Yoga & Faith, Part 2: Building Healthy Faith & Skepticism 


In our previous article, we explored why the Yogis considered both faith and skepticism to be essential for healthy development on the spiritual path.  We also discussed the fact that most of us find that one comes more readily for us than the other.  For this reason, in today’s article, we’ll explore some concrete ways we can develop both of these important attributes, as well as how we can discern when we need one more than the other.  As always, we hope this might give you some concrete tools for moving forward on your path with greater confidence and clarity.

The Importance of Balance

To begin with a quick recap of our previous points, the Yogis observed that both faith and skepticism are essential for conscious evolution.  We need faith – both in ourselves and in others – if we are to benefit from the wisdom of those who have walked the path before us.  And we need healthy skepticism if we are to discern when their experiences apply to us and when they do not.

It is also helpful to know that we all have a tendency to find that one of the two practices comes more readily than the other.  Correspondingly, it can be beneficial to try to stay aware of our tendency and to do what we can to actively build our area of challenge in order to live with greater balance.  For example, if faith comes easily for us, it will benefit us to watch for undue trust or times when a little critical analysis might serve us, and, if we tend to be skeptical, it will be to our benefit to watch for excessive doubt or hasty dismissal of ideas that might in fact serve us.  Again, knowing our tendency in advance makes this far easier, as we can simply stay mindful of that area and watch for times when we might jump to a less-than ideal conclusion.

In addition to awareness of our disposition, our feelings can also be a valuable indicator of times when we might need to actively strive for better balance of these two sides.  For example, if we notice feelings of a need to “rush” a decision – that is, trying to push a decision through before the other side of the equation can be considered – that can also be an important reminder that we need to slow down and try to more actively engage in the other half of the “faith/skepticism” balance.

Building Faith 1: Reinforcing Value

Once we have an idea of our relative areas of strength and weakness, the next question is how we can actively establish a healthier equality between the two.  As mentioned previous, whenever our trust in ourselves or others has been compromised, it can be very challenging to re-establish it.  For this reason, we’ll begin by exploring several ways we can increase our faith in both ourselves and those around us before moving on to the topic of improving our skepticism.

Many of us who struggle with faith do so because of unfortunate experiences from our pasts – times when our faith in others resulted in disappointment or even considerable pain.  Of course, it’s natural for us to retain these experiences in order that we can reduce the likelihood of repeating them, but it is easy for this to unconsciously expand from “healthy prudence” or “blinding fear,” giving these negative experiences far greater power in our lives than they deserve.

Simply put, by repeatedly dwelling on times when we gave our trust in error, we can build a distorted view of the people around us and of life itself.  In other words, by replaying the pain of these moments over and over, we can give ourselves an inaccurate sense of just how frequently such disappointments occur, ultimately leading us to think of the world as a far more “untrustworthy” place than it in fact is.

There are several ways we can re-balance this, starting with what we’ll refer to as “active reinforcement.”  In active reinforcement, we are choosing to consciously recall and reflect on the other side of the equation – that is, the many times when our trust proved to be valid.  This can be practiced in two forms: recalling not only times when our trust in others proved correct and beneficial, but also times when we are grateful for the trust others had in us.

By taking time to actively think of these moments – perhaps especially times when there might have been reasons for doubt but when our faith or the faith of another allowed for truly beneficial things to happen – we can help balance this overly-developed sense of the importance of skepticism.  If every time we fall unconsciously into the assumption: “This person is just going to let me down,” we stop to think of all the people who have lived up to their promise, we can begin to restore a healthier balance between doubt and trust.

Building Faith 2: Personal Validation

A second technique for restoring faith can be thought of as a mirror version of the side of this first approach.  This an approach we want to use mindfully, as it is easy to unconsciously fall into frustration or resentment over unpleasant experiences of the past, but, used judiciously, it can be a powerful technique for reminding ourselves of the importance of treating those around us with greater trust and faith.

Essentially, it involves reflecting on a time when either another person was mistaken in choosing not to trust you or you allowed doubt to lead you not to trust someone who actually deserved it.  Again, we want to use this approach carefully, as it can readily take us into resentment or self-recrimination if fallen into unconsciously.  That much said, if we can stay loving and conscious regarding all involved, it can be a powerful way to remind ourselves that doing our best to give trust is every bit as important as doing our best not to be gullible or naïve.

Building Faith 3: Remembering the Power of Trust

The third technique is related to our second practice, and that is to take a moment to reflect on just how powerful trust can be and then use that awareness to consciously inform how we think about and treat those around us.  A valuable reminder of this can be seen in the quote from Goethe: “Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be, and he will become as he can and should be.”

This quote dramatically captures just how deeply our faith in another can influence his or her behavior.  Simply put, when we choose to assume the worst about others, we often give them implicit encouragement to fall to that level.  By contrast, when we focus on the best, it often supports them in rising to their greater capacity.  Reminding ourselves frequently of this truth will help us approach others with greater confidence in their abilities, which in turn can become a positive form of “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Building Faith 4: A Modified Version of Pascal’s Wager

A final technique for building healthier faith was referred to in our first article, and that is what can be a called a modified version of “Pascal’s Wager.”  Again, the original idea comes from the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal who proposed it as an argument for believing in God, but we can use the idea for our greater purpose of faith in general.

In its simplest form, Pascal suggested that any time we are unsure of a choice we should ask ourselves what the cost might be should our choice prove wrong.  For example, in his original argument, Pascal suggested that the “cost” of believing in a God who does not exist is less than the cost of not believing in a God that does.  In other words, if I believe in God and he doesn’t exist, arguably I lose relatively little – perhaps some “worldly pleasures” I might forego.  By contrast, if I don’t believe in God but he does exist, I arguably lose a great deal, including peace in this life as well as, according to at least some conceptions of God, salvation in the afterlife

Of course, there are many counter-arguments to this approach in the way that Pascal used it, but it is still a very powerful technique in terms of trust.  Again, when we find ourselves uncertain about trusting a person or idea, we can ask ourselves the simple question: “What will the cost be if I give my faith to this and turn out to be wrong?  And, by contrast, what might the cost be if I don’t trust this person or situation and it turns out he or she or it was trustworthy?”

Clearly, if the damage of mistaken trust is less than the harm done by failing to trust what we should have, we’ll realize that we want to take the risk.  On the other hand, if we risk greater harm through trusting what we shouldn’t than doubting what we shouldn’t, this tell us we are better off erring on the side of caution, at least until further evidence can be gathered.

Building (Healthy) Skepticism

So far, our emphasis has been on techniques for building healthier levels of trust.  However, depending on our personality, actively building (judicious) skepticism might be even more important for a balanced approach to life.  For that reason, we’ll conclude with a few simple techniques for establishing healthy forms of doubt.

To begin, each of the techniques mention for building faith can also be used for building mindful skepticism.  Obviously, we want to use these judiciously for the reason already stated – we know that our minds have a natural tendency to hold on to or amplify negative experiences as a means for protecting us from future pain, so we want to be careful not to unduly dwell on periods of disappointment or betrayal.  That much said, if we have a tendency to be excessively trusting, prudently applying these techniques (e.g. actively reflecting on times of inappropriate trust, or again using a modified version of “Pascal’s Wager”) can help us restore balance between trust and doubt.

Another helpful technique is to simply watch the internal dialog that accompanies our assumptions and conclusions.  When we act out of blind faith rather than healthy reflection, we often present ideas to ourselves using the same rhetoric that we use when trying consciously or unconsciously to draw a person into a decision – rhetoric that often begins with phrases such as: “Obviously…” Or: “Everyone knows that….”

Just as these are markers we want to watch for when talking with others, we want to stay mindful of them in our own “self-talk.”  Any time you find yourself unsure of a choice, take a moment to ask what your grounds are and then listen to the language of your reply – if you find yourselves using these or similar forms of rhetoric, it’s a good sign that you want to take some time and reconsider before acting.

Related to this is learning to check in with our feelings around a choice.  A common technique used by politicians or salesmen is instilling a sense of urgency – getting you to feel that a decision has to be made right away before the option disappears.  The reason they do this is because it tends to over-ride our analytical side, increasing the likelihood that we will act on their (questionable) advice before taking the time to reflect on the pros and cons of the situation.  By getting us to act before we’ve had a chance to fully examine, we often fall into decisions we might otherwise choose to avoid.

Interestingly, we often use the exact same technique with ourselves.  When our ego becomes attached to a goal, particularly one that it knows our “higher wisdom” isn’t likely to support, we often encourage ourselves to act very quickly so that our wiser self doesn’t get the chance to reflect and veto the plan.  Simply put, if our ego can push the choice through before our rational side becomes engaged, it has a better chance to getting its way.

Being aware of this tendency, and particularly the “rushed” feeling that comes with it, can be another powerful tool for greater balance and wiser decisions.  In fact, once you tune into this sensation, you might notice that it feels very much as if you are trying to “sneak” a choice past yourself – getting yourself to act before the more “discerning” part of you can intervene.  By becoming aware of this sensation, you can provide yourself with another valuable tool for balancing between (discerning) faith and (constructive) doubt.

In Conclusion

Again, we hope these last two articles have given you a better sense of the role of faith and skepticism within Yoga philosophy, as well as some constructive tools for establishing a healthy balance betwene the two in your own life.  Until our next article, as always, wishing you the very best in “Living Yoga….”

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