerated in most of us into its mechanical shadow: belief.

To understand how Faith can function, it is useful to contrast it with Belief. When we believe in something, be it a thought, a whole framework, or a feeling, we take that something as true. We identify with the thought or feeling in the sense that our particular belief now becomes inextricably tied with our sense of identity. If someone challenges this belief, our instinctive reaction is to feel threatened at an emotional and body level. Belief is contractive in the sense that for us to identify with a particular belief requires that we reject or filter out alternative potential beliefs. When we identify with beliefs, we collapse the realm of possibilities - our Universe becomes smaller.

It is interesting to note that modern neurobiological and psychological research is turning tools such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on the brain to study the mechanics of belief (see for a recent article). A well known phenomenon called Confirmation Bias has been studied in this way. When Confirmation Bias operates, someone who identifies with a particular belief will routinely filter out any new information that contradicts this belief and amplify the significance of any new information that supports this belief. We see this behavior writ large in our modern political climate. Studies using fMRI and various other techniques are now demonstrating clearly that Confirmation Bias is a non-cognitive process. The study cited above shows that Confirmation Bias has much more to do with the emotional functioning of the brain than with the  cognitive functioning.

I recently ran across a description of another study in which confirmation bias could be seen to operate in individuals with injuries that limit the function of memory to a 30 second time window. These brain-injured subjects were asked to rank several pieces of art. Among the pieces these subjects ranked, a number of pieces were ranked equally - that is, the subjects showed no preference of one over the other. They were next asked to chose between two pieces that they had ranked equally - thereby forcing a preference. When asked later (much beyond their window of recollection) to rank all the original pieces of art again, the test subjects would consistently now rank the piece they had been forced to highlight in the previous round as more desirable than the other pieces which had previously been seen as having equal desirability. In other words, at a non-conceptual level, our choices condition our future evaluations. The lesson of these studies is that as biological organisms, we are hardwired to identify with our beliefs and to filter our experiences of the world in terms of these beliefs.

As a sacred being impulse, Faith operates much differently than Belief. Faith has much more the quality of an affirmative assertion of Being. It is the quality of our Being that engenders the sense that there is a point to existence. It is that innate quality of existence that affirms that no matter the external circumstances of life, our lives have meaning. In contrast to Belief, Faith is expansive and inclusive - the Universe gets larger because regardless of the details of personal experience, Faith gives us power to carry on and to find significance in our circumstances. Faith gives us the courage to try new things - to test our understanding of life with new practices and ways of looking at things. It does this because Faith engenders the intuition that no matter what happens, at an existential level we will be fine.

The challenge of Faith in light of our habit patterns around belief, and the neural programming of the organisms we inhabit, is that affirmations of Faith often can descend into the rigidity of Belief. Though the action of Faith may lead to a transcendental experience of freedom, the habitual tendency is to attribute this experience to the consequences of a particular set of beliefs and practices. Even well-meaning practitioners can mistake the forms of their beliefs as the causes of their most profound experiences. And once that identification is made, the nature of the organism reinforces the maintenance of the identification.

The role of Doubt is to act as an antidote to the descent of Faith into Belief. Doubt is a denying function that negates the identifications we create to sustain our beliefs. In the Hindu tradition there is the well known practice of neti neti (not this, not this). This is the practice of Doubt. No matter what the identification or what the belief, we constantly challenge ourselves not to settle for a particular formulation of truth. Doubt frees us from having to believe in anything in particular. Doubt requires us to test in our own direct experience any claims made by other people. Doubt serves to liberate Faith from Belief in that it constantly undermines our systems of belief.

The challenge of Doubt is that, unchecked, it can lead to a kind of nihilism. Doubt can descend into a sense that nothing matters and that nothing means anything. In a way, Doubt can also descend into Belief, but in this case it is the belief that there is no meaning in life. In such an extreme, Faith then acts as the antidote of the descent of Doubt into Belief. Faith and Doubt mutually sustain each other and keep each other free from the lure of identification.

In Fourth Way parlance, Faith acts as an affirming function and Doubt as a denying function. The reconciling function that allows Faith and Doubt to coexist and to mutually support each other is the very presence of Being. Presence of attention enables a balance between Faith and Doubt. This balance sustains an affirmative and positive perspective, without succumbing to the biological imperative of crystalizing identification with experience in the form of rigid beliefs. Presence of Being allows us to wield the twin forces of Great Faith and Great Doubt to create an ever expanding and open experience of life, and to retain fluidity in every context.

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