Before you get confused and wonder why I’m not wishing you a Happy Halloween, stay with me—the two holidays are practically inseparable. The most important of the four Celtic fire festivals, Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) is the midway point between the fall equinox and winter solstice, the official “end of summer” that signals the passage into the end of the year.
At this time, right at the crossing between October 31 and November 1, the veils between our Earthly world and the spirit world are lifted, which corresponds to various traditions and rituals around honoring the dead and all that lies beyond our material comprehension. Halloween (October 31)—as well as Christian feasts like All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (November 2)—are intimately connected to this natural energy. While commercialism (and the misogyny driving the witch hunts, which among other things was a way to take power away from aging women) have imbued this time with a sense of the demonic, fear, and mischief, we might take a step back and see how the root of these experiences overlaps with exalted spiritual states—awe, wonder, and humility at the greatness beyond our small human selves.
Which brings me to my monthly topic for reflection—the space in between (or so it seems) fear and surrender to the divine, between assuming we know and admitting not-knowingness: doubt. I’ve been working with a lot of doubt myself, in the last few weeks, partly as a result of all the resting I did last month. Sure, I would have rather come out of thirty days of savasana feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but I’m not complaining; experiencing increasing clarity around the deep questions of my existence is more why I practice yoga these days, rather than getting in a good stretch or feeling impressed with myself for how long I can hold a headstand. In fact, it’s the latter—the ego, who likes to think she’s all that and in control of things, even the outcome of savasana—has come to the fore as a main culprit in my ability to accept what I sense is on the other side of the veil, this Samhain or any time of year—the niggling voice that provokes the recitation of the Doubters’ Creed: “Whom do you believe, what your mind says or your body (or, something that isn’t language at all but sensed on the whim of a breath, a flutter of the heart, or an invisible graze of my skin)?”
I grew up in the Catholic Church, where the story of Doubting Thomas—an apostle of Jesus who, when Jesus appeared resurrected after Easter, asked to see the holes in Jesus’s hands as proof He was indeed the man who had died on the cross a few days before—was a morality tale against doubt. In yogic texts, doubt is similarly eschewed as one of the nine obstacles to spiritual practices:
Disease; mental inaction; doubt; carelessness; laziness; inability to withdraw, compose, and rest; hallucination; inability to reach, grasp, or comprehend the goal; and inability to remain grounded are the obstacles—these are distractions to the mind.
—Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 1.30
Going deeper into the Sanskrit word for doubt, we find an even more interesting layer of nuance into what doubt means:
saṃśaya—doubt; skepticism; the mindless tendency to grasp two extreme ends and its failure to grasp what lies between
The end of that definition, about grasping extremes and not seeing the in-between, is where I feel we might benefit from spending time with doubt.
Doubt in Thomas’s sense sees the world through dualistic glasses—we are either alive or dead, human or God, right or wrong, good or evil. We close one of our eyes in favor of the more familiar, less threatening view that pushes up against the ego’s dominance.
But the very presence of doubt suggests that the ego isn’t as strong as it likes to think it is. If we only had the capacity to see the version of the world that our ego has created, then there’d be no doubt at all—we’d be confident, even if confidently wrong. Doubt brings us closer to the veil itself, acknowledging there is another lens, another eye that might be glancing away from the familiar, threatening the ego, and tempting us with not necessarily an alternative, in the binary sense, but an additional option—not neither/nor, but and. (Wow, look at those conjunctions!)
It is scary to live in a world of and—just watch a Halloween movie where the living and dead mingle in the same space as your proof, Thomas 🙂 But the truth is, that and-world is our reality, and it takes courage to open both of our eyes and not just look, but see, what’s in front of us as something we’re intimately connected to, maybe even the makers of. Indeed, in the church, doubt (or any kind of questioning) can sometimes be argued as proof of a deeper faith; we humans wrestling with God and not letting our egos win right away. In the great film Doubt, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character—a priest guilty of what you might expect, whom a nun (Meryl Streep) must confront in spite of her faith—explains, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone.”
Rather than only consider doubt as an intellectual state, I’ll be leaning into the physical sensation of doubt the next few weeks as a way to learn what I need to learn from it. From my past experiences with doubt, it feels a lot like vata—restlessness and unease (in my organs and limbs), panic arpeggiating my breath, and eventually a desperate attempt to survive this threat (as my CNS perceives it) by fleeing. But even those feelings, which I tend to honor these days rather than dismiss as “not real,” are interesting in terms of how I manage doubt overall. If I believe that vata/flight/instability is my characteristic state, am I preventing myself from experiencing other parts of myself–even other stress responses?
Samhain, Halloween, et al might direct our energies to lives that are no longer. I’m grateful for these rituals as ways to connect with the loved ones whose bodies I miss more than life, but we don’t need to stop there. What if we use this time—these celebrations of death—to resurrect the parts of us who have been cordoned off to the other side of our consciousness, or who have yet to be embodied at all? What proof do you need—or not need—to believe in your own divine splendor radiating through the veils of time?