"Doubt is at the very heart of the spiritual experience."

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Episode 123 -- June 17, 2021

Embracing Doubt as a Spiritual Practice

In her book Waiting: A Nonbeliever's Higher Power, Marya Hornbacher explores ten spiritual concepts as they relate to the seasons of life and the practice of the Twelve Steps, looking at how spirituality can be understood by someone who does not believe in a God. Hornbacher shares her own journey of recovery from alcoholism and toward cultivating a spiritual life, including the lessons of patience, acceptance, and stillness.

Our uncertainty with spirituality can either help or hinder our growth in recovery. In this excerpt, we explore how doubt can teach us spiritual strength. Hornbacher explains how learning to wait through our doubt—letting go of the need to feel certain and safe—actually enables us to grow in our spirituality and self-knowledge, providing peace and faith we can draw on as we move along our recovery path.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

The first stage in spiritual growth is the experience of doubt, the spiritual issue at work in us right now. Whether or not we believe in a Higher Power, all recovering people struggle with some measure of doubt. Nonbelievers doubt the very existence of a power greater than themselves; we all have doubts as to whether such a power can or will restore us to sanity; many of us have doubts about whether the Twelve Step program itself will work in our lives; and many of us, still newly finding our spiritual selves, doubt whether we are spiritual creatures at all.

This is why the spiritual emptiness we just faced may seem, at first, to deepen even further now. We are flooded with doubt and feel ourselves reaching for some kind of assurance, some kind of certainty, an answer to the sea of questions that roils within us. People often say they wish they could believe in God, just so they could have something in which to place their faith—something that would make a spiritual source clear, easily and readily defined.

This desire for certainty is a longing that seems to be part and parcel of the human condition: We want to know. We want to be sure. We want to feel certain and safe. But letting go of the belief that we must have that certainty is a part of spiritual growth. Letting go, and learning to accept doubt, allows us to go deeper into our spiritual core and learn better who we are and what we believe.

Doubt is at the very heart of the spiritual experience. Without it, we would never ask the hard questions about the nature of our existence: Why are we here? How did we get here? What are our origins? What is our purpose, what are our ends? These are spiritual questions, asked by spiritual people, and they lead to spiritual growth.

The spiritual growth made possible by doubt is at the center of a spiritual life. Doubt forces us to undergo a number of spiritual acts, and the most powerful is this: When we doubt, we learn to accept that we may not ever know. When we question, we learn to accept that there may be no answer. When we shout our doubt out into the universe, we learn to accept that we may be met with a silence we do not know how to read.

This is not, on the face of it, the comfort we crave. It is not clear and present evidence that we will be restored to sanity. It is instead evidence of what we may greatly fear: our own smallness, our insignificance in the scheme of things. This is where we ask ourselves, again and again, Is there even anything out there?

And this is where we must wait. Waiting through doubt teaches us enormous spiritual strength. It gives us the strength to go on—through struggle, through joy, through recovery, through our daily lives—even though we do not know how to name or describe a power or powers greater than ourselves. And the paradox is this: to accept this not-knowing—to accept doubt, a lack of certainty— is to accept the very nature of life as it is. In accepting doubt, unanswered questions, and unknowing, we accept life on life's terms.

In times of doubt, we need to get out of our heads and into our hearts, our spiritual selves. This is unfamiliar territory for many of us. We are used to crashing through life headfirst. But if we are to accept the feeling of uncertainty, face our own spiritual questions, and come to terms with the fact that the answers may not take the form of logical proofs, we must reach deeper in ourselves than simple intellect allows us to go. We need to familiarize ourselves here with our nascent sense of spiritual self, beginning the process of integrating the split-off parts of our interior lives—mind, emotion, spirit—toward the end of becoming whole people, and healed.

As we move through our lives in recovery, we encounter doubt again and again. It's part of our human nature and part of the human experience. We come up against moments that send us spiraling into uncertainty—about the meaning of our lives, the meaning of events in our lives and in the world, about our own purpose as people, our own abilities, our capacity for strength in the face of struggle, even our own capacity for love. We doubt our worth. We doubt things in which we have previously had great faith.

It may be a loss we experience, of a loved one, or of something like our belief in the basic goodness of life and of people. It may be a crisis in our lives or an enormous tragedy in the world. Doubt can surface at moments of change or transition, when a period of our lives comes to an end and another begins—we may doubt the future, and the unknown.

We may feel, at these times, our spiritual selves rising up in anger, in confusion, and in grief. We may cast about for something in which we can have faith, something that can give us a sense of security and certainty, as we did for years with our addiction. We may feel our sense of serenity slip away and our spiritual selves beginning to close down.

And this is what we can't allow to happen. During these periods of doubt—and they will come—we cannot allow our spiritual lives to go unattended. We can choose the opposite of that, and that choice allows for enormous spiritual growth. We can choose to experience doubt, the loss of faith, as a spiritual moment that can teach us more about how to live as spiritual people.

So rather than running from doubt, shutting down our spirits and hearts, or reaching for quick certainty, we can use doubt as a spiritual practice. We can wait. We wait for our tangled emotions to unknot themselves; we wait for our troubled or angry or grieving spirits to let their sorrow go. We wait for the humility to recognize our limitations and our lack of control, for this humility will bring us peace while we wait. We wait for answers; we wait for clarity; we wait for faith to return in its own time. And it will.

Faith—whatever faith we have lost—may return in an entirely different form. We may find ourselves believing in an entirely different way than we did before. We may find ourselves transformed through the spiritual practice of waiting in doubt.

About the Author:
Marya Hornbacher is an award-winning journalist and the Pulitzer Prize—nominated author of four books. Her best-selling memoirs Madness: A Bipolar Life and Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia have become classics in their fields, her recovery handbook Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the 12 Steps is an honest and enlightening look at the Twelve Steps for people who have co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders, and her critically acclaimed novel The Center of Winter is taught in universities all over the world. Hornbacher's work has been published in sixteen languages. She lectures regularly on writing, addiction, recovery, and mental health.

© 2011 by Marya Hornbacher
All rights reserved