Interplay of Faith and Doubt in Yoga

The path of Yoga requires a steady faith concomitant with a healthy self-doubt.  This attitude is quite different from the one advocated by traditional religions.  This post elucidates on the  spiritual attitude required of the practitioner of Yoga.

The problem with the wise is they are so filled with doubts while the dull are so certain.– Bertrand Russell

Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark — Rabindranath Tagore

The religious definition of faith is a belief in some Supreme Entity which can be placated for boons.  (e.g. “Believe in God and some prophet and then you will be taken care of.  Your wishes will be fulfilled, your family will prosper, etc“) Further, one is expected to hold this belief constantly and with intensity.  No doubt can be allowed to be entertained because even the slightest doubt  might earn the displeasure of this Supreme Entity.

The path of Yoga functions differently from the path of traditional religions.  Yoga begins with mental silence, progresses to an opening to the Higher consciousness through the awakening of subtle centers of consciousness (i.e. Chakras) followed by a plunge into the inner being which brings about a total conversion of human personality and establishment of the Divine within the human.  The type of faith practiced in religions is actually a disadvantage in the path of Yoga because religious beliefs, which are just thoughts held consistently, create a rigid mind and can even lead to hallucinations (e.g. Seeing religious imagery in natural phenomena).

What then is this faith required in Yoga?  In the Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo details the three types of faith which are required

  • Faith in one’s ability to persist in Yoga despite obstacles.
  • Faith in the existence of the Divine, although one may not initially understand how this Divine Power acts or what it looks like.
  • Faith in the principles and techniques of Yoga.  This is equivalent to the scientist who continues his/her experiments in the faith that the methods and apparatus of science will eventually produce results.

This faith is not self-confidence or self-esteem for the latter connotes a veneer of arrogance and ego.  It is also not the belief  of religions which is just rigid mental fixity; Faith in the spiritual path is a subtle and passive feeling of  assuredness which suffuses the whole body and goads it into action with unflagging enthusiasm.

Concomitant with this faith, one must also be willing to entertain a healthy self-doubt for Yoga begins with an imperfect mental understanding which gradually changes as the mind itself becomes luminous.  During the practice of Yoga, as the inner consciousness develops, one might have various experiences and see visions.  All such intermediate visions must not lead to excitement or self-aggrandizement but must be taken with a grain of salt because our half-transformed personality can interfere and distort the experience with  its own longings (like measurement errors in science).   On the other hand, entertaining too many doubts can also create difficulties because the path of Yoga is like a walk across the desert wherein spiritual practice has to be rigorous and where one gets validation of progress in the form of visions and experiences only intermittently.   Effort has to be constant but it must be coupled with the understanding that only the Grace of the Divine can open the path to the inner and higher consciousness.   It is for this reason that the Vedic Rishis referred to the yogic path as having “long exiles from the light” and the Yogin as the Divine Child suckled by Day and Night.   Under such circumstances, there are times when one wonders whether one is progressing at all or whether one is on the right path.   All such doubts have to be reflected in the mirror of our faith and surrendered to the Divine.   In summary, honest doubts about our own understanding may be necessary to overcome our ignorance but doubts about lack of progress need not be entertained for these may turn into cynicism.

This convoluted interplay of faith and doubt has been outlined very neatly by Sri Aurobindo in the following passage.

In the Yoga as in life it is the man who persists unwearied to the last in the face of every defeat and disillusionment and of all confronting, hostile and contradicting events and powers who conquers in the end and finds his faith justified because to the soul and shakti in man nothing is impossible. And even a blind and ignorant faith is a better possession than the sceptical doubt which turns its back on our spiritual possibilities or the constant carping of the narrow pettily critical uncreative intellect, asuya, which pursues our endeavour with a paralysing incertitude. The seeker of the integral Yoga must however conquer both these imperfections. The thing to which he has given his assent and set his mind and heart and will to achieve, the divine perfection of the whole human being, is apparently an impossibility to the normal intelligence, since it is opposed to the actual facts of life and will for long be contradicted by immediate experience, as happens with all far-off and difficult ends, and it is denied too by many who have spiritual experience but believe that our present nature is the sole possible nature of man in the body and that it is only by throwing off the earthly life or even all individual existence that we can arrive at either a heavenly perfection or the release of extinction. In the pursuit of such an aim there will for long be plenty of ground for the objections, the carpings, asuya, of that ignorant but persistent criticising reason which founds itself plausibly on the appearances of the moment, the stock of ascertained fact and experience, refuses to go beyond and questions the validity of all indices and illuminations that point forward; and if he yields to these narrow suggestions, he will either not arrive or be seriously tampered and long delayed in his journey. On the other hand, ignorance and blindness in the faith are obstacles to a large success, invite much disappointment and disillusionment, fasten on false finalities and prevent advance to greater formulations of truth and perfection. The shakti (Power) in her workings will strike ruthlessly at all forms of ignorance and blindness and all even that trusts wrongly and superstitiously in her, and we must be prepared to abandon a too persistent attachment to forms of faith and cling to the saving reality alone.  A great and wide spiritual and intelligent faith, intelligent with the intelligence of that larger reason which assents to high possibilities, is the character of the sraddha (Faith) needed for the integral Yoga.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga – II: Faith and Shakti

Sri Aurobindo also points out that it is our imperfect human nature that makes it difficult to maintain a patient faith.

It is difficult to acquire or to practise this faith and steadfastness on the rough and narrow path of Yoga because of the impatience of both heart and mind and the eager but soon faltering will of our rajasic (kinetic) nature. The vital nature of man hungers always for the fruit of its labour and, if the fruit appears to be denied or long delayed, he loses faith in the ideal and in the guidance. For his mind judges always by the appearance of things, since that is the first ingrained habit of the intellectual reason in which he so inordinately trusts. Nothing is easier for us than to accuse God in our hearts when we suffer long or stumble in the darkness or to abjure the ideal that we have set before us. For we say, “I have trusted to the Highest and I am betrayed into suffering and sin and error.” Or else, “I have staked my whole life on an idea which the stern facts of experience contradict and discourage. It would have been better to be as other men are who accept their limitations and walk on the firm ground of normal experience.” In such moments – and they are sometimes frequent and long – all the higher experience is forgotten and the heart concentrates itself in its own bitterness. It is in these dark passages that it is possible to fall for good or to turn back from the divine labour.

Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga – I: The Master of the Work

It is only after the psychic transformation that all conception of faith can be discarded because it is illumined by the greater light of the psychic.   And finally, this is an answer from the Mother (Mira Alfassa) on how faith can be increased.

How can faith be increased?

Through aspiration(for the Divine), I suppose. Some have it spontaneously…  You see, it is difficult to pray if one doesn’t have faith, but if one can make prayer a means of increasing one’s faith, or aspiring, having an aspiration, having an aspiration to have faith… Most of these qualities require an effort. If one does not have a thing and wants to have it, well, it needs great, great, great sustained efforts, a constant aspiration, an unflagging will, a sincerity at each moment; then one is sure, it will come one day – it can come in a second. There are people who have it, and then they have contrary movements which come and attack. These people, if their will is sincere, can shield their faith, repel the attacks. There are others who cultivate doubt because it is a kind of dilettantism – that, there’s nothing more dangerous than that. It is as though one were letting the worm into the fruit: it eventually eats it up completely. This means that when a movement of this sort comes – it usually comes first into the mind – the first thing to do is to be very plucky and refuse it. Surely one must not enjoy looking on just to see what is going to happen; that kind of curiosity is terribly dangerous.

It is perhaps more difficult for intellectuals to have faith than for those who have a simple, sincere and upright heart, and no intellectual complications. But I think that if an intellectual person has faith, then that becomes very powerful, a very powerful thing which can truly work miracles.

The Mother, Questions and Answers (1954): 5 May 1954

25 thoughts on “Interplay of Faith and Doubt in Yoga

  1. Kenneth Adrian Ellis

    “Divine Power acts etc.” I have power given from divinity that is discussed within “A Kinetic Person’s Power”,Sub. Titled:”Voice Command Ability” which is a 4-voice command kinesis and “Bonus Feature”(Creative Non-Fiction)By: Kenneth Adrian Ellis. I hold a Certificate Of Copyright from the Library Of Congress for video footage on which I perform my talent! My Publication is also in the Library Of Congress! My power is in area of parapsychology etc.! View my professional http://www.YouTube.com Author Display Video ,Search:Kenneth A. Ellis…then check out my on-line Press Release for the U.S. @ http://www.prlog.org/10285981.

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  6. ipi

    The sceptic mind doubts always because it cannot understand, but the faith of the God-lover persists in knowing although it cannot understand. Both are necessary to our darkness, but there can be no doubt which is the mightier. What I cannot understand now, I shall some day master, but if I lose faith & love, I fall utterly from the goal which God has set before me.

    Sri Aurobindo, The Hour of God: Bhakti

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  7. ipi

    Faith in the heart is the obscure & often distorted reflection of a hidden knowledge. The believer is often more plagued by doubt than the most inveterate sceptic. He persists because there is something subconscient in him which knows. That tolerates both his blind faith & twilit doubts and drives towards the revelation of that which it knows.

    Sri Aurobindo, The Hour of God: Karma

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  8. Sandeep Post author

    In the following entry from the Record of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo defines the quality of the “faith” that he had attained in 1914.

    Dec 5, 1914: Faith is arriving at a poise when the intellect neither asserts nor denies, but simply awaits confirming or refuting result. Meanwhile, none but convincing confirmation or refutation is accepted as final, since appearances may always mislead, even when they are strong and firm in actual incidence. They may show only an immediate tendency, or at most the immediate and not the final destiny.

    Sri Aurobindo, Record of Yoga – I: 5 December 1914

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  9. Sandeep Post author

    “If we begin with certainties, we shall end in doubts; but if we begin with doubts, and are patient in them, we shall end in certainties.” — Francis Bacon

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  11. ipi

    Sri Aurobindo: I spoke of a strong central and, if possible, complete faith because your attitude seemed to be that you only cared for the full response — that is, realisation, the presence, regarding all else as quite unsatisfactory, — and your prayer was not bringing you that. But prayer in itself does not usually bring that at once — only if there is a burning faith at the centre or a complete faith in all the parts of the being. That does not mean that those whose faith is not so strong or surrender complete cannot arrive, but usually they have at first to go by small steps and to face the difficulties of their nature until by perseverance or tapasya they make a sufficient opening. Even a faltering faith and a slow and partial surrender have their force and their result, otherwise only the rare few could do sadhana at all. What I mean by the central faith is a faith in the soul or the central being behind, a faith which is there even when the mind doubts and the vital despairs and the physical wants to collapse, and after the attack is over reappears and pushes on the path again. It may be strong and bright, it may be pale and in appearance weak, but if it persists each time in going on, it is the real thing. Fits of depression and darkness and despair are a tradition in the path of sadhana — in all yogas oriental or occidental they seem to have been the rule. I know all about them myself — but my experience has led me to the perception that they are an unnecessary tradition and could be dispensed with if one chose. That is why whenever they come in you or others I try to lift up before them the gospel of faith. If still they come, one has to get through them as soon as possible and get back into the sun. Your dream of the sea was a perfectly true one — in the end the storm and swell do not prevent the arrival of the state of Grace in the sadhak and with it the arrival of the Grace itself. That, I suppose is what something in you is always asking for — the supramental miracle of Grace, something that is impatient of the demand for tapasya and self-perfection and long labour. Well, it can come, it has come to several here after years upon years of flat failure and difficulty or terrible struggles. But it comes usually in that way — as opposed to a slowly developing Grace — after much difficulty and not at once. If you go on asking for it in spite of the apparent failure of response, it is sure to come.

    Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – II: Basic Requisites of the Path – IV

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  13. mwb6119

    “…we just have to have an unshakable faith that behind this transition, a door will open. And our faith is not foolish; it is not credulous stupidity but a foreknowledge to the surface in the form of a yearning, a seeking, an inexplicable faith. “Faith, says Sri Aurobindo, is an intuition not only waiting for experience to justify it, but leading towards experience.”” The Adventure of Consciousness, Satprem, p38

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    1. mw

      excerpt from above: “Effort has to be constant but it must be coupled with the understanding that only the Grace of the Divine can open the path to the inner and higher consciousness.”

      Recently the Divine Grace has assisted me to raise above the area of the forehead — to the area above the head, or cranium. The difference I have noted is how above the forehead there is a sense of calmness, and silence. And in the forehead there are the chattering voices, ignorance, ect. I am seeing this now as vibration: the lower area is dense and heavy, fearful and anxious, selfish, and a lot of ugly things like this. And above the head is nothing of the sort, it is open and serene and calm. When I am confronted with a problem or concern, the lower responds with all it pretenses and arguments and perversions. I take note of it and then focus above the head and there, again, is simply calm. This has been a difficult transitioning but after a time I realize that the lower mental activity is useless, it achieves nothing. But this area above the head, it is a new territory and I am wondering what is it that is there? What is this calm?

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      1. mw

        “The mind questions what could this be, what could that be. It tries to interpret, drawing upon what it has heard or read. This is what Sri Aurobindo calls the intrusion of the inferior mentality. It is for this purpose that the mind has to be cultured, te consciousness has to be vigilant. These, interpretations, doubts are to be kept out and eventually eliminated.” The Yoga of Self-Perfection, M.P. Pandit, p.230-1

  14. mike

    Yes, thanks mark, this is the big difference between orthodox faith (that we find in most religions or belief systems) and Spiritual or Yogic faith, l think. An orthodox believer has faith, but they don’t want the ‘experience’ – in fact, what we call ‘experience’ is just a ‘heresy’ to them. lt’s how the priests and clerics keep control over the masses, l suppose.

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      1. mwb6119

        Mike and Amsha: I have met people like that, who dabble but do not either want the experience (perhaps do not believe in the experience) or do not work hard enough for the experience and remain in a state of disbelief – sometimes cynically. Granted it is a very difficult/arduous task.

        “The transformation of character has in fact been 
        realised by means of a clear-sighted discipline and 
        a perseverance so obstinate that nothing, not even 
        the most persistent failures, can discourage it.”

        The Mother, On Education: Vital Education

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